NOVEMBER 12, 2007
One of the more intriguing passages in John Edwards's book, Four
Trials, comes when Edwards chronicles his first malpractice case.
His client, a man named Howard E.G. Sawyer, had fallen into a coma
after a doctor prescribed three times the recommended dosage of a
common drug. Among the last witnesses called was the doctor
himself, whose testimony posed a dilemma. On the one hand, the
defendant was hardly an endearing character. Throughout the trial,
he had "projected an air of patrician indifference, as if these
proceedings were somehow beneath him." On the other hand, the jury
was naturally inclined to respect the doctor's authority. "When
such a defendant takes the stand ... the worst thing an attorney
can do is attack him, lest the jury be moved to sympathize with
someone who has, by his own cold demeanor, already made himself
unsympathetic," Edwards writes.Edwards's solution was to ask simple, direct questions and let the
doctor do himself in. The defense claimed, for example, that Sawyer
had suffered from "acute and chronic alcoholism" when he entered
the hospital, and that this, rather than the drug treatment, had
triggered his complications. But Edwards noticed that the words
"chronic alcoholic" hadn't appeared in the doctor's records until
the day Sawyer was released. How did the doctor explain what looked
like an after-the-fact rationalization? When the doctor hemmed and
hawed and invoked all manner of technical jargon, Edwards knew he
was finished. "[F]ew if any among E.G.'s jury had graduated from
college," Edwards concludes. "But ... I was sure they could tell
that the doctor was not answering the question." Sawyer would win
$3.7 million verdict.
It was hard not to think of this passage on a brisk morning last
Friday in Cheraw, South Carolina, as Edwards warmed up a crowd of
some 200 locals. A few days earlier, Edwards had led the Democratic
field in its first thorough grilling of Hillary Clinton--at one
point urging her to shift from general- election mode to
"tell-the-truth mode." Now he was eager to revisit the moment. "I
want to start by saying a few words about the debate that took place
in Philadelphia a couple of days ago," Edwards announced. "You
know, I have a really simple rule: When you get asked a yes or no
question, you can't answer yes and no. That doesn't work. ... We
certainly can't afford to have a Democratic nominee who does that."
The crowd chuckled, then nodded along in approval.
Though Edwards was the debate's consensus winner, the distinction
had come with a caveat: What if he'd unwittingly turned Clinton
into a sympathetic victim? It was a reasonable question, but one
that ignored a key biographical detail: Having spent two decades
doing rhetorical battle in some of the most hostile courtrooms in
North Carolina, with juries ready to punish the slightest hint of
overreach, Edwards arguably has a better feel for how voters will
react to his words than any candidate in recent memory.
"There are a lot of people that the jury doesn't want to see you
pound on," Edwards told me later. "What happens is,
psychologically, they'll put themselves in the shoes of the
witness. And you don't want them to do that." Then he picked up on
the analogy between a trial and a campaign: "Tough is fine. Juries
don't mind you being tough. Voters don't mind you being tough. ...
If you're being factual and you're giving them information that's
defining their choices, nobody'soffended by that."
The Clinton campaign's favorite defensive tactic is to club would-be
attackers over the head with their own words. Each time Barack Obama
so much as thinks about pressing Clinton on an inconsistency, some
Clinton spokesperson or another will emerge to solemnly eulogize
his "politics of hope." For Edwards, the Clinton campaign has taken
to reminding voters of the moment, in the run-up to the primaries
in 2004, when the senator began sounding hopeful, brotherly themes.
The day of the Philadelphia debate, for example, the Clinton
campaign posted a video from four years ago in which Edwards tells
a group of voters: "If you are looking for the candidate that will
do the best job of attacking the other Democrats, I'm not your guy.
... We don't believe in tearing people apart. We believe in
bringing people together."
Such footage lends itself to a compelling critique, as does the
suggestion (which Hillary's surrogates never fail to tack on) that
Edwards has decided to attack now because he's slipping in the
polls. But, in many respects, the conflict-averse moderate of 2003
is more at odds with Edwards's biography than the conflict-seeking
populist of late 2007. If the candidate's tone these days is
heavily inflected with moral outrage, it's a tone he spent 20 years
refining as a trial lawyer, when his job was to walk into
courtrooms and hold rich, powerful corporations to account for
wronging innocent people. "When I hear doublespeak, and know how
important it isfor our country to have a president that'll be
direct, I mean I respond," Edwards says. "And the fact the people
find that surprising? I mean, what do they thinkI spent most of my
It's a stance that has defined much of his political career, too.
Edwards emphasized his record in the courtroom when he ran for
Senate in 1998. Then, when he first began testing the waters for a
presidential run in 2002, Edwards set his sights on insurers and
the drug-company lobbyists who were forcingseniors to choose
between food and medicine. One former aide recalls a meeting around
this time between Edwards and two top economic advisers, who urged
him to craft his patients' bill of rights measure in a more
conciliatory way."Edwards was pretty firm. He hates insurance
companies--that was clear from the start," says the aide. Even
Edwards's famous "Two Americas" speech from 2004 dripped with moral
outrage--only then he directed it at George W. Bush and his efforts
to reward the wealthy at the expense of workers.
Watch Edwards interact with voters in more intimate settings and you
pick up on other hints of his prior life as a trial lawyer. Later
in the day on Friday, more than a dozen reporters and cameramen
cram into a small home in the town of Lancaster, where a company
called Springs has recently shuttered its mill and laid off
hundreds of workers. The house belongs to a black,middle-aged man
named Donnie who had been with Springs for 33 years, sending three
daughters to college along the way. One by one, Donnie and his
former colleagues tell their stories, a litany of mind-boggling
digits: 35 years, 43 years, 39 years--the longer they worked at the
mill, the more helpless they feel now that their jobs have
vanished. Edwards looks on with his face propped on his hand,
nodding frequently and occasionally asking questions. I imagine
it's a lot like how he looked when deposing a sympathetic witness.
At one point, a white woman named Renee says she's been out of work
for a year. "I've got a fourteen-year-old and I'm the only income
earner," she announces.
"Have you got health insurance, ma'am?" Edwards asks. Between his
lithe build and his prom-date looks, Edwards has long had a
reputation as a pretty boy. Up close, however, Edwards's face looks
weathered, and I notice deep grooves in his forehead.
"Yeah. On me. But I had to get her on Medicaid because I couldn't
afford to pay for both of us."
"Yeah, that doesn't surprise me," Edwards says soberly.
If it was Bill Clinton's gift to feel voters' pain, it may be
Edwards's gift to articulate their frustration. Once everyone has
had a chance to weigh in, Edwards recalls how the mill in his
hometown closed down when he was a child. "It's hard to explain to
people who haven't been through it," he says to murmurs of
agreement. "All of a sudden, you're out of work. And they're
telling you, you've got to go to school to learn something else.
Well, what about those forty years you spent doing what you were
doing? What is that good for?" Later on, someone asks a question
about Social Security. Edwards's response: "This is what you hear
from the crowd in Washington. What you hear is, we ought to just
raise the retirement age, people are living longer. But, if you're
working in a mill for forty-three years or"--he starts pointing
around the table to elicit the workers' tenures--"you need to
retire when it gets to be retirement age! You know what I'm
saying?" They do, if one can judge from the knowing laughter.
The mistake people make when they see this side of John Edwards is
to assume that resentment is central to his political persona. In
fact, he's a reflexively upbeat and optimistic character. Optimism
turns out to be one of the things you learn from achieving terrific
success as a trial lawyer at a young age. Think about it this way:
You're a no-name lawyer in your twenties or thirties representing
no-name clients against pillars of the local business or medical
establishment, and yet somehow you routinely manage to rack up
multimillion-dollar jury awards. It's not hard to see how a person
would come to believe they could win pretty much any fight they
picked. One of Edwards's early cases involved an obstetrician so
respected it was nearly impossible to find a doctor in North
Carolina who would testify against him, and whose hospital loomed
so large over the local economy that many on the jury had some
connection to it. The same jury subsequently awarded Edwards's
$6.5 million judgment. When Edwards says he'll stand up to
insurance- companylobbyists and deliver universal health care, he
may or may not be right. But it's hard to doubt his conviction that
it can be done.
"I am naturally sunny and positive, it is who I am. And I've
believed my whole life, and, except for the death of my son, this
has been true, that there's nothing you can't get past," Edwards
tells me, going to work on a plate of bacon. We're in the basement
of a Columbia hangout called Mac's on Main, just downstairs from
where he'd addressed a gathering of local politicos half an hour
earlier. "People forget that being positive and optimistic is not
inconsistent with being tough."
Ask Edwards's strategists why he's so far labored to make the
Democratic contest a three-way race, and they'll cite two reasons:
money and the press. To this point, they say, the race has been
defined by two celebrity candidates who've raised ungodly amounts
of cash, with whom the press has been endlessly preoccupied.
The money problem Edwards believes is surmountable. Beyond optimism
per se, Edwards's legal career repeatedly taught him that
fair-minded people can be persuaded by a compelling message even
when the other side has nearly unlimited resources, as was
frequently the case with the companies he sued.
As for the press, well, that's another story. "The difference
between a jury and politics is that the jury is a verycontrolled
environment. ... Equal access to the jury--that's a battle I win,"
he says. "Politics is different, because the media controls access.
And the result is, if every nanosecond they're talking about
Senator Clinton or Senator Obama or another candidate, then it's
hard to be heard." Then he breaks into a smile: "The thing that's
different is the debate. ... If all America knew about the eight of
us is what they saw in the debate on Tuesday night, or in the
debates in general, you would see very different numbers."