Raising the Bar

If the secret to Samson's strength lay in his curly locks, the source of John Edwards' power is his voice. Speaking in a honeyed North Carolinian drawl peppered with "sirs" and "pleases," Edwards can talk of populism and class in terms that would get most any other candidate labeled a Leninist, and yet he seems unthreatening, even solicitous. As Chuck Todd, the editor of National Journal's Hotline, marvels, "Howard Dean says it, and it's shrill; Edwards says the exact same thing, and you melt." The voice separates Edwards from the rest of the field, and makes him the first genuine populist in decades with a serious shot at the presidency.

Underlying the way Edwards talks, and even how he thinks, is a simple fact that is often ignored because it is so obvious: John Edwards is a trial lawyer before he is a politician. His are the highs and lows of a speaker trained on juries, not crowds; of a voice that seeks to persuade rather than to inspire. Generally, a talented politician is a masterful orator. But while a great orator seems larger-than-life, a great trial lawyer seems like he just came from your living room, possibly after watching the ballgame. And Edwards is one of the best.

For progressives, this translates into an important difference: John Edwards can speak truths about the country that the other Democratic candidates cannot. At the AFL-CIO's annual Wellstone Award dinner last December, where Edwards was being presented with the yearly decoration, he ruefully responded to a particularly powerful video of the late Paul Wellstone's fiery populism by chuckling, "I'm a southerner; we don't know how to talk like that." But as a southerner, as a trial lawyer, and as an experienced presidential campaigner, Edwards knows how to talk about that without marginalizing himself or unsettling his audiences. It's a difference in style that allows a difference in substance -- one that could decide whether, in 2008, the Republicans face off against a Clintonian or a populist.

This would seem a time for the latter. The Democrats swept to victory in 2006 by delivering an economically populist, antiwar message. When the Campaign for America's Future asked voters to name the three most important issues of the election, "Iraq" topped the list, followed closely by "gas prices and oil companies" and "health-care costs." In 2004, 53 cents of every dollar in salary increases went to the top 1 percent of earners. Inequality has gotten so bad that even George W. Bush has given a speech decrying its rise and the attendant spike in CEO pay.

In short, it would seem an ideal moment for the class-conscious son of a millworker. But populism is traditionally a hard sell in American presidential politics, even when the timing is fortuitous, and Edwards has compounded that problem by declaring war on poverty as well. That's not exactly a proven combo for winning the nation's highest office, and the electorate may not want to hear such harangues from a mansion-dwelling lawyer worth tens of millions of dollars. But it's been a long time since a presidential campaign featured a populist as authentic as Edwards, and he's spent a long time proving his talent for winning over skeptical groups of ordinary Americans. For Edwards, those groups used to be called juries. Today they're called voters. The question is whether there's really a difference.

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"Americans have politicians who come from two places," says Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, a 450,000-member apparel and hotel union. "Either they are professional politicians -- which is nothing bad -- or they are rich people who were successful in the corporate world. John Edwards made his money suing corporations. That's very different."
It's a difference Edwards' opponents have occasionally mistaken for a weakness. In 1998, incumbent Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth sought an early knockout against his neophyte challenger in North Carolina with a raft of anti–trial lawyer ads. "It didn't work," recalls Rob Christensen, a political reporter for the Raleigh-based News & Observer. "The trial-lawyer issue gets a lot of Republicans and conservatives, but doesn't play with voters, particularly in places like North Carolina and the South. With the low rate of unionization and state governments being controlled by Big Business, the working person traditionally didn't have a lot of say in his own fate. Trial lawyers were the great equalizer."

To better grasp the archetype, pick up any of the best sellers by Mississippi-native John Grisham: Almost all are Manichean contests pitting heroic trial lawyers and their weak, wounded clients against powerful interests indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people.

Reminded of Faircloth's attacks on trial lawyers, Edwards' longtime pollster Harrison Hickman laughs. "We were very much like Br'er Rabbit: glad to be thrown into that brier patch. It lets Edwards talk about the kinds of people he represented, families and children who'd been injured in egregious ways. The challenge would always have been, in a debate: Name one of my clients who didn't deserve the award they got."

It is a failure of political reporting that those legal cases are rarely evaluated as anything but potential attack ads. The stories, people, and corporations Edwards came into contact with amounted to a searing, visceral course in old-style populism.

Think of it this way: Hillary Clinton's caution and political savvy are obvious products of an adult life spent entirely in politics, the last 15 years or so on the national stage. Barack Obama's broad appeal and talent for consensus building are not unexpected traits in a former community organizer. So what does spending decades confronting the grievous, heartbreaking damage done to individuals and families by powerful, profit-driven corporations do to a man?

"Every single day," says Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, "what he saw were good people, in great need, who were being mistreated by big corporations -- corporations that knew that they had done wrong, and often insurance companies that were taking a calculated risk going to trial. … If you took that person, a person who chose that as his life, you would end up with the politics that he's talking about today."

In 2003, when John Edwards wanted to present himself to the electorate, he, like every other world-leader wannabe, wrote a book. But his Four Trials, unlike most campaign tracts, doesn't say a word about his experience in the Senate or his plans for the country. Instead, it recounts a quartet of trials Edwards fought: two against corporations, two against doctors. More to the point, it introduces four clients whom Edwards fought for: ordinary individuals who display heroic endurance in the face of profoundly unfair events. At the close of one wrenching trial, Edwards turns to the jury and says, "What you have been doing for the last seven weeks is you have been watching what happens when absolute corporate indifference collides with absolute innocence. That's what this case is. That is what this case is about. And that is why you are here."

In some ways, that is also what Edwards' campaign is about, why he is here. When we sit down for an interview, one of the first questions I ask him is whether he thinks of himself as a populist. "If I knew what that meant," he laughs, "I could answer that question." But as I start to offer a definition, he interjects: "Can I answer first, then you tell me? I don't want my answer to be influenced by the other definition. If being a populist means standing up for regular people so they don't get … ," and here he pauses, searching for the right words, "… stomped on by powerful multinational corporations, the answer is, 'Yes.'" I abandon my own definition, which, by comparison, would seem tinny and esoteric. "The reason I wrote that book the way I did," he continues, "is I think you read that book and you know, for good or bad, a lot about John Edwards and the way he views the world."

Edwards, to be sure, is not anti-enterprise, but his comments lack the deification of business and business leaders that so often lace elite Democratic rhetoric. This, again, speaks to background. Career politicians spend their lives raising money, not making it. As they ascend in prominence and power, their need for well-heeled supporters grows ever greater. A corporate friend is not only a good golfing buddy; he's also a financial savior, an indispensable political asset. Indeed, in such a relationship, the politician needs the business leader more than the business leader needs the politician. In politicians, it breeds an inevitable idealization of corporate executives.

Certainly this was true for another southern politician who occasionally claimed the populist mantle: Bill Clinton. In The Survivor, reporter John Harris' recounting of Clinton's presidency, the author describes Erskine Bowles, Clinton's third chief of staff and the man who would lose a bid for the Senate seat Edwards vacated to pursue the presidency: "A Charlotte investment banker and millionaire many times over from his business dealings as well as the family fortune into which he married, Bowles fairly boasted of his indifference to capital customs. 'I'm a creature of the private sector,' he liked to say. 'It's my natural habitat.'"

This is precisely what attracted the president. "The Clintons," Harris writes, "had organized their lives around politics, not money, yet they were fascinated by people who had made money and understood it, especially when these people were not conservative Republicans. Clinton knew he was just as smart as and usually more experienced than almost any political operative giving an opinion. But an investment banker like Bowles -- now, there was someone worth listening to."

Edwards reveals an opposite approach. He doesn't take money from political action committees or lobbyists, and in conversation, casually places himself in opposition to the reflexive glorification of corporate CEOs. At one point, I ask about the volunteerism aesthetic of his campaign, which plans to enlist scores of civic-minded supporters into "One Corps" -- volunteers who, with the campaign's encouragement, will fan into their communities to do public service. "This is perfectly consistent with my belief in labor unions, in the jury system, in the power of America," Edwards says. "It's the difference between the CEO of a multinational corporation and somebody who believes the best of America comes from its people, not from people who are giving orders. I don't know any other way to describe it. I really do believe that in my heart and soul, and always have."

A story Elizabeth Edwards told me -- and that John Edwards, after being pressed, confirmed -- may shed some light on why. John's mother, Bobbie, had a shop in a country warehouse outside of Robbins, North Carolina, where she'd refinish old furniture pieces that she'd bought at antique auctions. "She really could turn things that looked awful into beautiful pieces of furniture," remembers Elizabeth. "It was hard labor, but she loved it." John's father, Wallace, meanwhile, had risen to supervisor of a Roger Milliken textile mill. "Now," says Elizabeth, "the way you decide whether a plant is operating well is what their production is, and how much of the production is wasted because it has imperfections in it -- the number of 'seconds.' And the Robbins mill was either at the top or near the top among the Milliken plants while [Wallace] was running it -- it had some of the lowest seconds. He ran an incredibly efficient plant, and actually afterwards went into business as an efficiency consultant."

One day, Roger Milliken decided that all of his plant supervisors needed college degrees. Wallace Edwards had never been to college. "You have to know to begin with," says John Edwards, "there's nobody in the world I admire like I admire my father. Nobody. He's honest and good and strong, but bleeds for people around him in a way I wish I could. I'm not him; I wish I was. I used to watch how hard he worked, and then they brought [in] this guy -- 'The College Kid,' they called him -- and he just took over. That's when my father left [the plant]."

"When he left," finishes Elizabeth, "he left his health insurance on the table. He had a heart condition, and had [had] rheumatic fever as a child. Bobbie quit that store she loved and went to work first at the county board of elections, then at the post office, where she could have insurance. And when she went to the post office, she joined a union."

"I've always said," John Edwards told me, "if you look at my life pattern, every piece fits: coming from the background I come from, becoming a lawyer, the work I did as a lawyer, and then the work I've done as a political leader."

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Some of this populist conviction was obscured by the occasionally Rorschach-like nature of the campaign Edwards ran in 2004. And indeed, as Edwards has geared up for a second presidential bid, observers have treated him as a whole new beast. The New Republic, surveying his recent focus on poverty and labor, termed him "The Accidental Populist." The Nation wondered, "Who is this guy -- and what has he done with the centrist New Democrat who once had Karl Rove quaking in his boots?"

Some of this goes back to tone, words, and accent. The emergence, in 2002, of a handsome, articulate, drawling southerner brought to mind another handsome, articulate, drawling southerner who actually was a centrist. But John Edwards was, and is, no Bill Clinton. Despite a widespread perception to the contrary, Edwards never joined the Democratic Leadership Council, though the organization courted him heavily. "That was not the route he wanted to go," says Elizabeth. Indeed, all the way back in 2002, The New Yorker noted that "Edwards has chosen to present himself as a rollicking, full-throated, us-against-them populist."

Edwards' reputation for moderation was also earned by his early, unblinking support for the Iraq War. He not only backed the war; he co-sponsored the resolution authorizing force. Nor could he claim ignorance: He sat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"He really has to overcompensate on other issues to overcome his support for the war," says Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, proprietor of the weblog Daily Kos. "It's the defining issue of the decade, and he got it so wrong."

Edwards has, to be sure, sought penance, most notably in a November 13, 2005, Washington Post op-ed that began, simply, "I was wrong." Over time, he has become even more vociferously antiwar, his constant apologies serving as preamble to angry denunciations that seem aimed, in some ways, at his former self. Speaking at New York's Riverside Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, from the same dais on which King condemned the Vietnam War in 1967, he lifted a phrase from King's address for his own refrain: "Silence," he kept saying, "is betrayal" -- a line the media took as a challenge to Obama and Clinton, who, still in the Senate, retain the power to legislate against the war. It is also, however, an unintentional commentary on Edwards' current impotence: No longer a senator, all he can do is speak.

Edwards now approaches foreign policy in much the same way he addresses economic policy: as a populist. Speaking at the Brussels Forum on Transatlantic Challenges last April, Edwards said, "Spreading democracy is not about knocking regimes down; it's about building -- building democratic institutions and communities that will protect basic freedom. Just as poverty and disillusionment isolate and drain hope from our people in our own cities, it does exactly the same thing for every person around the world who feels like they have no chance." To Edwards, you can't fight the war on terrorism without firing a few shots at poverty as well.

Edwards' intense focus on poverty is, politically, very different from the "two Americas"–style populism that he relied on earlier in his political career. The genius of the "two Americas" was that it drew the battle lines so smartly, pitting the overwhelming majority of Americans against a rich and parasitic elite. It was populism as E.L Doctorow defined it, speaking for "the large middle world, neither destitute nor privileged." Edwards identified "one America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. … One America (middle-class America) whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America (narrow-interest America) whose every wish is Washington's command." Most any listener, from most any income bracket, could happily count him- or herself in the first America -- the America of decent, hardworking people just looking for a fair shake.

Recently, however, Edwards has turned his focus from the large middle to the destitute. In 2005, he became the director of a poverty center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and during the 2006 election, he spent the run-up stumping across the country for minimum-wage increases. He announced his campaign for the presidency in the mud of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, and in April, he will release Ending Poverty in America, a collection of articles co-edited by John Edwards from scholars and experts on how to eliminate the scourge of deprivation from our shores.

When you talk to the Edwards campaign staff, however, you're quickly assured that the antipoverty crusader will employ a different approach as a presidential campaigner. "It's not a campaign strategy," says Edwards. "It never was. It's what I care about, and I'm going to talk about it as long as I'm breathing. But there's a difference between being a candidate for president and running a poverty center at the University of North Carolina. In Des Moines, [Iowa], you would've heard me talk about poverty, but you would've heard me talk about poverty in the context of what's happening in the middle class, what's happening with the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and energy, health care, American leadership in the world. You can't just be the president for low-income families."

In that spirit, the first major policy announcement of Edwards' new campaign wasn't an antipoverty plan; it was a plan to reform the health-care system. Health care is that rare economic problem that can afflict white-collar workers with much the same ferocity it directs against low-income workers. Since 2000, health-care costs have shot up an average of 10.5 percent a year, while worker's earnings have risen an average of 3.1 percent. That may be why 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the cost of health care. And Edwards' plan -- which ends the ability of insurers to discriminate on grounds of medical history, age, or health status; offers a Medicare-style program that all Americans could buy into; and subsidizes a significant portion of the middle class to achieve universality -- should prove widely appealing.

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Edwards spoke of "Two Americas" in 2004, and he wasn't elected president of either. At the time, he was dogged by questions of authenticity, and his unrelenting niceness and optimism -- he rarely went negative against his primary opponents -- blunted the message's effectiveness. Whether his amplified appeal meets with more success in 2008 may rest on whether he's learned the lessons of 2004.

Those lessons can be summed up in one word: conviction. The political power of this was driven home for Edwards during the 2004 campaign, as the Bush team eviscerated John Kerry by arguing that the electorate couldn't really trust him. "You know where I stand," Bush joked during the election, "and sometimes, we even know where my opponent stands." You can't, of course, get Edwards to say an unkind word about Kerry. Try, and he'll just shake his head. "I've been pretty disciplined about not going back and critiquing," he'll say. I remember, though, a dinner with the Edwardses shortly after the 2004 election, in which I was struck by John Edwards' constant use of the word "conviction." It was like a murder mystery in which the traumatized witness rocks back and forth uttering the single-word clue that unravels the case.

Conviction is not something Edwards has had much trouble demonstrating. As a trial lawyer, he spent years fighting skilled corporate attorneys for the hearts and minds of juries, both sides burying their overwhelmed audience beneath mountains of highly technical evidence and testimony and experts and objections. In the end, the members of the jury, who lacked the expertise to really know which side was playing straight with them, had to go with their gut. And when it was Edwards sitting at the plaintiff's table, their gut tended to tell them that not only was this guy telling the truth, but that the other guys were telling particularly vile untruths. Not only could he show conviction; he could expose its absence in his opponents.

This campaign, Edwards' focus on poverty and populism can be read as an attempt to demonstrate his own convictions: You may not care about what John Edwards cares about, but at least you know that John Edwards cares. At the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, while Hillary Clinton declared, "I'm in, and I'm in to win," and Barack Obama identified "cynicism" as America's greatest enemy, Edwards pegged his speech to the question, "Why are we here?" ("we" being the Democratic Party's delegates and the 10 assembled presidential hopefuls). The answers: an 8-year-old girl going to bed hungry; a hotel housekeeper walking a union picket line; a high-school student hiding his college-acceptance letter because his family can't afford tuition; a mother mourning her son, who just died in Iraq; an orphaned child sitting in a Sudanese refugee camp; and a father trying to pay the medical bills for his child, who winds up in the emergency room because they lack health insurance -- a veritable Who's Who of little people bravely battling against the vagaries of fate and economics.

Edwards' speech was, by wide acclaim, the finest of those by the Big Three (Edwards, Obama, and Clinton). The National Journal's "Hotline On Call" noted that it received five standing ovations, while Clinton's address got three, and Obama's generated only two. Clinton's speech offered a string of agreeable generalities crying out for a narrative. Obama's address was a more cerebral commentary on the theater of politics and the problems of apathy. Fascinating problems, both, but Edwards's intense focus on the suffering of powerless individuals made such philosophical considerations appear slightly dilettantish. In terms of simple celebrity, he clearly lacked the star power of the other two. But he explained precisely who and what John Edwards stands for, and highlighted the comparatively insufficient answers that Clinton's and Obama's speeches gave to the "Why are we here?" question (good things and hope, respectively).

"Edwards is really trying to be Bobby Kennedy meets César Chávez meets William Jennings Bryan," says Chuck Todd. "And I think that position is going to have some appeal." To win in 2008, though, convincing the majority of voters that he cares for sympathetic underdogs will not be enough; they need to believe he will stand for them. But if Edwards -- in that unthreatening southern drawl, drawing on those years spent fighting against malign corporate actors -- can convince the electorate that he will "[stand] up for regular people so they don't get stomped on by powerful multinational corporations" … well, a lot of people believe themselves "regular people," and this is a moment in which they hunger for a champion.

"The one thing I am certain of," Edwards told me, "is that when Iowa caucus goers walk into caucus on a Monday night a little under a year from now, they will know what I stand for. They won't have any questions. They may not agree with it, but they'll know it."

His confidence is unsurprising. When small groups of Americans spend months listening to Edwards, they often end up concluding that his beliefs are exactly aligned with theirs, that his heroes are their heroes, that his enemies are their enemies. This may be John Edwards' biggest case, but it is not his first.

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