boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe
JOHN EDWARDS | CANDIDATE IN THE MAKING

From mill town to the national stage

This is the third in a series of profiles of leading candidates in the 2004 presidential race.

SENECA, S.C. -- Growing up in a roughneck mill town where bullies didn't just tease you, they made you eat dirt, Johnny Reid Edwards banked his chances in a brawl on a single punch: Hitting the bigger boys square on the nose, as hard as he could, so that their eyes teared up and they backed down.

It was his father, Wallace, the guiding force in his eldest son's life, who taught Johnny to make the other guy cry. A proud man with only a high school education, Wallace was accustomed to being underestimated by the college grads at the mill. He seethed silently as they were promoted -- by dint of their degrees, he believed -- while he was forced to rely on his own street smarts and hustle to rise through the ranks.

This all sank in for Johnny one evening when he was 6 years old, as he whined to his father about being whipped in a scrape.

"Don't bring that stuff home," Wallace Edwards told his son. "You go out there and fight for yourself."

A rambunctious youngster with a booming cackle, a high school jock who laughed at the smart kids, Edwards as a youth was remarkable mostly for being unremarkable. But he internalized the lessons of his father -- and of that "rough little town where you either fought or you got the crap beat out of you," as he put it. Later, that childhood message would fuel a gnawing ambition.

By his late 30s, Edwards had become a multimillionaire by picking fights in courtrooms across North Carolina in the name of disabled children. At age 45, as a political novice, he unseated an incumbent Republican senator. And, now, at age 50 and still in his first Senate term, he is making a bid for the White House, casting himself as "the son of a mill worker going toe to toe against the son of a president."

From his youth on, Edwards yearned to be a star in his father's eyes. To be the great football player that young Wallace Edwards had dreamed of becoming before rheumatic fever sidelined him. To break out of towns where the mill owned all the houses and ran all of the workers' lives. To earn diplomas and win high-award jury trials and secure a US Senate seat - and the respect that all that confers.

``Looking at my father,'' Edwards says now, ``I saw a good, honest person who had not been treated with the kind of respect I thought he was entitled to. That was an important realization in my life.''

``Part of what drives John is that he feels he has something to prove to his father,'' says Tim Addis, Edwards's cousin and close boyhood friend. ``Wallace did not go far because he didn't have the degree. John won't give up. He wouldn't run for president if he didn't think he could go all the way. His father would never do that.''

A speedy scramble to the race

With Edwards leading in the South Carolina polls but far behind other candidates elsewhere, there are widespread doubts that his life story is enough to compensate for his lack of political experience. ``I voted for John Edwards for Senate,'' says Pat Smith, who worked with Wallace Edwards at the old textile mill in Robbins, N.C., where Edwards spent his teenage years. ``But John Edwards for president? I mean, president of the United States?''

Doubts about his candidacy are echoed on Capitol Hill, where a few senior senators have nicknamed Edwards ``one of the Hardy Boys, '' a fast-walking, fast-talking, callow comer who does his own thing without much regard for protocol (such as paying your dues in Congress before running for president). Edwards built a reputation as an impressive legal thinker during the Clinton impeachment trial, and has served as a point-person for Democrats on legal issues, such as helping craft the Patients Bill of Rights. As a centrist southerner - the only brand of Democrat to win the White House since Vietnam - Edwards offers his party an appealing package.

Yet his speedy scramble into the presidential race has left little time to make a substantial mark in Washington. ``He came to the Senate with the same fanfare as Hillary Clinton. But to be honest, she's done a lot more with it,'' says Jennifer Duffy, who follows the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

But friends say there is a depth of life experience behind the face that earned Edwards the ``sexiest politician'' label from People magazine in 2000. In 1995 Edwards, who had previously run several marathons, overcame a fear of heights by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with his 15-year-old son, Wade. And a year later, he had to bury that same son after a tragic car accident. That loss is the one part of the Edwards story the candidate won't discuss.

``Wade's death is the great paradox of John's campaign,'' says former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who ran for president in 1992 and became close to Edwards during their two years together in Washington. ``I respect John for not telling the story, but people know him less as a result. People should look at this fresh boyish face and say, `There's an old man in there. There's an experienced human being in there who knows that life isn't perfect.' Once you know that, you see someone who looks like he's 30, but you know he's a seasoned person.''

A young family's fortunes

When Bobbie Wade Edwards entered the hospital in June 1953 to give birth to John, Wallace Edwards couldn't pay the $100 bill to bring his wife and son home.

This was nothing new. Ever since the Edwardses had come east from Georgia's Blue Ridge mountains to South Carolina generations earlier, settling in mill towns around the Piedmont plateau, money had been tight. Wallace's father sold shoes and rose to become a furniture store manager. Young Bobbie Wade's father, a handsome Marine with a seventh-grade education, worked cleaning mills after a boxing injury left him partially paralyzed.

To satisfy hospital officials and spring his wife and son, Wallace Edwards took out a $50 loan, at 100 percent interest.

``If I hadn't paid the money, they would have hauled all our furniture away,'' Wallace Edwards says now.

``What furniture?'' Bobbie asks.

John Edwards's first home was a three-room pink-colored pillbox rental on the edge of a low grassy hill, surrounded by houses only a few yards away. It had rough-hewed wood floors and a single coal fireplace. The neighborhood, known as the Utica Mill Village, was made up of properties built by the mill owners, who rented the space at cut rates and enforced a set of strict rules.

``The mill company owned everything, practically owned the people who lived there,'' says Louise Bell, a longtime Seneca resident and author of the 1995 book ``The Heritage of Oconee County. '' ``You were required to keep the property up. No trash in the street. It was very clean and cared for.''

By Johnny's third birthday the family had moved five times across the Carolinas, and up the economic ladder as well. Wallace Edwards spent most of his career with Milliken & Co., which owned a string of textile mills, and he received promotions from floor worker to ``time study'' jobs - monitoring worker productivity - to supervisor. Over time, the family went from living in a public housing project to a ranch-style brick home on a tree-lined street.

Even then, Wallace Edwards believed that his lack of a college degree kept him from advancing at work, which he found both frustrating and embarrassing. ``I remember waking up at 5 a.m. and seeing my father watching those little shows on TV to try to learn how to do math problems,'' John Edwards says. ``He thought it would help him at work.''

When he was 9 or 10, the family - which by then included younger sister Kathy, with brother Blake soon to come - moved to a house on a dirt road in Thomson, Ga. One Sunday after church, the family settled down to dinner at a restaurant crowded with well-dressed patrons, and had begun looking over the menu when Wallace Edwards cleared his throat.

``We have to leave,'' he said. ``It costs too much.''

Edwards originally attended segregated public schools, but that was about to change, prompting one of his sixth-grade teachers in Thomson to proclaim that he wouldn't return to school the next year. ``He said the school was forcing them to have [pause] in class, and he used the most derogatory term for African-Americans that he could use. I thought it was one of the most offensive things I'd ever heard. It wasn't like I hadn't heard that kind of language in my life, but for a teacher, someone who had that kind of hatred...'' Edwards says, trailing off.

The family settled for good in Robbins, N.C., when Edwards was 12. As a student at North Moore High School, his passion for football took off. He mastered the role of the bruiser, right down to his two metallic false front teeth, the result of childhood bicycle accident. (They were eventually replaced by white caps.)

By all accounts, Edwards was an average student. None of his high school friends imagined him going as far as he has. Through his junior and senior years, though, he began to think more about college - about seizing opportunities that his high-school-graduate parents never had.

``John was a very good athlete, but he didn't take his classwork or his future very seriously until late in high school,'' says Lynne Stroud, Edwards's first serious girlfriend, a top student and tennis player who dated him for four years. ``He was always ambitious, very ambitious. He started to feel, `I need to take school, my life, more seriously.''' Asked why, she says: ``We spent a lot of time together, and he saw everything I was doing - tennis, marching band, student council, really active in school. He just began to think a lot more about his future.''

In Robbins the family prospered. Wallace Edwards became a manager at the local Milliken mill, and Bobbie ran her own antique refinishing business out of a roadside shop. His father later left the mill, at odds with his bosses' constantly preferring college graduates over him, and Bobbie became a postal letter carrier so that the family would have health insurance.

On the campaign trail today, the senator regularly describes himself as the son of a mill worker but rarely if ever notes that his father was part of management. ``They weren't quite as humble as Edwards makes it sound,'' says Pat Smith of Robbins. ``Wallace was a very important man at the mill. ... They weren't rich, but they weren't struggling poor.''

``John was more middle class than most of us,'' says Bill Garner, a high school friend and college roommate.

College years

When the time came for college, Edwards chose to make a run at his boyhood dream and play football for the Clemson Tigers, his father's favorite team.

``Wallace Edwards had always wanted to play ball, but he couldn't because of his childhood rheumatic fever, and Johnny wanted to make his father proud,'' says Hoyt Edwards, Wallace's older brother ``Wallace wanted other people to realize he was as strong and as good as they were.''

At Clemson, a big-time football university in South Carolina, Edwards tried to walk onto the team in hopes that his speed and agility would compensate for his six-foot, 170-pound frame. But a much-needed football scholarship didn't come through. After one semester, Edwards transferred to the more affordable North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and began working an 11 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift unloading UPS trucks, earning tuition money at an hourly union scale of $10. There wasn't much partying for Edwards unless his intramural volleyball team had a big win; instead, he returned to Robbins on weekends to see Lynne and hit the books the rest of the time, completing his textile technology major with summa cum laude honors in three years.

North Carolina State was a mix of jocks, farm kids, and longhairs back then, and though Edwards had ties to all three groups, he wasn't a leader of any pack. His roommate, Garner, had a bushy beard and mane and was a McGovern Democrat in '72; Johnny grew a slight mustache, no more, and was a registered Independent who felt at home with his father's own Republican conservatism.

Edwards's political identity hadn't evolved much since a preteen essay in which he described wanting to pursue a legal career to ``help protect innocent people from blind justice the best I can,'' words inspired by watching families struggle under the thumb of the mill owners. In college, he opposed the Vietnam War and Nixon. Edwards registered for the draft in 1971, received a high lottery number for induction, and was never called to serve. He said he ultimately voted for McGovern in 1972, and changed his registration to Democrat by the mid-1970s.

In 1974 Edwards entered the University of North Carolina Law School in Chapel Hill and readily developed a tight circle of friends amid the Ivy League graduates and affluent students. One of them was Elizabeth Anania, a brunette beauty who was widely regarded as one of the smartest women in their class. Edwards was drawn to her worldly confidence - she once told a poorly organized professor that his lectures were ``about as clear as mud'' - which had come from fending for herself as a Navy child who moved around the United States and Japan.

Their first date was twirling on a Holiday Inn dance floor, and at the end of the night, he kissed her on the forehead.

``John was a great breath of fresh air in my life,'' Elizabeth recalls. ``In the first year of law school, there's this idea that you want to live life intensely. We had no money, we were juggling so much; there were no reasons to be intensely happy, so you settled for intensely miserable. And then there was this person who'd go with me and buy corn on the cob for 25 cents a pound and a nice big piece of ham, and sit for dinner and just talk. Everything was possible with this fella.''

Relaxing outside the law school one fall afternoon, Edwards told Elizabeth that he thought about going into politics someday - no specifics, just the idea, she says. And at some point, Edwards began referring to himself as John rather than Johnny. His childhood name remains on his birth certificate, but his future profession seemed to call for a change.

On July 30, 1977, shortly after graduating and taking the bar exam, the couple married in Chapel Hill, exchanging an $11 wedding band (hers) and a $22 ring (his), which he promptly lost while jogging. Elizabeth's mother paid for a one-night honeymoon in Williamsburg, Va., because the newlyweds were broke, and neither John nor his family believed in having credit card debt.

A career is launched

In his first store-bought suit, Edwards launched his career as a clerk to US District Court Judge Franklin T. Dupree, Jr., a Nixon appointee in Raleigh, followed by a job at a white-shoe firm in Nashville. There, the couple bought their first house, with a basketball hoop out back for John; Elizabeth gave birth to Wade in 1979, then daughter Cate in 1982.

The legal work in Tennessee wasn't especially energizing to John, and he wanted to return to Raleigh to be close to his father, who had undergone heart surgery in 1981. He turned down a job at the prestigious Hunton & Williams in favor of the firm Tharrington Smith, attracted by its growing criminal defense practice. Elizabeth, pregnant with Cate, had a harder time finding work in the small capital city and ended up working first for the state attorney general, then as a bankruptcy lawyer.

At age 31, Edwards took on the case of E.G. Sawyer, an alcoholic who had suffered brain damage and partial paralysis after his doctor prescribed three times the usual dose of a drug, Antabuse. The case was expected to be settled out of court because of doubts that a jury would side with an alcoholic. But when Edwards went to meet his client in his apartment, littered with trash and smelling of urine, he found Sawyer sitting in a wheelchair, unable to talk and communicating only with alphabet letters on a little board.

``I was so certain that the doctor had mistreated this man, and felt driven to show it,'' Edwards says. ``I wanted a jury to see Sawyer as he was before all this happened - to know the truth about his alcoholism, but also to see how dramatically his life had changed.''

Edwards rebuffed an offer to settle the case for $750,000. His legal team tracked down one of Sawyer's former nurses in Ohio and secured testimony contradicting the doctor's claim that Sawyer had still been drinking alcohol in the hospital. The jury returned a verdict of $3.7 million in damages, at the time one of the largest judgments in state history.

Edwards's next case defined his emerging signature courtroom style. Facing off against two of North Carolina's best lawyers in a malpractice suit against a powerful hospital, Edwards described to a jury how, during birth, Jennifer Campbell began coming out feet first, and was losing oxygen. Nurses said a caesarean section might be necessary but were overruled by the doctor. The baby was born brain damaged.

The Campbells had sued both the doctor and, in an unorthodox move to hold a whole institution liable, the hospital itself. The doctor, a hospital staff member, settled out of court. During the three-week trial against the hospital, Edwards sought to connect even the institution's machinery to the suffering Jennifer. He said that though the girl, by then 6, could not speak in court herself, the records of her fetal heart monitor could tell the story.

``What she said to them is this,'' Edwards said, according to a court transcript. ``She said at 3 o'clock, `I'm fine.' She said at 4 o'clock, `I'm having a little bit of trouble, but I'm doing OK.' Five o'clock she said, `I'm having problems.' At 5:30 she said, `I need out.'"

The jury found the hospital liable, and awarded the family $6.5 million.

Edwards's friends cannot recall any signs from his youth foreshadowing these bravura courtroom performances, and, indeed, Edwards says his jury summations sometimes surprised even him. ``That charge and that passion,'' he says, ``came from kids like Jennifer Campbell. I knew they had nothing but me.''

To targets like insurance companies, Edwards was stunningly exploitative, going to wild lengths to dramatize the losses of families like the Campbells. But he also became known as one of the best attorneys in the nation, according to Lawyers Weekly USA. He was never disciplined by the state bar, and was grudingly admired by opponents.

``John's greatest strength was being a good strategist who knew how to evaluate his case and prepare tactics,'' says Mark Kurdys, an Asheville lawyer who has faced him in court. Asked if Edwards played fair, he added: ``I'm going to leave that alone. It depends who you ask. In terms of being professional and ethical, he was very much so.''

Edwards accrued more than 45 million-dollar judgments or settlements during his career, and business was so brisk that in 1993 he formed his own law firm in Raleigh with a friend. The son of the mill worker grew rich; according to campaign disclosure forms, he is now worth between $12 million and $60 million. He and Elizabeth purchased an estate now valued at $1 million in Raleigh's tony Country Club Hills neighborhood, as well as a spread on Figure Eight Island, an exclusive resort near Wrightsville Beach N.C. (As reported by the Charlotte Observer, the Edwardses had to pay overdue property taxes on their Raleigh home and cars more than 30 times over the past decade, including eight instances when they had to pay interest.)

Tragedy strikes

Edwards and his first son, Wade, shared a deep bond much like that shared between Edwards and his father. Wade stood out as an athlete, and also wrote a famous childhood essay of his own, ``Fancy Clothes and Overalls,'' about voting with his dad. It was a finalist in a national essay contest that led the family to meet then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and their state's senior senator, Jesse Helms. Father and son were glowing that day.

That was in March 1996. A month later, Wade hopped into his Jeep Grand Cherokee and drove with a buddy toward the family's shore house. While traveling south on I-40, the Jeep was hit by a powerful gust of wind. It swerved left onto the grassy median, where Wade corrected hard to the right, causing the vehicle to swing into a fish tail. The Jeep flipped and rolled, skidding on its roof, according to family members and police accounts. While his friend was injured, the roof caved in entirely on Wade, who was still belted in.

The family went into retreat after Wade's death. Edwards stopped working. Elizabeth gave up her job as a bankruptcy lawyer. They buried Wade in Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery, the resting place of heroes and politicians, a verdant hillside where Edwards used to jog. He no longer runs through there.

Elizabeth gathered every picture she could find of Wade and kept his spirit alive in his untouched bedroom. The couple would invite Wade's closest pals over for dinner every Tuesday night because the Edwards place had always been the place to hang out, Elizabeth says.

``After he died, I said to some of the girls, `If any of you kissed him, you have to tell me,''' Elizabeth says. ``But I don't think he ever did kiss a girl. He was always a little shy around girls, like boys can be.''

A devastated Edwards would later describe their father-son relationship as ``connected at the breastbone,'' but he refuses to speak publicly about Wade's death. Friends say his only real solace seemed to come from seeing Wade's friends.

The couple began pouring their energy into creating a memorial to their son, the Wade Edwards Learning Lab, an after-school center with computers, tutors in most subjects, and nooks in which to relax. Yet both still struggled to right themselves emotionally, and eventually decided to try for another child. Taking hormone shots, Elizabeth gave birth to Emma Claire at age 48, and to a son, John ``Jack'' Atticus - Atticus a name that a Latin teacher once gave to Wade - when Elizabeth was 50.

``Our house was joyless without Wade,'' Elizabeth explains. ``It really came down to a practical question: What brings us joy? The clear answer was children.''

For years now, Edwards has been asked repeatedly if losing Wade led him to reevaluate his own life or enter politics. Yet even before that awful spring of 1996, Edwards had talked to Wade and others about running for the US Senate in 1998 - for a seat once held by one of Edwards's heroes, Democrat Terry Sanford, who had been ousted in 1992 by Republican Lauch Faircloth, a conservative businessman.

Senator Bob Kerrey - who was recruiting candidates for the Senate in 1998 - and Washington pollster Harrison Hickman saw Edwards as a new face, a potential winner. Hickman's only concern, he told Edwards, was that Faircloth might run an ``unkind'' campaign that could upset his family.

``And John looked at me and said, `If you've ever had to get up on a medical examiner's table and hug your son goodbye, you know that there's nothing worse that can happen to you,''' Hickman recalls.

An Election Day victory

Edwards became known as one of ``Kerrey's millionaires '' in 1998, a wealthy group of Democratics capable of floating their own campaign money; Edwards contributed $3 million of his own money to win the Democratic primary alone. Faircloth's campaign blasted Edwards in commercials as a slick lawyer who avoided paying taxes because of a complex compensation deal at his law firm. (Most independent analysts interviewed by newspapers at the time said that the deal was not inappropriate, though clearly in his self-interest.) Faircloth refused to debate Edwards, and the Democrat made a cross-generational appeal that Faircloth, by then 70, was out of touch.

On Election Day Edwards beat the incumbent, 51 percent to 47 percent.

The Senate seat led Edwards to give up the law, yet it turned out that he had another towering trial ahead of him. He arrived in Washington in January 1999 at the height of Clinton impeachment fever, and just three weeks into his term he was tapped for the high-profile assignment of helping oversee Senate depositions.

Edwards drew the most recognition for a question he and Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl put to Republican impeachment manager Lindsey Graham: Is Clinton's conduct a matter about which reasonable people can differ?

``Absolutely,'' Graham replied, according to the Congressional Record.

``Now if the prosecution concedes that reasonable people can differ about this,'' Edwards continued, ``how can we not have reasonable doubt? These things all lead me to the conclusion that however reprehensible the President's conduct is, I have to vote to acquit on both articles of impeachment.''

Personally, Edwards was baffled by Clinton's affair with a young woman just several years older than his daughter Cate. But he stood by him publicly. ``I thought what he did was wrong, and that he clearly knew that,'' Edwards says.

Edwards earned bipartisan praise for evenhandedness in the trial, and Democratic power brokers began buzzing about a new leader in the party - smart, telegenic, and a political talent. In the run-up to the 2000 congressional elections, some new candidates were describing themselves as ``the next John Edwards,'' Duffy of the Cook Political Report recalls.

``It's very hard for a first-term senator in the minority party to make a name for himself, but Edwards did it with the way he talked, his gift of how he talked to juries,'' Duffy says.

For the most part Edwards stuck to his comfort zone, tending to issues like medical malpratice. Senate Democrats tapped him to hammer out right-to-sue provisions in the new Patients Bill of Rights legislation, which Edwards worked closely on with senators Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain. Yet there were also moments, political observers and Senate aides say, when Edwards's showmanship and ambition seemed to trump his workaday responsibilities.

As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Edwards began to blast away at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying agents ``missed clues or failed to connect the dots.'' At a committee hearing with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Edwards made a sweeping attack about ``bureaucratic resistance'' obstructing change at the agency and disclosed that he would file legislation that same week to give the FBI's domestic intelligence duties to a new agency.

Mueller felt sandbagged. ``Senator, you have overlooked a great deal of the good work that the FBI has done in the last 17 months in connecting the dots,'' he said, according to a transcript of the hearing. ``I've offered you an opportunity personally to come down to the bureau and be briefed on the changes that we've made since Sept. 11. You have declined to come down.''

In June 2000, only 17 months after he was sworn in as a senator and a month after his son Jack was born, the phone rang at the Edwards's home in Raleigh. It was Warren Christopher, Clinton's first secretary of state, who had been asked by presidential nominee Al Gore to help select his running mate. Gore was down to a short list, and Edwards was on it.

``It was a little unreal,'' Elizabeth says. ``But we knew all along what the issue would be, and then people started hammering away on `experience' issues.'' In the end Gore chose another senator, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and went on to lose the Electoral College vote - and the South - to George W. Bush.

But the experience only stoked the fire in Edwards's belly to shoot for another high office. He built a fund-raising network of trial lawyers and talked to Bill Clinton about making a run for the 2004 nomination. Edwards was confident he could take on veteran pols like Lieberman and Senator John F. Kerry, viewing them as part of the ``elitist, paternalistic wing of the Democratic Party'' who would flounder in the South, according to one Edwards adviser.

On September 7, 2003, Edwards made the most momentous decision of his campaign: to drop out of his 2004 Senate reelection race. In January 2005, he'll either be in the White House or, quite possibly, a rising star gone dark. And then, just a week later, as he officially kicked off his campaign to become ``the people's president,'' another fresh face - a newer face - former general Wesley Clark of Arkansas, jumped into the race.

Edwards shrugged off Clark, saying he was in this fight to win.

Wallace Edwards wouldn't want it any other way. Nor would Wade.

Some friends remain nervous, however. ``John's no longer the fresh face,'' Kerrey says, ``and that really hurts.''

Profiles of candidates in the 2004 presidential race, a photo gallery, and other information can be viewed at www.boston.com/politics. Patrick Healy can be reached by e-mail at phealy@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives