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Starting Gun

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Johnny Reid Edwards was born in Seneca, South Carolina, on June 10, 1953. His father was a mill worker who moved the family around the Piedmont until they settled in a tiny central North Carolina town called Robbins. His father, Wallace, worked for 36 years in the textile plant that dominated the local economy. His mother, Bobbie, owned a modest antiques shop and worked for a time as a letter carrier. When their son was a teenager, Johnny, known around town for his football and basketball feats at North Moore High, got a summer job at the plant, where he pushed a broom under the clattering looms.

"Not real dangerous, just hard and really loud," Edwards says in an interview in his Senate office, clearly reluctant to milk the humility of his upbringing.

He had wanted a scholarship to play football at Clemson but settled for North Carolina State University. His studies centered on the management of textile plants; with a diploma, he could leap to the executive ranks without clocking decades on the factory floor. He finished his degree in three years. But then he enrolled in the University of North Carolina's law school. He changed his given name, Johnny, to the more professional-sounding John. He moved away from his family's conservative Republican ideology and became a Democrat. He met a bright fellow student four years older than he, and they married the day after he took his bar exam.

His wife, Elizabeth Anania, technically a North Carolinian, grew up on military bases in Japan and Florida. Her father took a post in charge of the ROTC program in Chapel Hill, and she finished her undergrad studies there. After she married Edwards, the couple began legal careers in Nashville. For five years, he defended insurers and big corporations against civil suits, in a firm with Lamar Alexander in its upper ranks. He made the acquaintance of a young colleague named Fred Thompson.

In 1981, the couple returned to their home state. Edwards joined a Raleigh firm that argued cases similar to those of his Nashville years, but from the other side. He took on hospitals, trucking companies, and insurers on behalf of the grievously injured or the grief-stricken. Under a new shingle, he founded Edwards & Kirby with a friend in 1993, and the two were known for long hours of preparation, exhaustive depositions, and big winnings. "These cases were like wars," a colleague notes. In one case, a faulty diagnosis left an infant with brain damage and cerebral palsy. In another, a trucker slid across a rain-slicked road into a car carrying a child with a genius-level IQ, who survived but lost 40 percent of his brain matter. Many of their plaintiffs won jury awards or settlements in the millions. Legal publications frequently listed Edwards and his partner among the nation's top litigators.

The family enjoyed the suburban pleasures: two children (a girl, Cate, and a boy, Wade); a house near a golf course; a Lexus, a Volvo, and a BMW; a vacation home on a gated barrier island. In the mid-nineties, Edwards and his teenage son climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together. Having already completed a trip on Outward Bound, Wade fared better than his altitude-sickened dad, who dropped twenty pounds on the ascent. Relying on each other, the two reached the summit.

Within a year, Wade won an essay contest, expounding on the importance of each individual's vote. The award involved a trip to the White House, where Hillary Rodham Clinton honored the winners.

Two weeks later, Wade Edwards got in his Jeep with a friend to go to the family's beach house for spring break. His parents and sister planned to head down later. A weird gust of wind tipped the Jeep and Wade was pinned in the wreckage and killed. The police could find no other explanation. No drugs or alcohol were involved. The weather was sunny; the road was dry, uncrowded. The accident was inexplicable.

Pressed to talk about his son's death, Edwards struggles to find a polite -- and not impolitic -- way to decline. In the aftermath, Elizabeth Anania gave up her practice and tended closely to the needs of their teenage daughter. The couple hosted weekly dinners for Wade's friends, including the Jeep's other injured passenger. Edwards mingled among the boys on the backyard basketball half-court and took to wearing his son's Outward Bound pin in his lapel. The family sponsored memorial projects: a mock-trial competition; a computer lab across from Wade's high school; a sculpture of a comet arcing outside the school buildings, meant as a symbol of a short-lived but bright life.

Then Edwards immersed himself in the case of Valerie Lakey, a 9-year-old from Cary, North Carolina, who was gruesomely injured by the suction of a malfunctioning swimming-pool drain. For Edwards, the case was a crusade. His colleagues in the local bar association adjusted their schedules to hear his opening and closing remarks. The jury award and subsequent settlements netted the Lakeys $25 million -- the biggest award won by Edwards's firm. The company redesigned the drain cover. Today, Edwards has a framed unicorn drawn by Valerie hanging in the corridor outside his Senate office.

The couple soon found the inspiration to have two more children. Their daughter Emma Claire is now 3; their son, John Atticus Finch, a year old -- Elizabeth was 48 when Emma was born. And Edwards began to think seriously about a new professional challenge, maybe a political career, even though he had not been involved in politics at any level. Occasionally he had been too busy even to make it to the polls.

As the Senate Democrats' top recruiter, Bob Kerrey, acting on a scouting tip, persuaded Edwards to run for the Senate. The incumbent, Lauch Faircloth, was a 70-year-old hog farmer and Helms alter ego. Polls suggested he was beatable, and interest groups like the Sierra Club wanted him gone. Kerrey saw another alluring factor in an Edwards candidacy: the wealthy young lawyer's ability to self-finance. Donations were hard to come by in a midterm year like 1998, especially in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal.

The state's most youthful Senate candidate in decades, Edwards repeated traditional southern themes: a strong military, federal aid to farmers, access to firearms. He championed improvements in public education. Another pet cause was the right to privacy, which he believes the government has neglected in an age when insurers and banks can legally gather intimate personal information in the evaluation of medical and financial risk. Despite Faircloth's ad-heavy campaign, which focused on the former litigator's "rapacious" reputation as a "fat cat" lawyer, Edwards won with 51 percent of the vote.

In Edwards's first month in the Senate, Minority Leader Tom Daschle tapped him to sit in on depositions relating to the impeachment trial. He presided as the lead Democratic questioner in the testimony of Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal and posed another round of queries to Monica herself. Later, in the closed-door deliberations of the entire Senate, Edwards delivered a speech explaining his decision to vote to acquit the president. His colleagues later described it as jaw-dropping and artfully thorough. His hometown paper reported that the scandal had been a degrading moment for many, but for Edwards and his incipient political career, it had become a "rocket launcher."


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