Starting Gun

John Edwards was in Manhattan last week job-hunting. It’s not that he’s unemployed: Since 1999, he’s been a United States senator from North Carolina. And it’s not a question of money: The former civil litigator won more than $152 million for his clients in the nineties alone. So why is the soft-spoken 47-year-old, whom one publication recently christened “the Democrats’ New Golden Boy,” meeting the elite all over the city? He wants a shot at the Big Job, the presidency. And for a Democratic candidate, the interviews start now, in New York.

Not that Edwards will admit as much – not yet. On a breezy Sunday-evening stroll down Fifth Avenue, Edwards cheerily maintains that he’s just pushing his Senate agenda for HMO reform. “I mean, if you want to make the case for a patients’ bill of rights – and I’ve been working very hard on that, as you know, with Senator John McCain – that needs to be done on a nationwide level, not just in North Carolina, although it has a great impact on the people I represent,” he says, crossing in front of St. Patrick’s (he is an intrepid jaywalker). But his Monday schedule points to something more ambitious: six one-on-one meetings with some of the party’s major donors, editorial powwows at Time Inc. and the New York Times, and a dinner for twenty more donors at Primavera on the Upper East Side – this final event postponed at the last minute so Edwards could make it to a suddenly convened Senate vote.

John Edwards arrived in D.C. a little more than two years ago, having ejected a hog-farming incumbent from his Senate seat. It’s no wonder that the vanquished Democrats seized upon him; he has those qualities they are pining for – youth, vigor, and distance from the Clinton-Gore regime. Edwards is a serious, charismatic moderate who prays. He represents a state that Bush won – and is friendly with both fellow Tarheel Jesse Helms and liberal icon Ted Kennedy. Plus, he has a bio that many Americans, especially baby-boomers, will find hard to resist: A milltown boy who grew up into a jump-shooting, Kilimanjaro-climbing, marathon-running athlete. A lawyer with the passion of Atticus Finch (his infant son’s namesake) who made his name defending the little guy – and made a fortune doing it. A grieving dad who, after the freak accidental death of his teenaged son, is set to carry his memory all the way to the White House.

On the national stage, anyone campaigning openly right now can expect to meet an audience of empty chairs and chirping crickets. The average voter won’t be watching until early 2003, and then only reluctantly and sporadically. But by that time, Edwards will need to have proved that the party’s angels are on his side. “John has to literally go and see every big donor around the country: every Clinton donor, every Bradley donor, every Gore donor,” says Ed Rendell, the party’s former chairman, still weary himself of “the brutal physical demands of all that travel.” If Edwards merely wants to be plausible as a candidate, Rendell gives him until July 2002 to meet face-to-face with about 1,000 key people, “all the while making that pitch over and over again, the same one, about why John Edwards is the one.”

“He has about a year to meet 1,000 key people, says Ed Rendell, “all the while making that same pitch over and over, about why John Edwards is the one.”

Everyone in the party’s entire top tier is – officially – still a Gore backer. To undermine the beleaguered ex-nominee (in an open way) would be seen as disloyal. Party chairman Terry McAuliffe is on record as being no exception, though McAuliffe, long the bag man for both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political campaigns, was on the receiving end of Gore loyalists’ protests that he wasn’t doing enough for the nominee last year. This year, he seems very well positioned to be the party’s kingmaker.

When asked back in January for signs that Edwards is running, a McAuliffe intimate said this: “Here’s one. He had dinner with the chairman last night. And Edwards initiated the meeting.” Soon after, the party gave him a role that sits him down periodically with the moneyed faithful: He’s responsible for those at a “donor level” of $50,000 in annual individual gifts; Teddy Kennedy sits with those who give $100,000 or more each year. Weeks later, Edwards went to Chicago for a fund-raising event, corralling donors for his own 2004 Senate re-election. He coupled that meeting with a quick stop at the Drake University Law School in Des Moines, issuing a pre-trip non-denial denial to a breakfast club of D.C. columnists and bureau chiefs, who homed in on the Iowa visit as a sign that he’s starting to run: “I heard the weather was really good there,” Edwards said with a “Who, me?,” arched-eyebrow expression.

Word gets around: Time magazine hails him in a sidebar titled the democrats’ new golden boy. The New Republic trails him around his home state. The Des Moines Register notes his y’alls as echoes of Carter and Clinton in their early arrivals. Tim Russert hosts him twice in three weeks. People magazine shoots four hours’ worth of photos for his designation as Sexiest Politician. There are potshots, too. Frank Rich compares him and Indiana senator Evan Bayh to “mid-market anchormen.” William Safire’s list of 2001 predictions forecasts Edwards as the party leader by year’s end. Depending on your perspective, this nod from the conservative columnist could be seen as high-level praise or mischief.

Now he’s made his second trip to Manhattan in ten days. He’s not entirely familiar with the city; in the past, he had come here for depositions and for family visits with Jay Anania, his avant-garde-filmmaker brother-in-law. (“He lives in SoHo,” a locale that showcases Edwards’s languid o’s.) Earlier, he was the guest of honor at a Democratic National Committee event at the home of Maureen White, the new finance chair of the party (a post previously held by Beth Dozoretz, the controversial Bill Clinton-Denise Rich go-between). With her financier husband, Steven Rattner, White brought him in touch with about 40 donors who didn’t write checks to attend but have given at the donor level, earning them entrée to Edwards – and vice versa.

At the couple’s Upper East Side apartment, Edwards mingled during the cocktail hour. As everyone was seated, White turned the room’s attention to him for ten minutes of remarks. He invited the crowd’s questions for twenty more minutes. White circulated him in and out of the tables for the rest of the evening. “Senator Edwards was very positively received,” the hostess recalls.

Monday’s dinner was to have been another such evening, this one planned by the investment manager Orin Kramer, the chief fund-raiser for New Jersey senator Jon Corzine. Sworn in this past January, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive has an eye for political talent and a list of wealthy friends that any prospective candidate would want access to. Kramer served in the Carter White House and has raised money for a Democratic candidate in every presidential race since. Kramer had arranged a meal with twenty friends who he thinks should meet Edwards. They include Gristede’s chief John Catsimatidis, Goldman Sachs executive Daniel Neidich, developer David Steiner, investment banker Woody Young, Martha Stewart’s business partner Sharon Patrick, and psychologist Gail Furman.

“We’re doing this for other senators as well,” Kramer said. But talk to any of Kramer’s close associates, and they will speak of his particular interest in getting influential people to know Edwards.

Bob Kerrey, the former senator and close Edwards confidant – one who can warn him of the dark side of the media’s attention – knows that the spoils will go to the candidate who, four years out, can sound like a winner. “There are two sources of money in the world. You picture them as bags of money,” says Kerrey. “The first bag is filled by people saying, ‘You know, I met Candidate X and I like him.’ ” He measures that as a pretty small bag. “The other would contain coins from people saying, ‘I met Candidate X and I think he’s going to be president.’ ” Says Kerrey: “That’s a biiiig bag.”

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.”

While he easily made powerful Democratic allies, Edwards sees another side of a man whom many in his party see only one way: Senator Jesse Helms. Their relationship had begun back when the junior senator was merely a grieving constituent. “Senator Helms called us, wrote us a wonderful letter, gave a speech about Wade on the floor of the Senate – Wade, my son. And you just don’t forget things like that,” Edwards says. “There are lots of things that Senator Helms and I have disagreed about since I’ve been here. But things like that just stay with you.”

“Bring us the ambulance chaser!” Ari Fleischer said on the Bush-campaign plane last August, rubbing his hands together.

John Edwards’s life was in turnaround. In April 2000, he had received word that Warren Christopher wanted to talk to him about the possibility of joining Gore’s ticket. Edwards submitted files about his finances and his professional history. Vetters pored over his caseload. Christopher, Gore’s self-proclaimed “Yoda,” set up a July meeting at the vice-president’s mansion, and Edwards and Gore hit it off. Robbins was a good deal like Carthage, the hometown that looms large in Gore’s personal landscape. The two southern drawlers spoke the same language.

By August, the vice-president was eager to flatten Bush’s bounce in the polls after the GOP convention, so he ordered his aides to announce his whittled-down list. Edwards, Joseph Lieberman, and four others: Senators Evan Bayh and John Kerry; Congressman Richard Gephardt; Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Later, he added mention of a mystery “wild card” candidate, believed to have been outgoing senator Bob Kerrey.

Edwards was told it was down to him and one other. Gore-campaign chairman Bill Daley was demanding more data from him, including information to set up rallies in Robbins and in his wife’s hometown. The senator and his entire network of friends, colleagues, and clients submitted to interviews for preliminary profiles, packages that could quickly be dropped in the next week’s newspapers. A half-dozen TV crews camped outside the Edwards homes on Embassy Row (where he shares a backyard with Vernon Jordan) and in Raleigh. Reporters followed him to church.

“People know intuitively whether you’re listening to them, whether you think you’re better than them or smarter than them.”

The phone rang on Saturday, August 5. Daley again, wanting Edwards to show up for a final Q&A across town in Daley’s Pennsylvania Avenue condo. “I’ll send a car over,” the chairman offered. No go, Edwards said – the reporters would get whipped into a frenzy. So Edwards devised an ordinary trip to his Senate office, trotting off to his dusty black Buick with Diet Coke cans and toddler juice cups rolling around, leading a convoy of reporters’ SUVs to Capitol Hill. He left them behind at the ramped entrance to the underground senatorial parking garage. Inside, he parked his car and climbed into the passenger seat of a staff member’s car. With his press secretary at the wheel, the senator left the lot undetected.

After his Daley meeting, Edwards went home with a vague you’ll-know-when-you-know forecast and endured 36 hours of eerie silence. The Gores kept their own counsel until inviting aides in late Sunday night. Bob Shrum, the campaign consultant who worked for Gore, Edwards, and John Kerry, made his case for Edwards as a fresh face, but it was futile: The family had their hearts set on their old friends, the Liebermans.

Lieberman had many qualities the Gores were ready for: pioneer status as a Jewish-American politician; a commitment to Orthodoxy that delighted religious fundamentalists; a legislative record as a values-minded, pro-defense moderate; an on-the-record disdain for the sins of Clinton. Edwards lacked each of these, most woefully the record of accomplishments. Daley had let Edwards know the trial-lawyer stigma was not a concern. The lack of experience would be at most a two-week wound to the campaign; he would simply need time to show his face and let Americans hear his voice. Word leaked that Warren Christopher believed Edwards would be president one day, and his charisma might draw attention to Gore’s deficiencies in that department. Tipper Gore reportedly had another anxiety: She was worried about whether Elizabeth Edwards knew what she was getting into. After all, she had given birth only ten weeks earlier.

The next morning, Edwards found out about the selection the same way Lieberman did – by watching Claire Shipman on NBC’s Today show. In a way, Edwards’s life quickly returned to normal. In another way, it will never be the same again.

Will John Edwards grow on us? Or shrink on us?

If you’re a Democrat wanting to win the White House, you run in three races. First, you run to be the top money-getter in New York and Los Angeles. Second, you run for the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Third, you woo about 30,000 New Hampshire Democrats. Then you’re running for president. But only in about eighteen states.

For Edwards, the coming months will bring those challenges, plus the more deeply personal kind of obstacles that every candidate must overcome.

First, there’s the burden of his success. George W. Bush may have sold many a Texas dry well to Ohio-based investors, but this was seen as trying to make something out of nothing, and the business community’s backing helped to cover his tracks as a poor prospector. Edwards, a real Horatio Alger risk-taker, will be begrudged his winnings. Even Gore, after choosing Lieberman, told his staff back in August: “I think for $6 million, a lot of people could be a good politician.” Gore’s staff leaked it and later claimed Gore was upset to read it in print. One senator, with Edwards’s interests in mind, saw it as a till-we-meet-again potshot.

And then there’s the ambulance-chaser moniker; his success as a plaintiff’s attorney will seem to some like making money out of misery. “I’m proud of what I’ve spent my life doing,” Edwards insists. “I’ve basically spent it fighting for children and families against some very powerful opponents. I didn’t take cases that I didn’t think were very strong on the merits. And we investigated every case before we decided to take it, which is unusual.”

Edwards and his family will also have to get used to public scrutiny; the death of their son is a personal story Edwards is at pains not to exploit. Still, he seems increasingly aware that it draws people in, brings strangers to tears. In many ways, talking about it – a balm for the traumatized – may be a necessity for the candidate. “To date, the only safe territory for him has been to not discuss it,” says a confidant. Not long ago, at an address to an Ashville-high-school student body, Edwards halted mid-remarks, and a long and uncomfortable silence ensued before he had collected himself enough to continue. A face in the crowd had reminded him of Wade.

For his family, the public scrutiny will be just as hard. His wife, for instance, will likely have to endure questions, like Tipper Gore before her, about her struggles with her emotions and her weight, about her decision to have two more children so late in life.

You can only confront these hurdles with confidence, which Edwards amply has.

“People know – this includes voters, it includes people sitting on juries, it includes the people who serve in the Congress – they know intuitively whether you’re treating them with respect or not, whether you’re listening to them, whether you’re being condescending, whether you think you’re better than them or smarter than them,” he says, attempting an eye lock. “Nobody in America needs anybody to tell them that. They know it. And they have – when people treat them that way – they have the right response, which is not to pay attention to them.”

Getting attention but not too much attention is Edwards’s current quest. He doesn’t want to pique rivals, many of whom sit in the Senate cloakroom with him every day and can array forces against his ascent. Or Gore, for that matter, who has extremely personal files on all last year’s veep prospects. In the meantime, he has to continue to work his way up the Senate ladder – in addition to being tapped by McCain and Ted Kennedy to help out on the patients’ bill of rights, he’s a new pick for the Senate Intelligence panel. Hillary Rodham Clinton sits beside him on the Health and Education committee, and her first floor speech was on his pet issue, the patients’ bill of rights.

Edwards doesn’t want to quarrel with Bush (or Cheney or White House strategist Karl Rove), but it may be too late. He appears to be the only senator to have a prospective federal judge from his home state nominated over his objections. Mentors had publicly warned Bush not to pick a fight over the courts, but the temptation to stymie his potential 2004 rival might have been too difficult for Bush to resist.

Nor can Edwards afford to alienate North Carolina voters so early in his relationship with them. In that regard, there’s a trap being set for him. GOP state legislators have a bill on a fast track to keep any Tarheel senator (really, it’s aimed at him) from running for Senate re-election and higher office simultaneously – a feat Lieberman mastered last year.

Despite the 44-month stretch until someone takes the oath of office again, many political insiders are already revealing their designs for Edwards. Their phone calls and invitations and solicitations can clear an early path for Edwards in the same way that the Bush family Christmas-card list did for George W. Many Democrats clearly see all sorts of assets Edwards can contribute to their quest to be the dominant party again. He has what they want. But he hasn’t yet decided: Does he want what they can give him?

Starting Gun