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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Edwards pushes self as a populist, tries to counter pretty face image

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

Today The Blade continues a series of profiles of the major candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

John Edwards winces when asked if he s ever had a bad-hair day. Of all the hurdles the senator from North Carolina faces in his struggle for the Democratic nomination for president, it s the inescapable observation that he is “the pretty face” on the roster that seems to hurt most.

But even as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean surged ahead in the polls and gave way to Sen. John Kerry, Mr. Edwards vowed he will not step aside. In September, he announced that he would not seek a second Senate term so he could press forward with his long-shot presidential bid.

Mr. Edwards turned 50 in June, which helps counter the invariable descriptions of him as boyish-looking, but he is still the youngest among the nine Democratic candidates. He also is one of only two Southerners in the race - something he says works in his favor.

He can come in third in the Iowa caucuses, where the other Southerner, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark did not campaign. In New Hampshire, the two tied for third place.Now if he can win the South Carolina primary on Tuesday, he s convinced all America will take a serious look at him.

Mr. Edwards, a highly successful trial lawyer before entering the Senate, admits he uses the same techniques to tweak fellow lawmakers that he honed while talking to juries. He collects a short series of points and then speaks from a few notes. He once wrote, “The struggle to earn and keep credibility begins the first time that the jury sees you, and it does not end until the jury door closes.”

Mr. Edwards, who calls himself a populist, came from perhaps the most improbable background of those seeking the White House. None of his four grandparents finished high school.

His father, Wallace Edwards, a textile worker, moved his family from mill town to mill town around the South. His mother, Bobbie, worked at various jobs - in the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift in a bathing-suit plant, in a post office, and refinishing furniture. When John was a teen, the family moved to the close-knit but sleepy small town of Robbins, N.C.

Inspired by the TV series The Fugitive and Perry Mason, Mr. Edwards, at age 11, wrote an essay on “Why I want to be a lawyer.” In it, he said, “Probably the most important reason I want to be a defense attorney is that I would like to protect innocent people from blind justice the best I can” - not understanding that blind justice is good.

He started out at Clemson, but he wasn t big enough to get a football scholarship that would have allowed him to stay. Instead, he transferred to North Carolina State in Raleigh. He finished in three years while working part-time loading boxes for UPS and painting railroad crossings on highways. In 1974 he entered law school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In 1977, Mr. Edwards passed the North Carolina bar exam and on the same weekend married fellow law student Elizabeth Anania, the daughter of a Navy pilot, who had lived in Japan, Washington, and Florida. He gave her an $11 ring and borrowed $2 for the $22 motel room where they had their one-night honeymoon. She had a one-year clerkship in Virginia Beach while he clerked in Raleigh.

He had his first private practice in Nashville, where their first child, Wade, was born. But Mr. Edwards says Nashville never felt like home and in May, 1981, the family moved to Raleigh.

He got rich trying several hundred personal-injury cases in 20 years. He has just finished renovating an 1820s-era mansion in Washington s Georgetown neighborhood. He also owns a beach house in North Carolina and a home in Raleigh. After Wade died in an auto accident in 1996, Mr. Edwards yielded to a yen for public service and decided to go into politics. He ran for the Senate in 1998, beating Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth with 51 percent of the vote.

In his new book, Four Trials, Mr. Edwards spells out why he thinks his pursuit of justice for the innocent in going after negligent corporations led him to think he d be a good president who would fight for the downtrodden, and incidentally, explaining why he thinks some of the large judgments for victims against companies are justified. Mr. Edwards writes, for example, of his first medical malpractice case: A once cheerful salesman was prescribed hefty doses of Antabuse to combat alcoholism. Instead, the man went into a coma with brain damage and when he woke up, he was a shell. Mr. Edwards helped win him $3.7 million.

Another case he cites involved a 5-year-old child who was partially eviscerated - losing 50 percent of her large intestine and 80 percent of her small intestine - when she got stuck in the drain of a wading pool and her family desperately tried to break the suction. She now must be attached to an intravenous line from 12 to 14 hours a day, with feed tubes thrust into her stomach. The pain remains excruciating and the threat of infection is constant.

While representing that girl, he says, he learned there were other cases of children getting badly injured or killed because the manufacturer simply didn t use screws where it should have. He won a $25 million judgment against the company, which he says in outrage “denied and avoided and obfuscated and covered up” in not doing the right thing.

While the candidates this year are eager to distinguish themselves and make themselves real to the voters, some issues are off limits for all of them. For Mr. Edwards, it s the death of his 16-year-old son. Asked how this has affected him, he politely declines to answer, saying it s a personal family matter.

But in his book, he said Wade was often by his side, once climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with him. Mr. Edwards describes Wade as his best friend, a good writer, a young man who loved the UNC Tar Heels basketball team, who asked his father endless questions about his cases and was relentlessly fastidious. “I spent a fair amount of my time just being amazed by him,” he wrote.

In April, 1996, the family was taking two cars to go on vacation to their beach house on a barrier island near Wilmington, N.C. Wade was driving a black Jeep Grand Cherokee with a friend named Tyler in the passenger seat. Mr. Edwards wrote that he had complete confidence in his son as a careful driver. “I cannot tell you why such care was not enough that afternoon. I can only say that there are fierce crosswinds on certain stretches of that interstate and one of them swept my boy off the road. Tyler walked away. Wade was dead.”

The Edwards family includes daughters Cate and Emma Claire, and son, Jack.

In Wade s memory, the family established a computer learning center and an undulating, tiered bench at their son s high school and endowed a chair at Mr. Edwards law school. On the bench is an inscription from a Latin exam Wade wrote at age 15:

“The modern hero is a person who does something everyone thinks they could do if they were a little stronger, a little faster, a little smarter, or a little more generous. Heroes in ancient times were the link between man and perfect beings, gods. Heroes in modern times are the link between man as he is and man as he could be.”

In person, Mr. Edwards is invariably polite and courtly and can t seem to go more than a few minutes at a time without smiling. He describes himself as an optimist and says that he has learned two major lessons in life: “... there will always be heartache and struggle and that people of strong will can make a difference.” He is running for president, he says, to make a difference in the lives of real people. While many political analysts think that as a relatively young politician he s got plenty of time for other runs, he insists that now is the time. He has learned life is short.



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