FAST RISE: EDWARDS’ STORY, STYLE FIT THE TIMES

WINSTON-SALEM JOURNAL

Sunday, June 23, 2002
The case reads like so many of the others that gave John Edwards fame, fortune and a political future.

Two women were driving home from Myrtle Beach after a vacation in 1990. They were headed north on U.S. 1, through Richmond County. A tractor-trailer was headed south. Just as the two vehicles passed, one of the truck’s brake drums exploded. Metal pieces crashed through the car windshield, hitting Delores Everett. She was killed instantly. She had just turned 60.
Frances Mack, in the passenger’s seat, survived. Her children, in cars just ahead and just behind, witnessed the accident, too.

Three years later there was a trial in Forsyth Superior Court. The jury awarded Everett’s family $482,300 and Mack $86,800 for emotional suffering.

Edwards has won bigger awards – the largest, $25 million, for the family of a little girl who was injured by an uncovered swimming-pool drain. But there’s a common thread: Bill Clinton may have felt your pain, but Edwards makes someone pay.

The pundits are calling him the new populist – a man who can take the drama of a personal-injury trial and make it a political event.

Testing the waters

This weekend Edwards is in New Hampshire, testing the waters for a presidential bid. Next weekend he’s off to St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast, to meet with the Democratic Leadership Council, the group that started Clinton’s ‘92 race.

I wonder if all this seems as surreal to you as it does to me. We haven’t set a primary date for the 2002 Senate race, to fill Sen. Jesse Helms’ seat. The presidential election is two years off, and Edwards hasn’t even been senator for a full four years.

But that doesn’t seem to matter to the king-makers, the political writers and consultants and think-tank gurus who are always looking for a newcomer to build up and cut down.

Edwards’ life story makes for good copy. “If you designed a perfect politician, the result might be John Edwards,” a Vanity Fair piece said this month. Edwards grew up in Robbins, where his father worked in the mills. He went on to N.C. State, which somehow makes him more authentic, at least to The New Yorker, and then to law school and on to a brilliant courtroom career.

‘Made for the times’

“He’s made for the times,” said Ashley Thrift, a local lawyer who is active in Democratic Party circles. “He isn’t burdened by a lot of political decisions of the past.”

Democratic Party insiders have warned him: “Be careful you don’t run so hard nationally you forget about your own state.”

Clearly, he has listened. His press secretary is quick to list all the things Edwards has done in North Carolina this year. He finished his tour of all 100 counties. He went home to Robbins for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and back to North Moore High School for his 30th reunion. He met US Airways workers in Charlotte. He spoke to the state-party convention in Raleigh and celebrated his birthday June 10 here with a fund-raiser – complete with cupcakes – for his 2004 Senate race.

His lawyer buddies aren’t surprised. David Daggett and Mike Lewis called Edwards in as co-counsel when they realized that the brake-drum case was more complicated than the ordinary wrongful-death suit. He worked harder than anyone, they said, and charmed his clients.

“What stood out about him is he was so personable. He took his time,” said Cynthia Mack, Delores Mack’s daughter. “He was almost like a TV attorney, only he was for real.”

These days, it’s hard to tell where the script ends and the substance begins.