WASHINGTON — As chemicals coursed through his wife’s body, attacking her tumors and plunging her into sleep, John Edwards sat bedside in a drab Georgetown hospital room and planned his future as president of the United States.
Edwards was a year past falling, by his rendering, a few cold Iowa days short of the Democratic presidential nomination. He was months past missing the vice-presidency by a state. Cancer had stricken his wife, a hospital was his new haunt, and sometimes, in calls to a friend, he lamented that so many patients spent their days so alone.
Every two weeks from November 2004 to February 2005, Edwards kept a chemotherapy vigil that stretched from morning to late afternoon. His wife says his job was to be there when she woke. He says her slumbering hours gave him what a frantic national campaign had not: “a lot of time to reflect on what I wanted to do as president.”
Two years and a cancer remission later, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina flew to New Orleans to announce another run for the White House. The man America met as a Southern-twanged, hope-is-on-the-way, sunny son of a mill worker emerged in the Lower Ninth Ward grimmer, better traveled and quicker to attack, his policies more ambitious, detailed and liberal. The tone and manner were as if Edwards’ persona had been transformed, or at least as if Edwards listened to different people now. Was that true?
“Yeah,” he says. “I listen to me.”
A ‘NEW’ EDWARDS
A tight clutch of advisers say his 2004 defeats and the years that followed gave Edwards the knowledge and confidence to shed caution in what could be his last run for elective office. “Urgency” is the one-word bumper sticker many of them use to describe Edwards ’08.
Edwards ’04 wanted health care for every child. Now he wants it for every American. Edwards ’04 wanted a $6.65 per hour minimum wage. Now he wants $9.50. Then: Double a tax credit for the poor. Now: Triple it. Then: Get the United Nations involved in Iraq. Now: Bring the troops home.
“He left the 2004 campaign thinking that the ideas needed to be more aggressive,” said Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, who doubles as his closest adviser. “His experience on the road (between campaigns) just confirmed that for him.” Later, she added: “Your first campaign, you really don’t know what you’re going to do. He’s a lot more at ease this time.”
Rivals note that Edwards is also a legendary trial lawyer with a focus-group-honed skill for swaying juries. His political evolution coincides with a leftward drift in the Democratic electorate. Some of his top issues this campaign — including global warming and poverty — hardly show up in his six-year Senate record.
Voters are left to wonder: Is John Edwards finally being himself? Or is he just down to his last closing argument?
Johnny Reid Edwards was born in a South Carolina mill town to Bobbie Edwards and her husband, Wallace, who borrowed $50 to bring his son home from the hospital. He grew up (along with a sister and a brother) in rural Robbins, N.C., worked mill jobs as a teenager and realized that getting ahead meant going to college.
After washing out as a walk-on football player at Clemson University, he earned a textile science degree from North Carolina State University and a law degree from the University of North Carolina, where he met Elizabeth Anania. They married after graduation, worked briefly for large firms in Nashville, then settled in Raleigh, where John Edwards built a fortune as a plaintiff’s attorney with a flair for medical malpractice cases and underdog clients.
He distinguished himself through meticulous preparation — testing arguments in front of mock juries and mastering the intricacies of fetal heart monitors and the engineering of swimming pool drains — and courtroom orations that other lawyers jammed the gallery to watch.
Edwards was considering a jump to the political arena when tragedy struck. In April 1996, his son Wade, 16, was driving a wind-whipped freeway to the family vacation home on the Carolina coast when his Jeep rolled off the road. Wade died before rescuers could reach him. Edwards, Elizabeth and their daughter Cate (now 25) mourned at home for months.
Elizabeth Edwards would eventually undergo fertility treatments and have two more children: Emma Clare, now 9, and Jack, now 7. John Edwards would return to the courtroom to win a $25 million judgment for a family whose daughter was eviscerated by a swimming pool drain. Then, buoyed by that victory and moved to service by his son’s death, he audaciously launched a political career by challenging and beating an incumbent Republican senator, Lauch Faircloth.
EYEING THE PRESIDENCY
In his first presidential campaign, Edwards talked frequently with another Southerner who leveraged his life story, former President Bill Clinton. Like Clinton, Edwards ran as a moderate optimist, and in December 2003 he crystallized the message that would become his personal theme: There are Two Americas — one for the privileged, one for everyone else — and we can bridge that divide.
The Des Moines Register cited Edwards’ story and his message in its surprise endorsement of him in January 2004, writing that “his life has been one of accomplishing the unexpected, amid flashes of brilliance.” The praise helped fuel a late Edwards surge in Iowa; he and his advisers believe he would have beaten Kerry — and rolled to the nomination — if the caucuses were held a few days later. (Kerry advisers disagree.)
Edwards wound up Kerry’s vice presidential pick, in part because campaign aides hoped he could charm voters who were otherwise cool to their Brahmin-like nominee. But November brought a narrow loss in Ohio that sealed President Bush’s re-election — and a breast cancer diagnosis that sent Elizabeth into treatment at Georgetown University Medical Center.
In late 2004, soon after his wife began her 16-week chemotherapy regimen, Edwards invited a small group of advisers to his home to discuss his future. Attendees say one idea seemed to capture his imagination above the others. “He said, ‘I may or may not be president,’” recalled Robert Gordon, a former Edwards aide who now works at the Center for American Progress, “‘but I want to know that I spent this time worthwhile — fighting poverty.’”
Edwards spent the next two years traveling the globe, studying and debating policy. He walked picket lines and helped hurricane survivors. He also nurtured his political network, built a 28,000-square-foot house and padded his resume and bank account.
Each move brought skepticism and scrutiny. When Edwards announced he was establishing a poverty center at the UNC law school, professors including Marion Crane wondered “whether it would be real or a presidential campaign platform.”