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The Boyish Wonder
Happy warrior: He was no superstar. But John Edwards's determination and ability to read the defense took him to the top
Edwards family photo
Long Night's Journey Into Day
July 19 issue - In politics, self-made men seem to fall into two categories: sunny and dark. Both Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon began as farm boys, but while Ike radiated corn-fed smiles, Nixon seemed to be constantly brooding over some slight. In the 2004 election, Dick Cheney projects the bleakness of a Wyoming winter, while John Edwards always appears to be strolling in the Carolina sunshine.
Why is Edwards smiling? Not because his life has been easy. As he never tires of telling you, he grew up in a poor mill town, and as he never mentions, he lost his 16-year-old son in a freak car accident. He smiles not just because he is nice (or as he says it, "nah-a-ace") but because he is a flat-out competitor who enjoys winning and almost always does. He is nice, but he is also cagey, relentless and driven. His ambition knows no bounds. He will cheerfully try to help John Kerry win the presidency even as he plans and maneuvers to succeed him.
All his life Edwards has been teased as a pretty boy. Today Republican operatives sneeringly call him "the Breck Girl" for his shiny mop of hair. Edwards's college pals, too, razzed him when he would "kind of fluff his hair up," recalls John Huffman, his suite mate at North Carolina State. Edwards "didn't like to lose, and he'd let you know he was winning," says Huffman. But Edwards is not remembered as the Big Man on Campus. He was not seen as a strutter or a showoff. His charm grew slowly over time, fed by success.
Edwards's teachers, friends and even his own parents do not recall that he was particularly charismatic as a boy. "He just gradually grew on you," recalls Cecil Hackney, the former principal of North Moore High School in Robbins, N.C. "I knew he was a good-looking boy, but he didn't go around like he thought it. He didn't try to be a star. He was a little more normal." His mother, Bobbie, tells NEWSWEEK: "He was just an ordinary kid." But he was obviously bright and (even more important in his working-class town) a very good athlete. His parents could see his determination. "I think he learned early on that if he was determined enough and worked hard enough, he could accomplish anything," says Bobbie.
Brian Strickland / Zuma for Newsweek
The parents: Wallace and Bobbie Edwards
Raised as a God-fearing Baptist, Edwards was taught by his parents to respect others. This was not an idle exhortation. When his friend and football teammate Bobby Caviness lost his parents while he was still in high school, John and his family had Caviness, who is black, over to the house every game day to make sure he had a good meal. "That was unheard of, for a black person to be eating dinner that often at a white person's house in the late '60s and early '70s," says Caviness. In homeroom, Edwards would ask Caviness if he'd done his homework. Edwards would look it over, Caviness warmly recalls, and tell him, "You might take another look at No. 7."
He had all the tools to be great in the courtroom. His memory is prodigious, near photographic, and he is a born storyteller. But his greatest skill may be intuitive, an athlete's instinctive sense of anticipation, honed by practice. He was a football star in high school, not so much because of his physical ability (though he had exceptional hands for catching a football) but because he had an uncanny knack for gauging his opponents. "He'd say, 'If you see No. 48 over there put his hands on his hips, you know they're going to run. If you see he puts his hands on his knees, he's going to pass'," recalls Caviness. In college, Edwards would act as a scout for his old high-school basketball coach before the state tournament. "He was good at reading defenses and offenses, what tendencies they had, if a guard couldn't dribble to his left, what defenses they played, all the information you'd need if you were going to play a team," says Bill Garner, his college roommate.
The more he won, the more confident he got. He was so sublimely sure of his skills that toward the end of his career he stopped taking depositions of some key witnesses before trial. He could accurately anticipate what they were going to say, and he didn't want to tip his hand. "It was very intimidating," says Cooney. In the case that established his reputation, Edwards represented an alcoholic who had suffered brain damage after being overprescribed with the drug Antabuse. The defense offered to settle for $750,000. "Take it," his client, E. G. Sawyer, typed out on a spelling board he used to communicate. Edwards replied that Sawyer deserved more, and "the jury knows it, too." In the end, Edwards won Sawyer a $3.7 million jury verdict. In his most famous case, representing the family of a little girl who had been disemboweled by an open swimming-pool drain, the defense offered $17.5 million. Edwards demurred—and won $25 million. According to the jury foreman, Ben Griffin, "two of the female jurors were in love with Edwards and wanted to give him everything."
Edwards with his late son Wade, less than a year before Wade's death
He began eying a presidential bid within a couple of years of arriving in the U.S. Senate in January 1999. Ed Turlington, an old law-firm colleague of his, recalls Edwards's hinting at a run as early as the spring of 2001. By September he had begun serious discussions of entering the 2004 race. In politics, as in just about everything else, Edwards has "no fear of losing," says Pearce. "He's been through the worst thing that any human being can go through in life." Steve Jarding, who ran Edwards's PAC until 2002, says: "I remember Elizabeth saying, 'When you lose a son, there's nothing else they can throw at you'." So Edwards, 51, is likely to compete for the top job for years to come—smiling nicely, burning to win.
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