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Not all North Carolinians and Southerners, however, were impressed by Edwards’s eagerness to make points at Pickering’s expense. Although every point on which Edwards confronted the judge had a racial connotation, Edwards stressed that his objection to Pickering did not have a racial basis and was “based entirely on his judicial record.” That did not satisfy Edwards’s fellow rich Democratic trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs of Pascagoula, Mississippi, who had vouched for Pickering. Scruggs was appalled when Edwards rejected his advice on the dubious grounds that the distinguished judge lacked a judicial temperament.
A furious Scruggs, a major contributor to Democratic candidates, vowed that he would no longer support Edwards and would urge other trial lawyers to follow his example. That would undermine the Senator’s presidential finance base. A Roll Call analysis earlier this year showed that of $1.4 million in campaign funds he had raised up to that point, 86 percent came from trial lawyers.
Yet, the Scruggs ultimatum was not entirely bad news from the standpoint of Edwards advisers. With national African-American organizations lobbying hard against Pickering, strategists for the Senator thought it would be better to be aligned with black leaders rather than Dickie Scruggs. In fact, the association with trial lawyers has been a mixed bag for Edwards.
BORN TO TWO SOUTH Carolina mill workers, Edwards is the first member of his family to attend college. What propelled him into the top rank of his state’s political leaders was his golden-voiced ability to convince juries to award huge damage settlements, netting a tidy personal fortune (estimated at around $15 million) that set up his run for the Senate in 1998 and helped finance his triumph against better known candidates. Personally contributing $6 million of the $8 million he spent on the Senate election, he achieved his first public office at age 45.
When less than two years later political consultants Bob Shrum and Tad Devine began to press Al Gore to pick Edwards as his running mate, the notion of selecting a rich trial lawyer for vice president appalled conventional thinking in the party. Ed Rendell, then the national party’s general chairman, wondered aloud for anybody to hear: “Are we really going to put on a ticket a guy whose experience is in trying personal injury cases?” The answer from Democratic activists generally was “no.”
In the Senate, Edwards has voted the straight trial lawyer line (as do nearly all his Democratic colleagues, without having made a fortune before the bar). Characteristically, however, he depicts himself as open to reform. “A lot of what you hear people talk about is frivolous litigation, frivolous law suits,” he told me. “You could put me in the camp of people who think that’s a serious issue that the court system and the Congress ought to be willing to address.” But only up to a point. “What I’m not open to,” said Edwards, is the heart of tort reform: placing caps on awards of damages because “that takes power away from a jury and diminishes the rights of either side.” Nevertheless, Edwards’s suggestion of the need for a little tort reform shows that he recognizes the political liabilities inherent in the occupation that has brought him fortune and fame.
About two decades ago, the trial lawyers joined organized labor and minority groups as pillars of the new Democratic coalition (since augmented by the greens). Given this political base, the lawyers lobby has won protection for damage suits that threaten business and enrich a handful of litigators. The issue is presented by the party’s activists — as well as Hollywood’s depictions — as champions of the common man against the corporate monolith. Edwards did so in his skilled campaign for the Senate.
He would face a more difficult task in convincing the American people to put a trial lawyer in the Oval Office.
Gore decided against the risk of a politically inexperienced personal injury lawyer as his running mate, rejecting the advice of his consultants, and opted for an only slightly less unorthodox option in Sen. Joe Lieberman. It was a choice that may well have lost Gore the presidency. Assuming that Edwards would not have cost any state actually carried by Gore, he would have pushed the ticket over the top by just winning one Southern state (such as his own North Carolina). That widely held analysis pushed Edwards into the forefront of speculation for the 2004 presidential nomination.
Such speculation is not the product of an overpowering first term, reminiscent of Robert A. Taft’s or Lyndon B. Johnson’s. Even Jack Kennedy’s modest Senate accomplishments dwarf what Edwards has done. Edwards takes the Senate floor more than rookie Senators once did, but his oratory sounds more like a trial lawyer quietly trying to convince a jury than a full-throated appeal to the masses in the Ted Kennedy style. Behind the scenes, his major effort was a partnership with Republican maverick Sen. John McCain (who has become a close friend) in pressing for the right to sue HMOs.
His political assets transcend his Southern accent. He looks ten years younger than his 49 years and People magazine has designated him America’s “sexiest politician.” If his good looks verge on prettiness, there is an unmistakable sweetness about him — a word never used in connection with Carter or Clinton. The other side of Edwards is the tenacious litigator who battered Charles Pickering. Still, he passes the likability test, flunked by Gore in 2000.
To Democrats looking for a savior, Edwards appears to be Carter without the prevarication and Clinton without the sleaze. He told me he thinks “through the eyes of the people that I think we have to appeal to. You know, the people in our area who live that small town [life] of North Carolina and the people who live like that all over the country. I think they really do want and care about their leaders being good people. You know, they wonder if they’re a father, are they a good father? If they’re a husband, if they’re a good husband. If they’re a person of faith, they should be proud of that — that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
The reference to being a good husband is clearly not Clinton talk, and nobody has ever questioned Edwards’s marital fidelity.
BUT IS EDWARDS READY for prime time? He definitely was not on NBC’s Meet the Press May 5 when he could not cope with moderator Tim Russert, whose straight questions evoked evasive answers. When asked whether he would respond to his own contentions of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by sending more American troops, Edwards replied: “No. What I would do is show leadership.” When asked whether President Bush should negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Edwards replied: “I think that’s a decision he needs to make.”
It got worse when Russert turned to domestic policy. Would he support Kennedy’s proposal to rescind the Bush tax cuts? First he said, “I don’t support that plan,” then equivocated: “Well, at the end of the day, it may be necessary to do something about part of the tax cut, but I think if we do something about part of the tax cut, we need to be very clear about what it’s being used for.”
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