The Politician

An Insider's Account of John Edwards's Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down

Andrew Young

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

One
THE SPELLBINDER
That summer, the members of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers went to Myrtle Beach for a meeting where they would network, do business, and attend professional seminars at a beachfront hotel called the Ocean Creek Resort. A palm tree paradise with secluded cottages, hotel towers, pools, and a white-sand beach, the setting was ideal for a working vacation. My job would require putting on a party where the group could meet political candidates and organizing a five-kilometer road race. Otherwise, Cheri and I were free to make the long weekend into a minivacation.
We were dressed in bathing suits and flip-flops when we walked through the hotel lobby and I insisted on stopping in one of the meeting rooms to hear at least the start of a presentation by a Raleigh-based lawyer named John Edwards, who had surprised the state a month before by winning the Democratic Party’s nomination for the United States Senate. (Edwards had spent millions of his own dollars to defeat a big field that included favorite D. G. Martin, who had run for Congress twice before.) It was one o’clock in the afternoon; even if we wasted an hour on this talk, there would be plenty of time for the beach.
In this crowd, Edwards was a superstar. He had amassed a personal fortune in the tens of millions of dollars by suing on behalf of those who had been terribly injured by corporations, hospitals, or individual defendants. By the mid-1990s, he was so highly regarded that other lawyers jammed into courtrooms whenever he made a closing argument. His most famous case involved a little girl who barely survived after being disemboweled by the suction of a pool pump. At the end of the trial, Edwards gave a ninety-minute closing in which he evoked the recent death of his teenage son, Wade, who had been killed in a freak car accident in 1996. His performance won a $25 million verdict for his clients and solidified his legendary stature. But it was just one of more than sixty victories—totaling over $150 million—that he won in roughly a decade. This record helped him become the youngest person ever admitted to the prestigious Inner Circle of Advocates, a group comprising the top trial lawyers in the nation.
All of Edwards’s success had given him the means to do anything he wanted with his life, but he would say that it was his son’s death that pushed him toward politics. By all accounts, sixteen-year-old Wade was a smart, talented, and high-spirited young man who loved the outdoors and music, collected sports cards, and owned a future that was as bright as a star. Three weeks before he died, he had attended a White House ceremony for finalists in an essay contest. The theme for entries had been “What it means to be an American.” Wade wrote about accompanying his father to a fire house to vote.
Wade’s death devastated John and Elizabeth Edwards, who grieve to this day. But as John explained when he ran for office, Wade had often told his father he should consider public ser vice. After a period of mourning, Edwards began to think about his son’s advice. He made his decision to jump into politics after watching the movie The American President, in which a widowed president falls in love with a lobbyist. The movie helped him imagine a life of purpose following a great personal loss.
Wealthy, powerful men don’t think small, so when John made the decision to follow his son’s advice, he focused not on the city council or state legislature, but on the United States Senate. He then hired a staff of more than two dozen workers, bought help from some of the top consultants in the country, and easily captured the 1998 Democratic primary.
Edwards’s talk at the Ocean Creek Resort was a chance for people to hear a potentially powerful new political figure, but less than half the seats were filled when Cheri and I entered the conference room where he was going to speak. We took seats in the back, on the aisle, so we could escape quickly, if necessary. (Cheri, who is apolitical, did not want to be stuck in the middle of the crowd.)
Edwards came into the room from behind us, and as he passed me, on the way to the podium, he put his hand on my left shoulder. For a moment, I thought it was my boss trying to get my attention, but when I turned I saw a young-looking guy in a blue suit, white shirt, and striped tie, grinning as though he were my best friend. He had a head of thick, perfectly combed brown hair, steel blue eyes, and a cleft chin. On his lapel was pinned not the usual enamel American flag most politicians wear, but a pin showing the compass-style symbol of the wilderness program for kids called Outward Bound. It had belonged to Wade.
At age forty-five, John Edwards looked like he was in his mid-thirties and moved with the energy of a college quarterback. He brimmed with confidence, but there was nothing overbearing in the way he presented himself. The way he looked at the people in the room, as if he knew each and every one of them, made it easy to understand why he was successful in the courtroom. Juries gotta love this guy, I thought.
Having been a candidate and politician for less than six months, Edwards didn’t have many policy specifics to offer. But the trial lawyers knew he would be on their side in upcoming battles over so-called tort reform efforts by insurance companies, doctors, and Republicans who wanted to restrict our rights to sue when we are harmed. He was one of them and could be counted on to fight for the preservation of the tort system. With this in mind, they were satisfied with his generalizations about other issues like health care and education and helping out the poor and the middle class.
Having grown up the son of a millworker in the textile company town of Robbins, North Carolina, Edwards spoke about these issues with some personal authority. (“I’m the son of a millworker” was a staple phrase in his speeches.) Robbins neighbored the exclusive Pinehurst Resort area, and the contrast between the two communities—one working-class, the other extremely wealthy—was a stark illustration of what Edwards later called “the two Americas.” During high school, he worked cleaning the soot off of ceilings in the mill. In college, he was a package deliveryman. Burdened with the insecurity of coming from a rural town, he found it difficult to believe in himself; thus, whenever he started at a new job or a new school, he thought he was going to fail. He studied textiles as an undergraduate with the thought of returning to Robbins. He was surprised when he got into law school and surprised again when the most worldly, sophisticated, and beautiful woman in his class, Elizabeth Anania, agreed to marry him.
As someone who had heard preaching and speechifying my whole life, I noticed right away that Edwards had a gift. He didn’t just talk about kids who needed help. He painted a picture of a poor kid without health insurance who goes to a rundown school without books and lives in a violent inner-city neighborhood needing somebody’s help to beat the odds and succeed.
Edwards took control of the room, and people started to come in and fill the empty chairs. Trial lawyers are a tough audience, but he captured them so completely that when he came to the end of his talk and asked everyone to “humor me a minute and close your eyes,” they actually went along with him. (I know, because I sneaked a peek.) As the spellbound crowd grew quiet, Edwards asked us to picture in our minds all the people—children, poor families, millworkers, middle-class parents, older folks, and so forth—who had been left behind in the era of Reaganomics and Wall Street booms, and who deserved better. He then borrowed a quote from Gandhi and told us we could “be the change” that we all hoped would make things better.
“We are a country that speaks out for those without a voice,” he said, “a country that fights for what we believe in. When we stand up for people without health care, for people who live in poverty, when we stand up for veterans, America rises.”
At about this moment, with everyone practically hypnotized by his words, Edwards stopped and asked us to open our eyes and stand. “Come on now,” he said, “just join me.” As the audience complied, Edwards’s voice got a little stronger and he scanned the crowd, trying to catch every eye he could and connect, if just for a second.
“I promise you, if you join me, we will change this country!” he said. “And the folks in Washington and on Wall Street will hear you loud and clear. They will know that their grip on power and money is coming loose. They will know that America is rising. Thank you for standing up.”
The applause that answered Edwards’s speech was loud and sustained. In a room filled with litigators who considered themselves to be highly skilled advocates and public speakers, he had proven himself to be in a league of his own. I was as impressed and inspired as anyone, and I turned to Cheri and said, “This guy is going to be president one day. … I’m going to find a way to work for him.” She looked at me, unimpressed, rolled her eyes, and said, “Let’s go to the beach.”
After the noise died down, a crowd of people gathered around Edwards. Although I would have liked to talk with him, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get close. Cheri and I stuck to our plan, heading for the sand and the ocean. But later in the afternoon, I spotted Edwards as he left the hotel and headed for his car alone. I couldn’t help but notice that it was a beat-up Buick Park Avenue—dark blue, dirty, and dented—and that when he opened the door, an empty Diet Coke can and assorted papers fell out onto the pavement. Edwards chased down the trash and picked it up. The dirty car and the fact that he was so dedicated that he was driving it himself to campaign stops helped convince me that he was entirely sincere. He really did want to make the world a better place, and believed he could. (Much later I would learn that the car was a bit of a ruse. A multimillionaire, Edwards started driving the Buick and put away his BMW and Lexus coupe to effect an “everyman” image.)
Money—for advertising, travel, events, workers, and the like—is the lifeblood of politics at every level, and while John Edwards would pour millions of his own dollars into his first campaign, he also needed donations, which would fill his war chest and show he had serious support. Trial lawyers were a natural target for his fund-raising effort, and soon after Edwards spoke to the trial lawyers academy, I was asked to put together a phone bank operation that would contact our members and raise money to help his campaign.
Although almost everyone hates working the phones to raise campaign money, I don’t. My usual fear of public speaking doesn’t affect me on the phone, and I actually enjoyed the challenge. I would gather a group of six or eight telemarketers and back them up with the candidate and a few of our prominent academy members like Edwards’s law partner, David Kirby, and Wade Byrd, who was a big Edwards supporter from Fayetteville. (A character and a half, Byrd was a profane, boisterous guy who looked a lot like the actor Nick Nolte, roared around in a convertible Jaguar, and enjoyed expensive cigars and The Macallan single-malt Scotch.) The telemarketers would do the work of trying to get folks on the phone, which was roughly a one-in-five proposition. Whenever they got through, they’d pass the call to me, Edwards, or one of the prominent attorneys. It was a bit like fishing. Sometimes the clock would tick for half an hour and you’d get nothing. At other times we’d hit a lucky streak and everyone would get a bite at the same time. I added to the buzz by posting tallies on big sheets of paper stuck up on the wall. This made the whole thing like a game.
The keys to success with a telephone bank include conviction—you absolutely must believe in your candidate—keen listening, and a sense of timing. You aren’t going to raise much money if you spend twenty minutes on the phone with each person, and if you listen carefully, you can tell fairly quickly whether someone is likely to respond. I got pretty good at figuring out when I was wasting my time, and then saying, “Lordy, I’ve got another call coming in. I’ve gotta go.” I also knew how to land a fish when I got him hooked. Once, as I talked to a guy who was offering to give us the maximum donation allowed, I realized he thought he was actually talking to John Edwards, who was sitting next to me. I passed him a note that read, “He thinks he’s talking to you.” When I tried to hand him the phone, Edwards laughed and mouthed, “Keep going.” I did, and the fellow wound up “maxing out,” which meant he sent checks for the maximum amount under his name and his wife’s.
Edwards took a lot of calls during our first phone bank session, which he attended with his chief fund-raiser, Julianna Smoot. A native North Carolinian, thirty-one-year-old Julianna was just beginning to establish herself as a political consultant and finance expert for Democrats. With blue eyes and brown hair streaked with blond, she looked a little like Hillary Clinton and could match her when it came to smarts and intensity. In a business dominated by type A personalities, she was type A+ and an extremely effective and loyal right-hand woman. She helped Edwards home in on the health-care issues—a lot of people were angry with their insurance companies—and pick apart the weaknesses in the positions and campaign of the incumbent, Lauch Faircloth. Edwards was also guided by a first-time campaign manager named Josh Stein. A sincere, talented guy who grew up in Chapel Hill and graduated Harvard Law School, he was the kind of guy you want working for you in politics. Edwards also hired a top consultant/pollster named Harrison Hickman.
The incumbent, Republican Faircloth, was rich like John Edwards, but the similarities ended there. A seventy-year-old who had made his fortune in hog farming, Faircloth was an uninspiring speaker, and he looked terrible on television. After thirty or more years as a Democrat, he had switched to Republican in order to win the support of Jesse Helms. In 1992, he ran a nasty campaign where he used coded racist messages to unseat Terry Sanford. In Washington, Faircloth gained notoriety as a rabid critic of President Bill Clinton. He was obsessed with the Whitewater real-estate deal and Monica Lewinsky. In North Carolina, he failed to respond to constituents with the efficiency that made Helms so popular, and his plodding style was a handicap on the stump.
From the start of the campaign for Senate, Edwards stressed education, health care, and Social Security and was so good at rallies and on television that he excited even lifelong Republicans. (Typical was a “man on the street” named James Walker, who told the Winston-Salem paper he felt as though Edwards was “talking to me” when he appeared on TV.) Edwards spoke about restoring “integrity” in Washington, and his support for the death penalty helped him deal with charges that he was “ultraliberal.” He used his inexperience to claim to be a true outsider who would shake up national politics.
In his campaign, Faircloth had to do without his former guru/consultant Arthur Finkelstein—a slash-and-burn strategist—because Finkelstein had recently been outed as gay, and a superconservative senator couldn’t allow himself to be associated with a homosexual. Nevertheless, he followed the Finkelstein recipe, painting Edwards as an irresponsible ambulance chaser and running incendiary anti-Clinton TV ads attempting to make Edwards guilty by association. Both national parties threw big resources into the race. Clinton campaigned for Edwards. Former president George Herbert Walker Bush and his son, the future president, stumped for Faircloth. The last in de pen dent polls of the campaign gave Faircloth a slight lead, within the margin of error.
Like everyone else volunteering on the campaign, I threw myself into the effort, especially in the final weeks. I made hundreds of phone calls and used every connection I could to drum up donations and votes. Julianna had me put out hundreds of yard signs, including daily replacements of the signs in the Edwardses’ yard, which were shredded nightly by his Republican neighbors.
On election night, Cheri and I went to the ballroom of the North Raleigh Hilton, which was the Democratic Party’s headquarters for the evening. We were settling in for a long night when suddenly the results were announced by CNN at 8:45 P.M., with a graphic that showed Edwards the winner, 51 percent to 47 percent. (A third-party candidate got 2 percent of the vote.) Analysis would later show that Edwards won with a big majority among blacks and women and that he benefited from a national backlash against the Republican moralizers who had hounded President Clinton. (I also believed I saw in this the beginning of the end for the old Republican strategy of exploiting racism for votes.) But at the moment, all anyone knew was that Edwards had been elected. We shouted and hugged and cried as if we were members of a team that had just won the Super Bowl.
During the party that ensued, Wade Byrd brought me up to the Edwards suite in the hotel, where the senatorelect was getting used to the idea that he had won. Earlier in the day, he had refused to believe Harrison Hickman when he predicted a victory. In fact, he was so certain he was going to lose that he prepared only a concession statement and no victory speech. Now he seemed overjoyed as he celebrated with his wife, Elizabeth, teenage daughter, Cate, and infant daughter, Emma Claire, as well as his friends and campaign folks. But while he was the center of attention, Edwards impressed me when he noticed Emma Claire starting to cry and quickly picked her up and found a pacifier to help soothe her.
After a brief chat on the phone with President Clinton, Edwards went downstairs to the ballroom. Backstage, Elizabeth grabbed him and said, “You are a senator now. Act like one. The whole country is about to get their first impression of you.” The place exploded when he appeared, and he had trouble controlling the celebration as he praised his opponent, paid homage to Terry Sanford, who had recently died, and thanked everyone who had helped him. But the lines that struck me in the heart were near the end of the speech. “A very important thing happened today,” he told the happy crowd. “The people of North Carolina voted their hopes, instead of their fears.” To native Tar Heel Democrats like me, long distressed to be represented by a divisive figure like Jesse Helms, this was an amazing outcome.
Excerpted from The Politician by Andrew Young.
Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Young.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.