When veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum first met John Edwards in 1997, he saw in the accomplished trial lawyer a raw political talent.
“I called my partners and said. ‘I think I just met a future president of the United States,'” Shrum recalls.
A year later, at 45, Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate, launching a trajectory that in 2000 put him on the short list of Al Gore's vice presidential candidates. By 2001, he'd begun planning what would be the first of two presidential campaigns and, in 2004, ran for vice president with John Kerry.
It was as if he were making up for lost time.
“He always was in a hurry,” says political analyst Charlie Cook. “That was sort of the hallmark of his career.”
Edwards' rise was sparked in part by biography.
The self-described “son of a millworker” sought to appeal to middle-class voters through the narrative of his working-class roots and a family bonded by tragedy, including the death of a teenage son and wife Elizabeth's diagnosis of breast cancer.
Edwards' fall, heralded by tabloid headlines and punctuated by Friday's admission of infidelity, was propelled by another narrative.
“I went from being a senator, a young senator, to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure,” he told ABC's “Nightline” on Friday. “All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences.”
The immediate consequences of Edwards' fall will be the loss of a prime-time slot at this month's Democratic convention and, almost certainly, any job in a Barack Obama administration. Some doubt he has a political future at all.
With the exception of Obama, himself a first-term senator, few politicians reach the heights of prominence as fast as Edwards.
“He's Icarus – he flew very close to the sun,” says Shrum, referring to the mythological character who fell to his death on melted wings. “He could have been a force in American politics for a very long time.”
A fresh face
In 1997 Edwards was one of several Democrats considering a challenge to Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. He was a gifted trial lawyer who'd just won North Carolina's largest personal injury verdict: a $25million settlement for a 9-year-old girl injured in a swimming pool accident. But he was new to politics.
Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman and strategist Gary Pearce met Edwards at his Raleigh law office.
“I was blown away,” recalls Hickman. “The fact that he had not spent his life in politics was his greatest asset. People at the time were saying he didn't have enough experience and hadn't been tested. Actually he'd been tested in ways other people had not.”
Spending $6 million of his own money, Edwards campaigned on “mainstream North Carolina” values and ran positive ads.
“(The campaign) was built around his life story,” says Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at UNC Chapel Hill. “He was young, a change agent … a suburban populist.”
With youth and telegenic looks, Edwards offered a sharp contrast to then-70-year-old Faircloth.
“If you're an incumbent, one of your nightmares is a fresh face coming out of the woodwork with the resources to be competitive,” says GOP strategist Carter Wrenn, a one-time strategist to Faircloth and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.
A fast rise
Once elected, it didn't take Edwards long to make his mark. He had a dynamic public speaking style and could connect with voters in a way reminiscent of Bill Clinton. His life story, his centrist message and his youthful good looks propelled him.
He also was buoyed by his wife, Elizabeth, who was smart and plainspoken. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, much of the nation grew as attached to her as to him.
His success and ambition combined with a Democratic Party hungry for new faces. He was a regular on the talk-show circuit, building his name recognition and the party's hopes for a rising star.
Less than a month after taking office, he was named one of three Democrats presiding over depositions in the impeachment trial that followed President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. At the time, Edwards said the president “has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter.”
Debating whether Clinton intended to obstruct justice, Edwards said, “I suspect the first thing he thought about is ‘I'm going to protect myself politically.' He was worried about his family finding out. He was worried about the rest of the staff finding out. He was worried about the press finding out.”
In 2000, Shrum was among those pressing Al Gore to tap Edwards as his running mate. Gore didn't, but Edwards got the bug.
After the election he built his legislative bona-fides, co-sponsoring a major health care bill with Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican John McCain of Arizona. The National Journal said his “consistent moderation placed Edwards among the center-right of Senate Democrats.”
In 2003, he mounted his first campaign for president. A strong showing earned him a spot as Kerry's running mate in 2004.
Shrum, then a Kerry advisor, said in a 2007 book that Kerry had qualms. Edwards, he wrote, told Kerry he was going to confide something he'd never told a soul: that after his son Wade had died, “he climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, laid there and hugged his body, and promised that he'd do all he could to make life better for people, to live up to Wade's ideals of service …
“Kerry was stunned, not moved,” Shrum wrote. “As he told me later, Edwards had recounted the exact story to him, almost in the exact same words, a year or two before – and with the same preface, that he'd never shared the memory with anyone else.”
“I believe he gave into a very human tendency,” Shrum says. “He wanted to be vice president and said what he had to.”
Cause for questions
Critics found other reasons to question Edwards' sincerity.
After the 2004 election, he created a nonprofit whose stated goal was fighting poverty. The Center for Promise and Opportunity raised $1.3 million in 2005. But tax filings showed that much of the money paid Edwards' expenses as he gave speeches around the country, walked picket lines and met with foreign leaders overseas.
He also started a privately funded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill, which gave him another public platform. And the candidate who vowed to make poverty “the cause of my life” was ridiculed for $400 haircuts, a 28,000-square-foot home and his work for a Wall Street hedge fund.
Edwards, who ran as a moderate in 1998 and 2004, veered to the left in his latest White House run. He renounced his 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq and crusaded for a higher minimum wage. After rarely criticizing rivals in a sunny 2004 campaign, he began throwing elbows.
Like his stump speeches, Edwards' career generally played out according to script. “Everything he did,” says Cook, “was planned.”
Now many Democrats are glad Edwards won't be accepting his party's nomination in Denver. “It would be a nightmare,” Shrum says.
Edwards said Friday that he did not intend to talk any more about the allegations. But it may not be so easy for the story to fade. A number of important questions remain unanswered:
Did Edwards know anything about payments made to his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and his former campaign aide Andrew Young, who claimed to be the father of Hunter's baby? Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron said he acted alone when he paid to help the two. Edwards said he knew nothing about any payments, despite close ties between Baron and Edwards.
Why was Edwards visiting Hunter at the Beverly Hilton last month, and why didn't he tell his wife, Elizabeth, that he was going to do so? He told ABC he went to keep the story from going public, but he also said he went only because Hunter's friend Bob McGovern asked Edwards to meet them there.
Who is the father of Hunter's baby? Edwards offered to take a paternity test to prove it's not him. Hunter's lawyer told the Washington Post Saturday that she would not do so.
Who is Young, and how well does Edwards know him? And if he's the father, why isn't his name on the birth certificate?
As for Edwards' political career, the future is unclear. Hickman, Edwards' pollster and friend, says, “The thing that would surprise me is if he doesn't continue to serve in some way. He's been underestimated many times.”
On “Nightline,” interviewer Bob Woodruff asked Edwards if his political career is over.
“I'm not sure I had a political career for the future, anyway,” Edwards replied. “I'm not sure that politics was what I wanted to spend my life doing.
“I don't know what's possible and what's gone. … I don't think anything's ended. I see no end. My Lord and my wife have forgiven me, so I'm going to move on.” Staff writer Mark Johnson contributed.
Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059
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