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Will the real John Edwards stand up?

By
September 19, 2007

John Edwards’ presidential campaign is not so much about the “two Americas” as it is about the two John Edwardses.

One image of Edwards is that he’s a champion of the embattled middle class and poor, an up-from-his-bootstraps populist waging war against special interests who favor the rich and established.

The other take: He’s a phony.

Which is it? Is the Democratic presidential candidate a man of the people, as he says, or the fake his rivals call him?

It may be that Edwards is not quite either caricature — that the answer, like much in politics, is less black and white than gray, and discerning voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will give Edwards his ultimate gut check.

“It’s just politics,” Edwards said of the questions about his sincerity. “I know who I am. I know I haven’t changed at all. I’m the same person I’ve always been.”

His rivals are working behind the scenes to exploit the “three Hs” — haircut, house and hedge fund. Edwards’ $1,250 haircuts, his new 28,000-square-foot estate in North Carolina and his consulting work with a hedge fund that caters to the super rich undercut his everyman image.

Some who call Edwards a hypocrite assume that a multimillionaire trial lawyer can’t be an authentic advocate for the poor and working people. That’s nonsense. You don’t need to be blind to help those who can’t see or crippled to aid those who can’t walk, and wealthy families like the Roosevelts and Kennedys had no problem connecting with working-class voters.

But those fabled Democrats never made lame excuses for making money, as Edwards seemed to do when he claimed to take the lucrative hedge fund job because he wanted to learn more about financial markets.

The political opportunism of the Kennedys and Roosevelts — as brazen as it was — seems in the rosy glow of hindsight to be less of an issue than it is with Edwards.

He ran as a moderate Democrat for the Senate in 1998 and the White House in 2004, calling universal health care policies irresponsible and impractical. Now he is more liberal, shifting to the left along with Internet-fed forces within the Democratic Party, and vows to give health care to all.

After the 2004 election, he stashed his political team on the payroll of a nonprofit anti-poverty group that kept alive his public profile.

He demanded that all Democratic candidates return their contributions from Rupert Murdoch and executives at News Corp. in a gambit to portray rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as a creature of the corporate establishment. It turned out that Edwards got $800,000 in a book deal with HarperCollins, a subsidiary of News Corp.

Although he donated his profits to charity, Edwards looked like a hypocrite again.

A political attack doesn’t need to be right to work, which is one reason why he is on the defensive.

“I think any time you’re a strong, passionate voice for real substantive change there are very powerful forces that would love to silence you,” Edwards said in an interview between campaign stops.

The theory goes like this: Edwards is viewed as a threat because he embraces bold changes for foreign policy (withdraw from Iraq), health care (universal coverage), education (college for all), and even for his own party (ban lobbyist donations to Democrats and the party).

These are his solutions for uniting what he calls the two Americas — one for the advantaged and the other for the rest of the people.

Who are these forces trying to silence him?

” … In some cases they’re political and in some cases they’re just entrenched power,” Edwards says.

Do they include your Democratic rivals such as Clinton?

Edwards breaks into laughter. No comment, he says, at least not on the record.

What he does like to talk about is his storybook life, a tough and tragic narrative that rings familiar to many voters.

Edwards, 58, was born in Seneca, S.C., to parents who worked at a textile mill. After spending a summer clearing the mill looms — a dirty, dreary job — Edwards graduated from law school and discovered a talent connecting with juries. Along the way, Edwards overcame the nagging feeling that he was not as smart or sophisticated as the students and lawyers around him.

“It turned out that if you’re willing to work hard enough, you can do OK,” Edwards says, though he adds: “I’m still the same 18-year-old boy who went away to college scared to death.”

Edwards squeezed millions of dollars out of personal injury and medical malpractice cases, representing “the kind of people I grew up with” against corporate interests.

Spending time with Edwards can leave the most cynical person believing that he’s still fighting for those people, driven by the hard knowledge of how short life can be. His son, Wade, was killed in a car accident in 1996 (“I think of him every day.”) and his wife, Elizabeth, has incurable cancer (“There have been two huge events in my life”).

That is one John Edwards.

The question voters need to answer is whether it’s the only one that matters.

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Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years.