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John Edwards: The Interview

The candidate on his moral outrage, memorizing the “Two Americas” speech, and how being a trial attorney informs his political style.

This interview took place on the morning of November 3, in the basement of a Columbia, South Carolina, restaurant called Mac’s on Main. I’d spent the previous day attending Edwards campaign events across the northern part of the state.

TNR: I want to ask you about the poverty center you toured yesterday in Rock Hill. When you see a place like that, and the kinds of conditions people are living under, does it make you outraged? Or does it make you hopeful that people are doing something to change it, that you can help change it?

John Edwards: Both. Because--I think first of all, for most of America that doesn’t think about [poverty] on a daily basis, literally just shining a bright light on it has real value. And second, it is encouraging; there are good people there volunteering, helping. I think they represent a microcosm of American society, because I think most Americans--not everybody, but most Americans--would respond if they knew the need was there.

One of things I think is different about the campaign this time versus ’03-’04, is that there’s this tone of moral outrage in your voice--and I don’t mean anger so much as kind of an appalled tone. When did that come about?

I think some of it is the fact that I’ve been to over 100 places like the one you saw yesterday. The conditions in which people live are outrageous. America can’t stand quietly by and let this continue. So I think it is a huge moral issue, and that’s the reason for that tone that you’re hearing.

This new tone seems to suit you and your background a little better. If you’re a plaintiff’s lawyer, you get up in front of a jury and express moral outrage at something very bad that’s happened to someone you’re representing.

I’ve been fascinated by what I consider the very superficial analysis of, “Well, Edwards, he was hopeful in ’04; he’s not hopeful now.” Well, what I am now is who I am. I spent 20 years in courtrooms. An example I gave yesterday was of the Lakey family I represented. The little girl who was hurt in a swimming pool drain. I told them we could help them, I gave them hope. Then I walked into a courtroom and gave that company hell. And that’s what I’ve done my whole life. For example, what happened in the debate the other night--when I hear doublespeak, and know how important it is for our country to have a president that’ll be direct, I mean, I respond. And the fact the people find that surprising? I mean, what do they think I spent most of my life doing?

Reading your book, it matches up with your voice now. It seems like a direct extension of it.

It is. I am naturally optimistic and hopeful--that’s absolutely accurate. But I’m naturally optimistic and hopeful in a fighter’s body. [Laughs] I’m a fighter. That’s what the book talks about. That’s what people are seeing.

One of things you probably get taught if you’re a successful trial attorney is to have faith in the power of a message to reach ordinary people, because God knows the people you’re taking on have a lot of money ...

They always had more money than we had, that’s right.

So you really do have to rely on message, intelligence, and the good sense of ordinary people who are serving on the jury.

You develop a trust in them, and that trust still exists for me today. The difference between a jury and politics is that the jury is a very controlled environment. ... Equal access to the jury--that’s a battle I win. Politics is different, because the media controls access. And the result is, if every nanosecond they’re talking about Senator Clinton or Senator Obama or another candidate, then it’s hard to be heard. The thing that’s different is the debate. ... If all America knew about the eight of us is what they saw in the debate on Tuesday night, or in the debates in general, you would see very different numbers. Very different numbers.

One of the things I was struck by in your book is the sensitivity you have to how you come off when you grill somebody. In one story, you observe a doctor whom you thought had a “patrician indifference as though he were above the whole trial.” You decide that with a guy like that, you don’t want to attack him, because you’ll make him look sympathetic. And yet you still have to make a tough case against him. You seemed at a young age to be able to strike that balance. Was that intuitive? Did you learn that somewhere along the way?

It’s a little bit of both. There are some very good lawyers whose style is to just pound away. But that’s dangerous as a long-term mechanism. There are a lot of people that the jury doesn’t want to see you pound on. What happens is, psychologically, they’ll put themselves in the shoes of the witness. And you don’t want them to do that. Tough is fine. Juries don’t mind you being tough. Voters don’t mind you being tough. If you’re being factual and you’re giving them information that’s defining their choices, nobody’s offended by that.

In 2004, you had reputation for being very, very disciplined. Reporters would say that, by the end of the cycle, they could give your “Two Americas” speech.

Right, I’ve heard that.

But I think people mistook it for being risk-averse, which I don’t think is the same thing. You’ve actually taken a lot of risks this campaign. Was that willingness to take risks always there, and people just missed it?

Look at my life. The evidence is overwhelming on that. I mean, I decided to go into an area of law when I was in my late 20s, early 30s, that was highly risky. No one remembers this, but in those days, lawyers who did what I did didn’t make any money. They were scraping by, trying to make a living. Now, that changed as I was able to have some good luck. Still, I did this because I loved it. And with the Lakey case, I think I turned down a settlement offer for more than any jury verdict in North Carolina history. It was a huge amount--$17.5 million, I believe--but I thought it was the right thing to do. And then the first time I ever ran for political office, I ran for the United States Senate. And I ran for president having been in politics for four years. I think it’s fairly clear that I’m a risk-taker. [Chuckles]

When you’re in a setting like the debate, for example, or even at a talk before a large audience like the first event you did yesterday, you express this moral outrage we talked about. But one-on-one, you seem more optimistic--the sunniness comes through more directly. Is that conscious?

It’s not conscious. I am naturally sunny and positive, it is who I am. And I’ve believed my whole life, and, except for the death of my son, this has been true, that there’s nothing you can’t get past. You can get past it, you can fix it, you can do better--everything’s possible. But the component that you’ve hit on, that I haven’t heard anyone else hit on, is that people forget that being positive and optimistic is not inconsistent with being tough. Most of my life was not spent in politics. Most of my life was spent in courtrooms against a bunch of lawyers on the other side, with me sitting over here mostly by myself. And I had to defeat these people. They were the best lawyers money could buy. They weren’t a bunch of hacks. They were older, more experienced. The key for me was to be tough and to be the best prepared person in the courtroom.