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Edwards's Scissor Hands

A candidate's amazing knife skills.

One of the more intriguing passages in John Edwards's book, Four Trials, comes when Edwards chronicles his first malpractice case. His client, a man named Howard E.G. Sawyer, had fallen into a coma after a doctor prescribed three times the recommended dosage of a common drug. Among the last witnesses called was the doctor himself, whose testimony posed a dilemma. On the one hand, the defendant was hardly an endearing character. Throughout the trial, he had "projected an air of patrician indifference, as if these proceedings were somehow beneath him." On the other hand, the jury was naturally inclined to respect the doctor's authority. "When such a defendant takes the stand ... the worst thing an attorney can do is attack him, lest the jury be moved to sympathize with someone who has, by his own cold demeanor, already made himself unsympathetic," Edwards writes.

Edwards's solution was to ask simple, direct questions and let the doctor do himself in. The defense claimed, for example, that Sawyer had suffered from "acute and chronic alcoholism" when he entered the hospital, and that this, rather than the drug treatment, had triggered his complications. But Edwards noticed that the words "chronic alcoholic" hadn't appeared in the doctor's records until the day Sawyer was released. How did the doctor explain what looked like an after-the-fact rationalization? When the doctor hemmed and hawed and invoked all manner of technical jargon, Edwards knew he was finished. "[F]ew if any among E.G.'s jury had graduated from college," Edwards concludes. "But ... I was sure they could tell that the doctor was not answering the question." Sawyer would win a $3.7 million verdict.

It was hard not to think of this passage on a brisk morning last Friday in Cheraw, South Carolina, as Edwards warmed up a crowd of some 200 locals. A few days earlier, Edwards had led the Democratic field in its first thorough grilling of Hillary Clinton--at one point urging her to shift from general- election mode to "tell-the-truth mode." Now he was eager to revisit the moment. "I want to start by saying a few words about the debate that took place in Philadelphia a couple of days ago," Edwards announced. "You know, I have a really simple rule: When you get asked a yes or no question, you can't answer yes and no. That doesn't work. ... We certainly can't afford to have a Democratic nominee who does that." The crowd chuckled, then nodded along in approval.

Though Edwards was the debate's consensus winner, the distinction had come with a caveat: What if he'd unwittingly turned Clinton into a sympathetic victim? It was a reasonable question, but one that ignored a key biographical detail: Having spent two decades doing rhetorical battle in some of the most hostile courtrooms in North Carolina, with juries ready to punish the slightest hint of overreach, Edwards arguably has a better feel for how voters will react to his words than any candidate in recent memory.

"There are a lot of people that the jury doesn't want to see you pound on," Edwards told me later. "What happens is, psychologically, they'll put themselves in the shoes of the witness. And you don't want them to do that." Then he picked up on the analogy between a trial and a campaign: "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'soffended by that."

The Clinton campaign's favorite defensive tactic is to club would-be attackers over the head with their own words. Each time Barack Obama so much as thinks about pressing Clinton on an inconsistency, some Clinton spokesperson or another will emerge to solemnly eulogize his "politics of hope." For Edwards, the Clinton campaign has taken to reminding voters of the moment, in the run-up to the primaries in 2004, when the senator began sounding hopeful, brotherly themes. The day of the Philadelphia debate, for example, the Clinton campaign posted a video from four years ago in which Edwards tells a group of voters: "If you are looking for the candidate that will do the best job of attacking the other Democrats, I'm not your guy. ... We don't believe in tearing people apart. We believe in bringing people together."

Such footage lends itself to a compelling critique, as does the suggestion (which Hillary's surrogates never fail to tack on) that Edwards has decided to attack now because he's slipping in the polls. But, in many respects, the conflict-averse moderate of 2003 is more at odds with Edwards's biography than the conflict-seeking populist of late 2007. If the candidate's tone these days is heavily inflected with moral outrage, it's a tone he spent 20 years refining as a trial lawyer, when his job was to walk into courtrooms and hold rich, powerful corporations to account for wronging innocent people. "When I hear doublespeak, and know how important it isfor our country to have a president that'll be direct, I mean I respond," Edwards says. "And the fact the people find that surprising? I mean, what do they thinkI spent most of my life doing?"

It's a stance that has defined much of his political career, too. Edwards emphasized his record in the courtroom when he ran for Senate in 1998. Then, when he first began testing the waters for a presidential run in 2002, Edwards set his sights on insurers and the drug-company lobbyists who were forcingseniors to choose between food and medicine. One former aide recalls a meeting around this time between Edwards and two top economic advisers, who urged him to craft his patients' bill of rights measure in a more conciliatory way."Edwards was pretty firm. He hates insurance companies--that was clear from the start," says the aide. Even Edwards's famous "Two Americas" speech from 2004 dripped with moral outrage--only then he directed it at George W. Bush and his efforts to reward the wealthy at the expense of workers.

Watch Edwards interact with voters in more intimate settings and you pick up on other hints of his prior life as a trial lawyer. Later in the day on Friday, more than a dozen reporters and cameramen cram into a small home in the town of Lancaster, where a company called Springs has recently shuttered its mill and laid off hundreds of workers. The house belongs to a black,middle-aged man named Donnie who had been with Springs for 33 years, sending three daughters to college along the way. One by one, Donnie and his former colleagues tell their stories, a litany of mind-boggling digits: 35 years, 43 years, 39 years--the longer they worked at the mill, the more helpless they feel now that their jobs have vanished. Edwards looks on with his face propped on his hand, nodding frequently and occasionally asking questions. I imagine it's a lot like how he looked when deposing a sympathetic witness. At one point, a white woman named Renee says she's been out of work for a year. "I've got a fourteen-year-old and I'm the only income earner," she announces.

"Have you got health insurance, ma'am?" Edwards asks. Between his lithe build and his prom-date looks, Edwards has long had a reputation as a pretty boy. Up close, however, Edwards's face looks weathered, and I notice deep grooves in his forehead.

"Yeah. On me. But I had to get her on Medicaid because I couldn't afford to pay for both of us."

"Yeah, that doesn't surprise me," Edwards says soberly.

If it was Bill Clinton's gift to feel voters' pain, it may be Edwards's gift to articulate their frustration. Once everyone has had a chance to weigh in, Edwards recalls how the mill in his hometown closed down when he was a child. "It's hard to explain to people who haven't been through it," he says to murmurs of agreement. "All of a sudden, you're out of work. And they're telling you, you've got to go to school to learn something else. Well, what about those forty years you spent doing what you were doing? What is that good for?" Later on, someone asks a question about Social Security. Edwards's response: "This is what you hear from the crowd in Washington. What you hear is, we ought to just raise the retirement age, people are living longer. But, if you're working in a mill for forty-three years or"--he starts pointing around the table to elicit the workers' tenures--"you need to retire when it gets to be retirement age! You know what I'm saying?" They do, if one can judge from the knowing laughter.

The mistake people make when they see this side of John Edwards is to assume that resentment is central to his political persona. In fact, he's a reflexively upbeat and optimistic character. Optimism turns out to be one of the things you learn from achieving terrific success as a trial lawyer at a young age. Think about it this way: You're a no-name lawyer in your twenties or thirties representing no-name clients against pillars of the local business or medical establishment, and yet somehow you routinely manage to rack up multimillion-dollar jury awards. It's not hard to see how a person would come to believe they could win pretty much any fight they picked. One of Edwards's early cases involved an obstetrician so respected it was nearly impossible to find a doctor in North Carolina who would testify against him, and whose hospital loomed so large over the local economy that many on the jury had some connection to it. The same jury subsequently awarded Edwards's client a

$6.5 million judgment. When Edwards says he'll stand up to insurance- companylobbyists and deliver universal health care, he may or may not be right. But it's hard to doubt his conviction that it can be done.

"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," Edwards tells me, going to work on a plate of bacon. We're in the basement of a Columbia hangout called Mac's on Main, just downstairs from where he'd addressed a gathering of local politicos half an hour earlier. "People forget that being positive and optimistic is not inconsistent with being tough."

Ask Edwards's strategists why he's so far labored to make the Democratic contest a three-way race, and they'll cite two reasons: money and the press. To this point, they say, the race has been defined by two celebrity candidates who've raised ungodly amounts of cash, with whom the press has been endlessly preoccupied.

The money problem Edwards believes is surmountable. Beyond optimism per se, Edwards's legal career repeatedly taught him that fair-minded people can be persuaded by a compelling message even when the other side has nearly unlimited resources, as was frequently the case with the companies he sued.

As for the press, well, that's another story. "The difference between a jury and politics is that the jury is a verycontrolled environment. ... Equal access to the jury--that's a battle I win," he says. "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." Then he breaks into a smile: "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."