A dark diagnosis reaffirmed a commitment

Email|Print| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / November 15, 2007

The fifth in a series of occasional articles examining the 2008 candidates for president.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - On the cold Boston afternoon following the 2004 election, vice presidential candidate John Edwards took center stage at Faneuil Hall. With his wife, Elizabeth, by his side, the man who had become the flag-bearer of Democratic optimism spoke of the heartache and disappointment over losing the electoral battle.

Moments later Edwards and his wife rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital, where a new struggle awaited them. They slipped through a back door with a small Secret Service detail and navigated empty hallways to an examining room, where a biopsy confirmed that the lump Elizabeth had felt in her right breast a week earlier was cancerous.

Edwards's life as the fresh face of the Democratic Party, whose relentlessly upbeat campaign had earned him the nickname "Mr. Nice Guy," abruptly ended. The whirlwind of campaign stops and stump speeches yielded to a gantlet of tests and treatment, months of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

The days and months that followed changed John Edwards. He and Elizabeth say the awareness of their mortality made them recommit themselves to helping the downtrodden. Others say that Edwards's personal agony and political disappointment hardened him in other ways, firming up his beliefs but also infusing him with an undercurrent of urgency and, at times, anger.

But few dispute that he became a less sunny version of the man who had told the Democratic Convention just several months earlier: "You can reject the tired, old, hateful, negative politics of the past. And instead you can embrace the politics of hope, the politics of what's possible, because this is America, where everything is possible."

Now, three years later, Edwards, 54, is the attacker in the Democratic primaries - the candidate most unstinting in his opposition to the Bush administration and most willing to turn his fire on rivals from his own party. Hillary Clinton has borne the brunt of Edwards's attacks, which he portrays as a matter of principle - his belief that Clinton is too tolerant of special-interest politics and too accepting of Bush's aggressive posture in the Middle East.

"The system in Washington is rigged, and our government is broken," Edwards said at Dartmouth College in August. "We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other."

Edwards, in an interview, rejected the idea that he is a fundamentally different person in this campaign, insisting he is just more candid and blunt. But sometimes, in his expressions of determination, Edwards can appear to challenge the line between courageous and stubborn.

"Last time, Edwards was charming, he was new, he was articulate," observed Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines. "Now, he is harder and has an angrier edge. The new has worn off Edwards."


In the early days after Elizabeth's cancer diagnosis, while the family took calls from doctors and friends, Edwards would sometimes slip upstairs in their Georgetown townhouse in Washington to call campaign aides and tell them to urge his running mate, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, to contest the election, according to his wife and friends.

But Kerry, believing there were not enough disputed votes in Ohio to change the result and hoping to spare the country the pain of another contested election, decided against a challenge.

It was typical of Edwards to respond to personal grief by taking purposeful action. He first entered politics just a year after the death of his 16-year-old son, Wade, in a Jeep accident in 1996.

He viewed his career as a plaintiff's attorney - winning judgments for injured clients against insurance companies, hospitals, and product manufacturers - as a response to his father's tough life as a worker at a textile mill in Robbins, where employees had little recourse against the whims of management.

He used some of the fortune he had amassed through his legal career to finance a Senate race in 1998 against Republican incumbent Duncan McLauchlin "Lauch" Faircloth, a wealthy hog farmer who had spent parts of four decades in politics. Despite his own personal wealth, Edwards ran as the populist outsider, saying Faircloth cared more about big business than the people of North Carolina.

"We have got to start the process of restoring people's faith, making them believe again that this really is a democracy, and that their voice matters when decisions are being made in Washington," Edwards, then 44, said during his race against Faircloth.

With his emphasis on vindicating blue-collar workers and the poor, Edwards was a political anomaly. He had the kind of rags-to-riches life story that is often celebrated by Republicans, but instead of singing the praises of the free market, he condemned its excesses.

As such, he was always vulnerable to whispers that he was a phony, a lawyer who could move juries with tales of woe while feathering his own sumptuous nest. But Edwards, while giving generously to charity, never felt any contradiction between amassing personal wealth while speaking on behalf of those with nothing.

But by the end of 2004, after the election defeat and Elizabeth's medical crisis, Edwards was at another turning point. And the career choices he would make would set the stage for another presidential run - built around another call to action on behalf of those in poverty - but also for skepticism about his wealthy lifestyle and questions about his sincerity.

"Part of the impact of Elizabeth's cancer and his defeat was a desire to go out and say what he believes and not worry so much about what the polls say and what the politics say and focus on the issues he thinks are important," said Peter Scher, who had managed Edwards's vice presidential campaign. "If doing that means he won't be president, I think he will be at peace with that."


First came months of chemotherapy for Elizabeth, as doctors sought to remove the cancer from her system and prevent a recurrence. Though her initial tumor had been large, doctors were cautiously hopeful that the cancer would not recur.

As Edwards and Elizabeth waited for treatment at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University and Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, other patients approached the couple to express their concerns about the broken healthcare system and their hopes that they could fix it, Elizabeth Edwards said in an interview.

"The obligation of being the person in whose ear someone has whispered with that hope is a pretty overwhelming responsibility," Elizabeth recalled. "Each time you hear it, each story you hear is another brick in the wall that makes it impossible for you not to speak for them or fight for them."

And yet Edwards was out of a job: When he had first decided to run for president, he had passed up the chance to run for reelection to the Senate.

Friends say he didn't miss the laborious process of working within a legislature. He had quickly gotten impatient with the compromises involved in crafting bills amid pressure from lobbyists. Leaving the Senate gave him the space to process the 2004 defeat and help Elizabeth cope with her diagnosis.

David Kirby, Edwards's former law partner, who spent time with the Edwardses during that period, said he saw changes in his old friend.

"By being outside the Washington belt line, and having mortality slap him in the face with his wife's cancer, suddenly you see the bigger issues of life," he said.

While Elizabeth continued her treatments, Edwards gathered trusted advisers and friends in Georgetown to discuss his next move. He could join boards of companies or charities. He could return to his law practice. But he told people that poverty was still the issue that moved him the most, and he began to talk about creating an academic center devoted to finding new ways to end poverty. He wanted to build the center at the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he and Elizabeth had first met.

Soon after Elizabeth's treatments were finished in the spring of 2005, the couple moved back to their home in Raleigh and also rented a house in Chapel Hill, near the campus. There they began overseeing construction of their dream home, a mammoth 28,000-square-foot building on 102 acres, complete with a basketball court, a squash court, a swimming pool, and a stage.

The Edwardses sought comfort in the rituals of everyday life, driving their two young children to school, buying steaks at a local butcher shop, and rooting for the UNC Tar Heels basketball team.

But the new UNC poverty center, which would bring guest lecturers to campus to meet with UNC-Chapel Hill faculty to discuss ways to move people out of poverty and into the middle class, was not universally well received.

The law school had announced the creation of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity in 2005, saying the former vice presidential candidate would serve as director. But some on campus complained that the center was merely a platform for Edwards to launch another presidential campaign.

Marion Crain, who worked as the center's deputy director under Edwards and now serves as the director, said Edwards eventually won over most of the doubters through his commitment and hard work.

She said he helped collect more than $3 million in pledges for funding and used his connections to attract star speakers, including the famed urban sociologist William Julius Wilson , a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program.

In an interview, Wilson praised the Chapel Hill center for focusing more on concrete solutions for poverty rather than explaining its origins, as many academic study centers do.

Edwards worked on campus about once a week, meeting with students and faculty at his spacious office on the ground floor of the law school, overlooking a parking lot and field hockey field. Edwards, who received an annual salary of $40,000 from a university fund financed by private donations, gave lectures for students about once a month and helped organize the center's poverty forums.

In the two years since its inception, the center has spent more than $300,000 hosting programs and conferences, on subjects including employment rights, high-poverty schools, income inequality, and the eroding middle class.

At a recent conference held earlier this month, students, faculty, and guests gathered in a spacious alumni building with cathedral ceilings and wood-paneled walls, with stark black-and-white photographs of people living in poverty hanging in the back of the room. They debated the role of unions and discussed ways to build up the middle class.

Edwards's work with the poor went beyond the campus center. In September 2005, he helped launch the College for Everyone pilot program, assisting graduating seniors at Greene Central High School in rural eastern North Carolina to pay for college. As a requirement for being in the program, students had to work 10 hours a week and remain out of trouble. The fund provided more than 80 scholarships totaling $300,000 for the class of 2006, and more than 60 percent of the senior class applied to college, compared with 50 percent the previous year.

Edwards is no longer actively involved in that program, but on the campaign trail he has proposed that College for Everyone serve as a model for a national initiative.

By the end of 2005 Edwards was traveling the country again, supporting poverty-related causes but also doing some political favors that he could cash in for another presidential run. He spoke on behalf of plans to raise the minimum wage in six states. He crisscrossed the nation to show his support for unions, lifting mattresses with hotel maids in Chicago and meeting with kitchen workers in Los Angeles.

After marching with striking service workers at the University of Miami in April 2006, with Teamsters president James P. Hoffa by his side, Edwards told the employees something he would later repeat dozens of times on the stump about the importance of unions and their fight for a decent wage: "When I hear of a group of courageous workers engaged in a historic struggle, it is important to me to show that I am with them. I am with you in every step of this struggle. . . . No Americans should be working full time and still living in poverty. This struggle is about earning a wage, about having healthcare benefits, about everyone in America, not just a few, having a shot at the American dream."


Yet at the same time, Edwards was also working for an industry that symbolized the overprivileged: a hedge fund, a partnership that specializes in high-return investments for the richest and most exclusive of clients. The firm, Fortress Investment Group LLC, hired Edwards in October 2005, several months after the poverty center opened, to help develop investment opportunities worldwide and offer strategic advice on global economic issues, according to a statement issued by Fortress in October 2005.

Edwards said in an interview that as he explored career options he talked with numerous firms, including Goldman Sachs, and decided to work as a part-time consultant to learn more about capital markets and to make money. Fortress did not return repeated calls for comment.

Edwards also said his role at Fortress was as an adviser, not a decision-maker.

"It was just being a consultant on the phone," he said. "They would call and ask what I saw happening in Washington, sort of macro view of what was happening in Washington with the economy. What I saw happening in the world. Those were the kinds of things we talked about."

He earned nearly $480,000 as a consultant in 2006, and stopped his work there by the end of that year; he still has about $16 million of his reported net worth of $30 million invested in Fortress funds. Employees at the hedge fund have given more than $150,000 in campaign contributions to Edwards, making the partnership one of his largest sources of funds.

After he joined the presidential race, Edwards's involvement with Fortress became a political liability. Fortress had invested a portion of its assets in subprime mortgage lenders who recently began foreclosing on homeowners around the country, including some Hurricane Katrina victims, the poor people Edwards's poverty center was set up to help.

When the Fortress investments were revealed in the Wall Street Journal in August, Edwards responded by divesting his Fortress portfolio of funds tied to subprime mortgages. He also helped the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a nonprofit organization helping low- and moderate-income families, launch a Louisiana Home Rescue Fund. He provided much of the $100,000 in seed money for the program, which gave loans and grants to families whose houses were foreclosed on by lenders, including in some case ones with ties to Fortress.

Still, Edwards sounded defiant when he was asked whether he regrets the work for Fortress.

"I don't apologize," he said. "Nobody ever gave me anything. I worked my rear end off, and I've been able to have some good luck and success in my life. I want everybody in this country to have this chance. I wanted my kids to have a better life. My parents wanted me and my brother and sister to have a better life. There's nothing wrong with that. That's America."


Since announcing his second presidential bid in New Orleans last December, in front of a ramshackle house devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Edwards has campaigned for votes in America's poorest places, including the mining towns of Appalachia and the poor rural backwaters of South Carolina.

He has sought and received the endorsements of unions, including the United Steelworkers, the United Mine Workers of America, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, and the Transport Workers Union of America, together totaling more than 3 million members.

Edwards has vowed to end poverty in the country by 2036 by creating jobs, raising the minimum wage, and strengthening unions, among other initiatives. He has said he would be willing to run a federal deficit to pay for universal healthcare. These views reflect shifts from his more centrist positions during the last presidential race to keep a balanced budget.

Some political analysts have expressed surprise at Edwards's approach, saying his focus on poverty could turn off some voters, giving them the impression that Edwards is a one-note candidate.

"There is a risk of either alienating the middle class or at the very least not reaching the people who are more likely to vote," Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University, said of Edwards's focus on the poor.

In one of several interviews for this story, Edwards said he understands that making poverty a central theme of his campaign is not the most politically expedient move, since poor people tend to vote less than middle class voters. But he argues that it's the mark of a campaign driven more by the candidate's personal conscience than by the advice of his consultants.

During Edwards's first run for the presidency, he closely followed instructions from advisers to deliver clever soundbites for the media, Elizabeth Edwards said in an interview at Edwards's campaign offices in Keene, N.H. He ended up thinking more about how best to work such lines into debates and speeches and less about the content of his message, contributing to the criticism that there was not much substance beyond his witty phrases and relentless optimism, she said.

"This time he made it very clear [to his advisers] not to do that to him," Elizabeth Edwards said. "If he talks about a topic, he says 'I need to know the most recent facts, and I'll figure out how to say it.' This time, most everything he says, he writes."

Drawing on his courtroom skills, he has offered voters simple but powerful narratives that tug at emotions.

One is the story of James Lowe, a poor man from the Appalachian region of Virginia whom Edwards met while on a three-day "poverty tour" of low-income areas in July. Recounting Lowe's story at a later campaign rally in Orange City, Iowa, Edwards's voice rose in anger as he told of a man who lived 50 years without the ability to speak because of a cleft palate, until doctors volunteered to do the simple operation last year, when Lowe was 51 years old.

The effectiveness of this approach has been hard to gauge. As the vice presidential nominee under Kerry, Edwards often ignored advice to be more aggressive in criticizing the Bush administration, Robert Shrum, a political strategist for the 2004 Kerry campaign, said in an interview.

Three years later, Edwards is attacking the Bush Administration and anyone else he feels is too accommodating of its views. Inside his Chapel Hill campaign headquarters, a banner hangs on the wall, proclaiming: "Do not trade our insiders for their insiders."

Shrum says the new Edwards has more of an edge, and as the candidate who is outside the establishment, Edwards has the tactical advantage of being able to lob criticisms of his rivals, who have participated in some of the policy decisions he is attacking.

In recent weeks Edwards has stepped up his direct assaults on Clinton, accusing her of "double-talk" and saying that she is "cozying up" to Republicans when she is off the campaign trail and inside the Beltway.

Other political analysts have suggested that the more aggressive Edwards reflects the increasing influence of Joe Trippi, who managed the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the fiery former governor of Vermont. Edwards, during a drive between campaign stops in Nashua and Merrimack, N.H., disputed that notion.

"I make the decisions in the campaign," he said. "I am the candidate. That's the value of having been through this before. No one tells me what to do. I make the judgments about what to do and how to do it. There's nobody else in this car running for president."

In the front seat, Trippi stared straight ahead.


Just three months into the campaign, Edwards, on the campaign trail in Iowa, canceled a house party and hurried back to Chapel Hill. Elizabeth had felt a pain in her left side, and a scan at the hospital showed that her cancer had returned, and had spread to her bones. It was not curable.

Less than 48 hours after the diagnosis, after calling their daughter Cate at Harvard Law School, and after gathering an emergency meeting of campaign advisers at their home, they held a press conference in the courtyard outside the brick Carolina Inn, a historic hotel in Chapel Hill where the couple held their wedding reception 30 years earlier.

Elizabeth Edwards had been adamant that the only option was to press forward with the campaign. Quitting meant letting the cancer win, according to Edwards's friend Kirby.

"John struggled more with the decision," said Kirby, who spoke with Edwards shortly after the couple received the diagnosis. "But Elizabeth would not want John's legacy to be he left the presidential race because the demon cancer had returned."

Once Edwards announced his intention to continue his bid for the presidency, a firestorm of debate spread across the country over his decision to spend some of Elizabeth's remaining time on the campaign trail, away from their children. The couple repeatedly defended their choice on national television and are homeschooling their young children, 9-year-old Emma Claire and 7-year-old Jack, so that the family could be together.

Elizabeth's cancer has featured prominently in the campaign. At every stop, after he welcomes audiences, John Edwards immediately tells them that he just talked to his wife and she's doing just fine. Often she is standing close by, preparing to take the microphone and answer questions herself.

For the couple, John Edwards's uphill battle for the presidency, and Elizabeth Edwards's fight to stay alive, appear to have become entwined.

"Elizabeth and I decided, in the quiet of a hospital room, after 12 hours of tests and after getting very bad news, what we were going to spend our lives doing, for all those that have no voice," Edwards said in a recent campaign ad. "We're not going to quietly go away. Instead, we're going to go out and fight for what it is we believe in."

Contact Jenn Abelson at

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