Prior to his stunning second—place finish in Iowa, the androgynous good looks of John Edwards appeared to make him a better candidate for drummer of the Beatles than for President. Numerous stories called into question whether people thought he looked too boyish to lead in a post—9/11 world. This all changed after the Iowa caucuses. Suddenly his good looks attracted voters, and the media made nostalgic references to his similarities with Clinton. On the surface, Edwards shares many Clinton—like qualities—he glows with charisma and speaks with a honey—dipped southern accent. He's a self—made man from a working—class southern background. Unfortunately for Edwards, the similarities don't end there.
Multiple stories have begun to call into question his campaign practices, beginning with the unusual secrecy with which he has handled the bundling of his $2000 contributions. It is likely this is done to conceal the large number of contributions coming from trial lawyers, who represent one of the most powerful special interests in American politics.
This is not a new tactic for Edwards. Last May The Hill reported some questionable bundling practices by Edwards related to the current campaign. Campaigns involve complex and large numbers of financial transactions, and it is possible that these are all legitimate transactions. However, more and more evidence reveals a Clintonesque pattern of shady activity.
The Edwards operation in Iowa brought to light methods reminiscent of a Clinton—style campaign. London's Guardian newspaper reported that Howard Dean was irate over some alleged dirty campaigning used by the Edwards campaign in Iowa. According to the article, the Edwards campaign distributed manuals 'that instructed supporters how to attack other candidates during the caucuses.' For example, it instructed followers to label Dean an ``elitist from Park Avenue in New York City.'' Using Clinton—style damage control, Edwards immediately denied knowledge of the manuals and tried to appear to take the moral high ground by prohibiting such things from his campaign.
Matt Drudge recently exposed that the Edwards campaign broke spending limits. According to the report, 'through January 20, 2004...Edwards has spent $950,915 in New Hampshire...which breaks the spending cap by over $220,000.' If true, an official audit conducted by the Feds would take months to complete and would probably not conclude anything until after the campaign was over. Any fines that resulted would be happily paid as a cost of doing business, especially if the campaign were victorious.
In a similar manner Dick Gephardt's campaign routinely broke campaign spending limits in Iowa in 1988. Campaign spending limits were, of course, among the most trivial of the long list of rules broken by Clinton, especially in the 1996 Presidential election.
If the steady stream of campaign pecadillos seem eerily similar to Clinton, the biggest question raised is whether the moral haziness stems from Edwards himself or his staff and advisors. For Clinton, the penchant for dubious practice was rooted in the moral weakness of the man, and was explained away as classic enabler behavior by apologists. Clinton's pathology was memorably traced to his upbringing in a broken southern home by David Maraniss in the book First in His Class.
In Edwards's case, it would appear that his profession as a trial—lawyer may be the root cause. Edwards likes to portray himself as an attorney who fought Erin Brockovich—style for the little guy against the rich and powerful. Just as in the Brockovich cases (see The New Republic 'Toxic' November 24, 2003 — available to subscribers only), however, some questions are beginning to be raised regarding the merits of some of his lawsuits against doctors. Edwards made tens of millions of dollars from malpractice suits, and became known for his emotionally—charged courtroom monologues. The many millions of dollars he extracted from doctors ultimately came from insurance companies, who in turn raised premiums for malpractice insurance, which cost is then ultimately shouldered by everyone in the form of higher health care costs.
The fact that massive lawsuit payouts are inextricably linked to rising health care costs is only beginning to be understood by the media. To their credit, however, reporters are starting to take a look at Edwards' trial—lawyer past. President Bush's upcoming legislation that places limits on how much can be won in lawsuits certainly helps them focus on tort issues. At the most recent debate prior to the Iowa caucuses, Peter Jennings questioned Edwards about his past as a trial lawyer and his thoughts about our litigious society. All Edwards admitted to was the obvious — that some lawsuits are frivolous. His trial—lawyer supporters would accept nothing more.
Trial—lawyers are among the least—respected members of society, so it not surprising that Edwards attempted to put a sunny face on his status as a lawyer by releasing the book Four Trials. The book highlights cases in which Edwards was involved which had some actual merit. Of course, his career consisted of more than just four trials, and there is no doubt that some of them were excluded from the book for reasons beyond the desire for brevity.
The more the media investigates Edwards, the more questions will be raised regarding his moral judgment. I doubt that it will be more than a distraction, but the distraction in itself could be damaging if the derogatory 'trial—lawyer' label is permanently attached to his name. 'Clinton without Monica' is a more favorable label, especially for the Democratic primaries. However, Monica was a symptom of a deeper weakness, a lack of moral grounding, which Edwards more and more appears to share as well. Edwards may in fact be Clinton without Monica, to a larger and more dangerous degree than we understand.
The author graduated from West Point in 2002, and was commissioned as an officer in the Army's Military Intelligence Branch. After being seriously wounded in Baghdad in May of 2003, he was evacuated back to the United States and is currently undergoing physical therapy as part of his recovery. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.