The Magazine

The Man from Seneca

From the February 2, 2004 issue: John Edwards, not just another pretty face.

Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Greenville, South Carolina

LIKE A FEW OTHER excessively nice-looking human beings, John Edwards is a victim of reverse lookism. Common experience, lately reinforced by the most rigorous scientific research, demonstrates lookism's effects: Ugly people never catch a break, while the well-configured among us always receive favored treatment. In the past, Edwards has undoubtedly been lookism's beneficiary. Having no political connections or experience to speak of, he would never have been elected senator from North Carolina, nor been fingered early on as a presidential prospect by the national press corps, if he had had the face, for example, of Dennis Kucinich, who, as a presidential prospect, has been fingered only by himself.

But now it is John Edwards who can't catch a break. His looks have become a curse. People who would never dream of using a racial epithet or adverting to a stranger's unwieldy nose or sloping chin think nothing of cruelly comparing Edwards to the Breck Shampoo girl or the cuter half of the Olsen twins. No one has yet compared him to a polo player from a Ralph Lauren ad or to a young John Derek, husband of Bo, or to Timmy in "Lassie," or to the TV personality Lyle Waggoner, Playgirl magazine's first centerfold in the 1970s, but I'm waiting.

In person, as on television, Edwards can't escape the sense of weightlessness his good looks impart. A major task of his campaign, therefore, has been a search for ballast. First he tried seriousness. Edwards the candidate amassed mountains of detailed policy papers, with specific proposals for education funding, health care reform, a crackdown on predatory lenders, among much else, until he realized that people who follow presidential campaigns find policy boring. Then he took on the prettiness issue directly. Though he doesn't look a day over 13, Edwards turned 50 last summer, and his campaign staff heralded the event with a blizzard of press releases and a week's worth of camera-ready events that stressed how the advancing years had pushed the candidate deep into maturity, indeed just to the edge of decrepitude. He remains a very young-looking 50, however.

His stump speech in the campaign's early days showed the same strained tendency to overcompensate for his looks. If President Bush, he would say too loudly, dared to challenge Edwards's professional history--Edwards became extremely rich in 20 years as a tort lawyer--"then, Mr. President, I have three words for you: Bring . . . it . . . on." On always came out as own. (The candidate has since abandoned the phrase, leaving it to be picked up, with similarly clownish effect, by John Kerry and President Bush himself.) "I believe that in America," Edwards would continue, referring to his father's labors in Carolina textile mills, "the son of a millworker can go toe-to-toe with the son of a president."

The prize-fighter belligerency has lately given way to the "positive, uplifting message of hope and opportunity" that so charmed the caucus-goers of Iowa. But the search for ballast goes on. The toe-to-toe line is emblazoned on a hand-painted sign that hangs in Edwards's headquarters here in South Carolina, to which the surviving Democratic candidates will turn once New Hampshire asserts itself and where, Edwards hopes, his own life story--native of the South, horny-handed son of toil--will be enough to lift him to victory. Political commentators have issued a bull decreeing that Edwards must win the primary here if he is to continue his campaign.

Edwards was born here, in a region known, mostly by locals marketing real estate, as the "Golden Corner" of South Carolina. His family left the state when he was 10. The day after his unexpected second-place finish in Iowa his campaign hurriedly scheduled an event in Greenville, not far from the small town of Seneca, where Edwards was born lo those many, many years ago. He flew in from New Hampshire Thursday morning for a rally on Greenville's newly refurbished Main Street, lined with gift stores and cute restaurants amid rows of linden trees, at a sandwich shop called Meador's.

The crowd of a hundred or more, spilling out onto the brick sidewalk, greeted him with volcanic enthusiasm. With the sound system cranking out the campaign's theme song, John Mellencamp's "Small Town," he was introduced as "our homeboy." He took his place before a sign reading "Welcome Home." "I'm so glad to be back in the place of my birth," he said, in case anyone had missed the point. He delivered his stump speech, in its new hope 'n' opportunity edition, with remarkable fluency. Edwards honed his professional skills manipulating the emotions of hillfolk jurors for hour upon billable hour, as they struggled to stay awake in courtrooms across the South. By a happy coincidence, these are precisely the skills called forth by a political campaign.

Like Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Bill Clinton in 1992--indeed, like any credible populist running for political office--Edwards has mastered the trick of eliding from mournful pessimism to giddy uplift in the wink of an eye: America, the greatest country in the history of humankind, is a sewer running straight to hell, and our most glorious days lie just ahead. In fact, he says, there are two Americas. The first America is "one for the privileged and the powerful, who get everything they need." The second America is "one for the rest of us, who have to struggle for everything we get." It would be farfetched for Edwards to cast himself as a current resident of the second America, of course, what with him being worth $70 million and all, except that nobody can deny he used to live there. These days the campaign's search for ballast has settled on John Edwards's personal story, suitably packaged and mythologized.

Exhibit A is Seneca. "When I saw Seneca, and when I saw that house his family lived in, that's when I 'got it' about John Edwards," said John Moylan, Edwards's South Carolina campaign chairman. "That house tells you a lot."

Seneca lies southwest of Greenville, 40 miles down the Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Highway. Edwards has been back to Seneca three times in the last six months, once for yet another celebration during his extended birthday festival, where reporters and camera crews recorded his every step, and twice to film commercials at the little house his parents lived in when he was born. Seneca back then was a mill town; the last mill closed a few years ago. The population hovers around 8,000. The town's motto is "City of Smiles, City with Style," which, you'll notice, is two mottos. In the last 30 years power dams have swelled the surrounding rivers into manmade lakes that have drawn well-off retirees from the first America, and their wealth has managed to lift Seneca, for the most part, out of the second America. The old downtown is marked by signs of both: the Seneca Gospel Supply Store is just around the corner from Purple Sunflower Antiques & Co.

Seneca has recently become conscious of its role in history as the birthplace of the man who finished second in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. "We can look longingly into the future and into the history books," said an editorial in the Seneca Daily Messenger last week. "So don't be surprised if you bump into a network news crew looking for someone to interview."

Charles Hamby is just now starting to get used to visits from inquiring reporters. Hamby works as chairman of the Democratic party in Oconee County, having retired a few years ago from a career selling cars and promoting bluegrass shows. "Ralph Stanley made me an honorary Clinch Mountain Boy," he said proudly the other day, sitting in the tumbledown house in Seneca that serves as Democratic headquarters. "I'm only the eighth person he's done that for, you know. The seventh was Porter Wagoner."

Like the rest of South Carolina, Oconee county was once thoroughly Democratic and is now thoroughly Republican. "They built a bunch of expensive houses along the lakes, and that brought in all these Republicans," Hamby said glumly. "Other people up here just became Republican to go with the flow, you might say. The whole county council is Republican. The sheriff, he was a Democrat, but he switched on us. So did the coroner. The state senator. The county supervisor . . ." His voice trailed off, then brightened. "But with John Edwards, this is going to become a two-party county again. We're on the march!"

Though Hamby remains officially neutral in the race, his wife is chairman of Edwards's campaign in the county, and her co-chair was Hamby's predecessor as party chairman.

"Having John here for his birthday really energized people," Hamby said. "We had more than 500 people, lots and lots of press. I met Candy Crowley."

Hamby holds fast to the view that Edwards's childhood in Seneca has made him the man he is, lent heft to his understanding of how the world works. "John knows the basic facts of people," he said. "People who was born poor and raised poor are like that. John carries that around with him."

WHEN I ASKED ABOUT the house in the commercials, Hamby offered to drive me out there in his pickup. It sits on the southside of town, in a rough neighborhood. We drove past the shuttered mill where Edwards's father was working when his son was born. Cyclone fencing surrounds the grounds, and just beyond is the "mill village": acres of two- and three-room houses with flatboard siding and tin roofs built by the company for its workers.

"Life was hard then," Hamby said. "Work was hard. Money was hard."

I recognized the house right away. It sits on a rise above an open field and is the only pink house in the neighborhood. In one of his commercials, Edwards stands in front of the house and says: "I'm John Edwards. I was born 50 years ago, and this is my first home. The people I grew up with weren't famous and they sure weren't rich..."

The house is boarded up, and piles of lumber lie in rows on the tiny front porch. As I walked around it, a woman next door came out and asked me what I wanted.

"It's all right, Linda," Hamby said. "He's with me."

The old Edwards house has been owned by the family of Linda's husband, Broadus Thomas, since 1939. The Thomases are white, though the neighborhood is mostly black. Seeing Hamby, Linda invited us back to her own house, where Broadus joined us at the kitchen table. The house was neat as a pin.

"The Edwards only lived there a year," Broadus said, jerking his thumb toward the Edwards's house. He's a small, barrel-chested man, with a close-trimmed mustache and a vaguely put-upon manner. "He was only one years old when his momma and daddy moved away. I was in the service at the time, in nineteen hundred and fifty-three, so I never knew them at the time. But I know their people. They're a good family, real down-to-earth."

I asked where the Edwardses moved to after they left the house on Sirrine Street.

"They moved up to a nice house up by the hospital," Linda said.

"Course, when they want to film a commercial," Broadus said, "they don't use that house on the northside of town, even though that's the place they lived most. They use that junk house out yonder--that's what I call it, my junk house. Put junk in it. But see, they want to make ole John out to be Abraham Lincoln."

I said the neighborhood seemed quiet.

"That's because we bought up all the houses," Broadus said. "The junk house, and the four here on the other side. We don't rent 'em. Keep 'em empty. I don't like neighbors."

The Thomases said they've come to know Edwards in the last six months.

"He's just so down-to-earth," said Linda.

"I like ole John," said Broadus, "but Charlie, you got to get him to change that platform of his." Suddenly excited, he leaned toward Hamby. "That ole boy's got no business taking my guns away, you tell him. That's just not right. You start taking guns away from people, Charlie, and you're going to have a police state."

Hamby mumbled something, but Broadus went on. "And another thing. He's got no business coming into this state, this state he was born in, and start talking about banning that Confederate flag. Why's he want to do that? Maybe that's going to help him get all the votes of those negroes, but he's got no business talking like that down here."

Hamby said he didn't much care about the flag.

"And you tell him about this immigration. Well, that's got to stop. Got to. It's just a fact that we can't take every poor sucker in the world into our country. You take him out to the Wal-Mart. It's all Mexicans out there . . ."

Mrs. Thomas interrupted suddenly. "They've filmed, what, two, three commercials out here now. They show up, 12 or 13 cars and a big truck just filled with lighting equipment. It's a sight. The first time they came, we'd just got back from church and I didn't even have time to make dinner."

Stopped in mid-tirade, Broadus sat perfectly still.

"John sat right here at this table and had his make-up done," Mrs. Thomas said. "The make-up lady pulled up all the blinds, had to get the light just right. I stood here watching. I said to John, 'John, you know what?' He said, 'What, Miz Thomas?' I said, 'You're just too pretty to be a man.'"

Hamby chuckled. Broadus peered out the window, his eyes narrow.

"Oh, and he just laughed and laughed," Mrs. Thomas said. "I'll tell you what. He's the handsomest thing ever came out of Seneca, that's for sure."

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.