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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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."