REPUBLICANS who dream of attacking John Edwards for making his fortune as a trial lawyer should know that his most famous lawsuit--the one he talks about most on the campaign trail--involved a little girl condemned to a lifetime of feeding tubes when she became caught in a powerful drain in a wading pool. Sitting in only a foot of water, the 5-year-old became trapped by a horrendous vacuum when someone accidentally left the cover off the drain. Four adults couldn't pull her off and she lost 80 percent of her intestines. The pool owners quickly settled but the manufacturing company insisted it was without fault.
Diligently pursuing the case, Edwards uncovered a dozen other instances where children and adults had suffered death or injury from the same type of drain. He also found correspondence indicating company officials had known of the problem but brushed it off. "Doesn't he know this kind of thing should never be put in writing?" warned one memo. The jury awarded damages of $25 million.
Not even Republicans would want to be on the wrong side of this issue. Yet the question can also be turned the other way. Does merely being on the right side of such cases and winning millions of dollars for injured plaintiffs qualify you to be president?
Edwards is the first of the new generation of trial lawyers to run for the nation's highest office. He won't be the last. Trial lawyers have now pulled abreast of labor unions as the largest financial contributors to the Democratic party. And the best attorneys have two useful ingredients for the job--personal fortunes and good instincts for reading voters' minds. While Howard Dean whips his followers into a frenzy and John Kerry awes them with his patrician manner, Edwards courts voters the way he would a jury--feeling his way into their thoughts and seeking common ground. "I have run the gamut of human experience in jury selection," writes Edwards in "Four Trials," his autobiography.
Like so many of the new generation of trial lawyers, Edwards comes from humble beginnings. The first of his family to attend college, he studied textiles at North Carolina State before entering North Carolina Law School--where he met his future wife in his first class. Setting up practice in Raleigh, he became a legend. By the late 1980s, lawyers were coming from around the state to hear his summations. In 1990, at age 37, Edwards became the youngest trial lawyer ever to be inducted into the exclusive Inner Circle of Advocates.
Unfortunately, trial lawyerdom divides the world into two groups, plaintiffs and defendants. Plaintiffs are "little people," virtuous in their simplicity but victimized by forces beyond their control. Defendants are the "big guys," large and powerful institutions, occupying some shadowy domain beyond ordinary people's understanding. All this, of course, is hand-me-down populism, the emotional faith that swept the western portions of the country in the late 19th century. To traditional populism today's trial lawyers have added one new twist--they have figured out how to shake down the Big Guys for billions of dollars.
Edwards's campaign theme--the "Two Americas"--is pure populism. "When the president says, 'The state of our union is strong,' you need to ask 'which union, Mr. President?'" said Edwards in response to last week's State of the Union address. "Because the state of George Bush's union--the America of the Washington lobbyists, special interests, and his CEO friends--is doing just fine. They get what they want, whenever they want. But in our America, the union of working Americans, life is a struggle every single day."
This was Al Gore's theme in 2000, Bill Clinton's in 1992, and Jimmy Carter's in 1976. But it's a different world now. One of Edwards's biggest foreign policy experiences to date is a hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro. (He almost didn't make it to the top.) On the war in Iraq he is--like every other Democrat--all over the lot.
But, in any case, Edwards looks unlikely to win the nomination. Where he would fit nicely is in the second spot behind John Kerry. Then it wouldn't be as easy to get at Edwards on foreign affairs, and Republicans would have to engage his populism--which would be a good thing.
After all we could use a verdict: Are we really two nations, rich and poor, where elections can function as national jury awards, redistributing wealth from the Big Guys to the Little People? Or are we a middle-class country where--beyond a few glaring instances--most people must take responsibility for themselves?
Reared in an atmosphere where large institutions can be blamed for everything, trial-lawyer populists like John Edwards may not have the recipe for dealing with the larger world. President Bush put it deftly in his State of the Union speech: "After the chaos and carnage of September 11, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers."
William Tucker, a fellow with the Discovery Institute, is writing a book on trial lawyers.