The Salon Interview: John Edwards

The 2004 hopeful tells Salon why he thinks he should be president -- and how George W. Bush is "the opposite of me."

Published January 14, 2003 10:47PM (EST)

The Democratic presidential hopeful and freshman senator from North Carolina long ago stopped using his given name, the one on his birth certificate -- "Johnny Edwards" -- choosing instead the more adult "John." And as the relatively untested Edwards is suddenly being touted as a front-runner for his party's nomination in 2004, he is doing everything he can to make sure the political world continues to take him as seriously as possible.

He's certainly got everyone's attention. He's young, bright, Southern, attractive and affable, all supreme political selling points. He's also a former trial lawyer who's only held elected office since 1998 -- both clear drawbacks. But by election time, his supporters are quick to point out, he will have held elected office six years -- the same amount President Bush had under his belt by November 2000. And he already benefited from extraordinarily adulatory early coverage by prominent liberal writers last year, including a glowing profile by the usually cantankerous Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, and a New Yorker sketch by Nicholas Lemann that seemed to spin the conventional knock against Edwards, that he's the most successful trial attorney in North Carolina history, on its head. "Throughout much of the South," Lemann wrote, "trial lawyers are, in effect, the left: an influential group that, instead of converting populist sentiment into redistributionist legislation, converts it into big rewards for a small number of people who have stories of having been screwed by powerful, uncaring figures." Voilà: John Edwards as John Grisham hero.

That buzz has shifted to an especially high murmur after the self-removal of candidates Al Gore and Senator Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. After Edwards officially announced on Jan. 2 that he'd be running, he immediately moved up in early polls closely behind established pols like Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. (who officially threw his hat in the ring Monday), while just a month before he was trailing even the Rev. Al Sharpton in some polls.

The Republicans are surely taking him seriously. Just three days after he declared his candidacy on NBC's "Today Show" and then on his Raleigh, N.C., driveway, the Washington Post noted that "the [Republican National Committee] issued a 10-page, footnoted release that avers the first-term senator's utter inadequacy for the job," and pointing out that "the GOP has yet to send out similar takedowns of the other Democrats running for the presidential nomination." (A source familiar with RNC opposition research pooh-poohs the implication that the GOP particularly fears Edwards more than others.)

And when you talk to the camps of other Democratic hopefuls, many think the race will come down to their guy -- and Edwards. In fact, many seem to already have prepared some tomatoes to throw at the well-coiffed, 49-year-old senator. "The only point I would make," a senior aide to one of Edwards' Democratic rivals pointedly asks, "is in a post-9/11 world, is the electorate ready for an 'outsider,' a fresh face with little government experience? Does one trip to Afghanistan make you a warrior on terror?"

Says a senior advisor to another rival Democrat, "Edwards seems intent on putting at risk a promising political future by running before he's ready. If he loses the nomination, it'll be because he's too green and inexperienced and in running he'll have given up the demanding Senate job that could have prepared him to run an effective campaign in 2008."

Under this evaluation, Edwards risks being the most high-profile North Carolina flash in the pan since Danny Ferry was drafted second out of Duke, only to go on to a relatively humble NBA career. But considering the many variables President Bush faces in the next two years, and Edwards' Democratic opposition -- which could, with few exceptions, be summed up as an anonymous sea of bland -- he could very well end up being Michael Jordan.

Salon spoke with Edwards by phone last Saturday afternoon.

You haven't been in political life that long, first running for office, for the U.S. Senate, in 1998. Now, everything you say is parsed carefully -- you even drew criticism after an appearance on ABC's "This Week," when you couldn't name a favorite philosopher. Has it been a tough adjustment?

Well, it's different. But it's completely expected. I think if you decide to run for president of the United States you have to understand that people are going to look very carefully at you. They're going to look at how you say things and your answers to questions, and actually I think that's reasonable.

Senator Lieberman on Monday will declare his candidacy for president. Why should someone vote for you over Lieberman?

Well, the reason I hope Democrats will support me is that I have spent my entire life fighting for the same people I grew up with. I represented them for 20 years as a lawyer, and they're the same people I ran to represent in the U.S. Senate, and they're the reason why I want to be president. I have a very ground-level view of their lives and what needs to be done to make their lives better. But I want to be judged on the basis of my ideas and own character. I'm happy to have people make that comparison with anybody.

One of the criticisms of you will be that you're an evil trial lawyer. President Bush has made tort reform an issue, as has Sen. Lieberman. In fact, in July 1999 Lieberman said the following: "As some of you know," Lieberman said, "I have supported just about every tort reform proposal that's come along the track in my 11 years here because I think this great system that we inherited from our English predecessors, which was aimed at holding liable those who are negligent and create damage, and making whole those who are injured, has gone way off track and become a lottery in which literally a few people do very well but most of the people injured don't really get adequately compensated." Thoughts?

I believe people who sit on juries are the same people who decide elections in America. Juries are a microcosm of America. People who don't like juries deciding a case don't like regular Americans. In this country, the power has always been with regular Americans deciding elections. I have enormous respect for regular Americans. They decide elections and I certainly think they should be allowed to settle disputes between Americans.

Now, I have always believed that we need to be really rigorous in making sure the cases being filed have merit. We don't need to clog up the system. But I do not favor taking away the rights of the Valerie Lakeys of the world. [Lakey is perhaps Edwards' most celebrated client -- a 5-year-old severely injured by a wading pool drain. Edwards won a $30 million settlement for her and her family.] And that's exactly what this kind of system would do. If you put a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages, it hits women and children and the most seriously injured; it hits them like a laser beam. And in my judgment it's not the right thing to do.

Why do you think you're better suited to be president than President Bush?

Because I think in many ways he's the opposite of me. I come from a family where my dad worked in a mill, where my mom's last job was working at the Post Office, I was the first in my family to go to college. And I spent most of my legal career representing the same kind of people as those in my family.

The president comes from a different background. So our perspectives on the world are very different. His administration is largely run by insiders. They're the people he's grown up with and has known most of his life. But this means that when the interests of inside people and inside interest groups conflict with the interests of average Americans, way too often he sides with the insiders. That's not a surprise; it's his background, they're the people he's grown up with. But I'm very different than this president.

Bush's thoughts right now are no doubt preoccupied with North Korea. What would you do about this situation if you were president? What would you do differently?

A number of things. First, I would do everything in my power to rehabilitate our relationship with South Korea. The extraordinary anti-American sentiment there is really disturbing. And that relationship has gone downhill under Bush's watch. That relationship is critical to us managing the North Korea situation.

The second thing I'd do is, I'd do everything in my power to build an international coalition and put pressure on North Korea. The president and Secretary [of State Colin] Powell are doing some of that.

Third, as a representative of the U.S. government, I'd sit with North Korea and negotiate.

I understand your first point, but how is the rest of that any different from what the Bush administration is doing now?

Well, yes, President Bush has indicated recently that he would do the third point. But what I just said I've been saying since before the administration started doing it. Now, in the last couple days they said they will negotiate. So that's good.

But there's a larger point here; I do have a significantly different worldview than the president.

How is your worldview different from the president's?

Well, I think in some ways his way of dealing with problems is to deal with the symptoms. Iraq and Saddam Hussein are a serious threat and he wants to address that threat. And when required to deal with what I believe is a crisis in North Korea, he deals with that.

But his overall view of the role of America in the world is very different than mine. He tends toward unilateralism. And that creates a perception around the world that America exerts its power solely so it can continue to exert its power. My view is that we should maintain our political and military strength so that we remain the superpower of the world, but we should use it to lead. And we should lead on things that we as a nation care about -- like human rights, and democracy.

You know, the Europeans don't ask much from us. They just want us to consult with them. They understand that at the end of the day we're going to do what's in America's interests. But to not consult with them is foolish. We need to do a lot of other things, too. We need to show that we care about what happens in post-Saddam Iraq. Look at what happened in Afghanistan after we got rid of the Taliban. We've done very little to stabilize the country to ensure that President Karzai can be successful. We haven't done enough to work on the peace process in Israel; we didn't sustain the progress that had been made there. There's the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. All these things send signals about American strength and our interest in whether we care about peace and prosperity in the rest of the world.

At the core -- even if all we care about is making sure that the American people are safe -- our interest in the long term is to have the rest of the world not hostile to America, but have the rest of the world look up to and respect America.

The big news of the weekend was Gov. George Ryan of Illinois commuting the sentences of all death row inmates, saying he was not confident that the judicial system was protecting innocent people from being executed. You're a supporter of the death penalty, and someone who spent your career working in the judicial system. What do you think of what Ryan did?

I think what Gov. Ryan is addressing is that we don't want to execute innocent people. I think his decision is a reflection of his belief in the judicial system of Illinois.

We need to do significantly more than we're doing now to make sure that the system works effectively. And that includes having well-paid, highly competent defense counsel. You know, I've never done it myself, but I've had partners in my law firm do death penalty trials and it is a very difficult thing. It requires enormous skill and perseverance. And we ought to take advantage of new technology, like DNA technology, to make sure that we're doing all we can to ensure that the system works. But at the end of the day, I believe there are some crimes that deserve the ultimate punishment.

But since we're not doing all those things, and since in recent years 13 inmates on Illinois' death row had their convictions overturned, doesn't that give you pause as to whether the system is currently effective? Shouldn't there be some sort of moratorium at least?

Are you asking me if I support a national moratorium?

OK, yes.

I do not support a national moratorium.

But given the discovery of innocent people on death row, wouldn't a moratorium make sense?

I have faith that the system can work if we do the things that need to be done. You know, we could spend the next hour talking about this subject -- how we need to make the administration of the death penalty fairer and more evenhanded, for instance; there are race issues and multiple other issues about the judicial system as a whole. And it all deserves a serious look to make sure we're using the best technology and system that we can. But I don't favor a national moratorium.

You do have complaints about the role the judicial system plays in the war on terrorism, especially when it erodes civil liberties. Can you point to excesses from this administration in its pursuit of national security?

Yes, absolutely. One of the things I have proposed is taking domestic intelligence away from the FBI and setting up a more effective intelligence agency. And if that were done I'd also set up an individual civil rights and civil liberties watchdog to monitor what's happening with that agency. It would require record-keeping of data, whether what they're doing on the Internet or if they're monitoring religious entities like mosques or churches. It would make sure there are no constitutional and no civil liberties violations by this agency.

One of the things going on right now that I think is unacceptable is the way the Bush administration is dealing with those they call enemy combatants. I know my position on this is not popular, but it's my belief that designating someone, an American citizen, an enemy combatant, and putting them in jail, where they do not have access to a lawyer, where they cannot get a hearing, or go before a judge, where they are not given a chance to prove that they did nothing wrong -- it violates everything we believe in America. I think it's just wrong.

Also concerning the courts, President Bush has just renominated Charles Pickering to the United States Court of Appeals, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that when the Senate was controlled by Democrats last year, Pickering's nomination was rejected by the Judiciary Committee, on which you sit. One of the critiques you specifically made of Pickering during his hearing dealt with his actions during a cross-burning case.

Critics have said that you took his actions out of context, however; that Pickering was merely expressing concern that the leader of the cross burners got a lighter sentence than another individual involved. Moreover, Pickering's nomination is supported by the brother of civil rights hero Medgar Evers and Democrat Frank Hunger, who is Al Gore's brother-in-law. What's your response to these criticisms and endorsements of Pickering?

Well, first of all, Frank Hunger is somebody that I have a lot of feeling and personal respect for. He's a great man, and I have a lot of affection for him and I'm sure his views are heartfelt.

But my views about Judge Pickering come from looking at the details of his judicial record, including the case you're asking about. And on a number of occasions he put his own personal feelings and personal views above the law. In the cross-burning case he did a number of things. He put pressure on the lawyers involved, he called the Justice Department, he did a number of things that were not what the law called for. They were, in my view, inconsistent with the obligations of a judge fairly administering the law. So I do not believe he belongs on the circuit court.

You know, I've spent most of my adult life dealing with judges. I know a good judge. I know what a good judge is supposed to do. And what he did on that case is nothing a judge should do.

While we're on the subject of your legal career, you have to know that over the next year your Democratic and Republican opponents will scour your work to see if you represented any bad-guy clients or said anything in court that could hurt you politically. Are there any cases you think they could use against you?

No, not that I know of. In 20 years of being a lawyer, you do a lot of cases, and I don't have a lot of them in my head.

But when I did my Senate campaign I did very vigorous opposition research on me. I went through it as a possible vice presidential candidate, too. The Gore campaign assigned a team of lawyers to just me, and they didn't just review my financial, medical and campaign finance records, but they also reviewed all my cases.

So, not that I'm aware of.

Are you conducting opposition research on yourself again to make sure nothing was missed those first two times?

Of course. We have to be prepared before anybody else about anything.

After you declared your candidacy for president at the beginning of the month, the Republican National Committee put out a document pointing out that while you claimed to speak for regular, mainstream America, you vote around 90 percent of the time with the very liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and around that often with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

My response is that I come from a small town in North Carolina; I come from a community and a family that is at the heart of mainstream America. I have lived my whole life with these people and I think my views are in line with their views. The America I come from is mainstream America -- it's also, by the way, the mainstream South. We believe in opportunity -- education, economic -- for everybody, no matter who their family is, no matter where they come from, no matter what the color of their skin is, no matter what language they speak. I believe that's what mainstream America believes in.

And you know as well as I do that a lot of those votes we cast, on both sides of the aisle, are procedural.

One way you differentiate yourself from other Democrats is on the economy. In a speech you recently gave you discussed deficit reduction, and how Democrats historically spend too much. But other than your proposal to cut the government's non-law enforcement and national security workforce by 10 percent, what would you cut?

Well, that's the place I would start. That's actually the biggest component in what I was suggesting. And the way we do that is through the natural attrition process.

Yes, but there's little will in Washington to do such cutting. Even with the Republicans -- the party against big government -- running the White House and Congress, and massive deficits returning, it just doesn't happen. How would you be able to change things?

I think it's difficult to do that in isolation. The way to create the kind of support needed to get it passed is to do it in conjunction with an overall program [focused on] balanced budgets. In order to do it, and to get Democratic support, and in order to generate political support, you have to have both components.

In the stories about your candidacy, one of the reasons always cited for your having a good chance to secure the Democratic nomination is your looks. People magazine once named you to its list of most beautiful people, and Elle named you sexiest politician. What do you think when you hear this? How much does it matter?

I don't think it does matter. And I don't think it will matter. I think that people who suggest things like that don't give the American people enough credit.

People will judge us based on what they see, what they hear, what our ideas are and what our vision is. That's how they'll make their evaluation. That's how they'll decide whether I'm somebody they can trust, someone they believe can lead, someone who understands their problems and has real ideas. I do not think they'll vote for or elect a president of the United States based on superficial things.

Is it at least flattering? Does it make you feel good?

No, it's completely unimportant.

So, before you go, do you have an answer yet on who your favorite philosopher is?

I don't have a favorite philosopher, that's why I didn't have an answer for that question.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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