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In John Edwards' Country

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So I'm driving along Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, whizzing past the array of yard signs, and I'm thinking about John Edwards, whose name of course is nowhere in sight.

Exactly six years ago, I spent my days tooling around with Edwards, having signed on as a hired gunslinger to write his memoir. The 2002 midterm campaign was nearing its end, and Edwards' party was about to get its butt kicked. The North Carolina senator dutifully campaigned for Erskine Bowles and other doomed candidates, and I remember him calling several of them the night before election day to say, "Just wanted you to know I'm thinking about you." ("That's a trick I learned from Ted Kennedy," he told me after hanging up from a call. "Everybody calls you when you've won. What they'll remember is the ones who call you beforehand.")

Mostly, though, Edwards was looking ahead, and with good reason. No Southern politician seemed to have a more glorious future. Myself, I never had any emotional investment in John Edwards as America's impending savior. He had an agile mind and a charming disposition, along with a lawyer's gift for storytelling. But he was not big on policy briefings, and during the six months I was in his orbit, I am absolutely certain that I never once heard him utter a syllable about what, by 2008, he would term "the cause of my life" -- namely, erasing poverty in America. Edwards did have a lifelong cause: to not be stuck in a textile mill the way his dad and neighbors had been. One could sympathize. But a champion of the proletariat he was not.

Things didn't end too well with our little book project. I turned in the manuscript, Elizabeth Edwards declared it substandard ("My John deserves a memoir at least as stirring as Mark Salter's John," is the quote I'll always remember, to which the obvious reply -- "Your John spent his life making millions as a personal injury attorney, not in the Hanoi Hilton" -- went unarticulated). I did a second draft for which I was paid in full, and the Edwardses brought in a pal to write a final draft. I saw the additional co-author's name on the galleys and demanded that my name be removed from the final product, and Four Trials ended up selling about four copies < http://www.amazon.com/Four-Trials-John-Edwards/dp/0743244974>. Still, the experience of watching a nascent candidacy up close was a net-plus for me, and I was glad to see Cate Edwards show up to a GQ party in 2004 at my invitation. In other words, bygones were bygones, or so I thought.

In early 2007, GQ asked me to do a Q&A with Edwards. His campaign arranged for it to happen in a Manhattan hotel on a particular spring morning. I was just checking into this hotel the night before the interview when one of his handlers called me. The senator would have to postpone -- no reason given. Two days later, the magazine got the explanation: the Edwardses had just learned that yours truly would be the GQ writer doing the Q&A, and they weren't "comfortable" with that. The Edwards' handler then inquired whether GQ was intending to put Edwards on the cover. (Esquire and Men's Vogue were obliging Edwards thus; apparently they were going for the hat trick.) A few months later, I ran into one of the Edwards' closest supporters, who was fully aware of what had transpired. "Don't you know by now?" this individual laughed. "Those two are insane!"

All of this by way of fully disclosing the backstory for my current opinion of John Edwards, which is not high. But I'm leaving something out. When I spent my time six years ago reading all of Edwards' legal files for book research -- though in the process also receiving a crash course in how personal injury lawsuits are litigated (Karl Rove, we now agree on something) -- I spent my nights at the Raleigh home of two very fine people, Andrew and Cheri Young. Andrew at the time was John Edwards' right-hand man. He raised funds, organized events, procured their Christmas trees and fretted over every detail of the senator's comings and goings. Above the bed where I slept in the Young residence, there was a gigantic poster of John F. Kennedy. Andrew told me that he had grown up idolizing JFK, and that in JRE, he heard a distinct echo of Camelot. One night over bottles of wine, I remember -- and I'll never forget -- Andrew Young telling me, "I'd take a bullet for John."

I don't even have to say it, do I?

Flash forward to May 14, 2008 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Obama's reeling from the Jeremiah Wright blowback. Hillary has marched through Appalachia with a stunning set of victories, culminating in a bloodbath in West Virginia. Now comes John Edwards to stop the bleeding -- and, in the process, set himself up for a plum appointment in an Obama administration. His speech that evening in Grand Rapids can only be termed an endorsement in the sense that Obama's name is mentioned a couple of times -- in a halfhearted, your-candidate's-name-here manner that makes the Clintons look like the Obama Girl by comparison. Obama's so grateful he doesn't seem to care.

The kingmaker basks and the future gleams brightly as before.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Santa Barbara is a ten week-old baby named Frances Quinn Hunter. Andrew Young, through an attorney, has stepped forward to say that he is the father. But the birth certificate lists no progenitor.

Now, five months later, a friend of mine, North Carolina columnist Hal Crowther, has just written in The Independent that "Edwards' career is over, and all his virtues obliterated." Crowther makes this pronouncement in sorrow rather than in anger. But in the coffee shop in
Hillsborough, N.C. where I'm finishing writing this, I'm overhearing a couple as they pore over my friend's column. One of them snarls, "Edwards -- what a disappointment. He betrayed so many people." The other, more wistful, replies, "And he was from right around here! He was going to be great."

In the neighborhood of John Edwards' old Raleigh law office, the yard signs literally alternate: McCain/Palin, then Obama/Biden, then McCain/Palin, on and on. The state is, in all ways demonstrable, a toss-up. And John Edwards, who so many thought would make a difference, is just another guy with a ballot.

For more reported insights from the 2008 campaign trail visit my blog, The Home Stretch, at GQ.com.

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