The Washington Post has issued a post-mortem on the career of John Edwards (“American Dream is Irrevocably Undone”) and finds tragedy and pathos. “The man born Johnny Reid Edwards had it. Great gobs of potential.” He might have been, the Post laments, “a great husband, could have been an enduring statesman … president.”
But fate intervened. With his indictment on misuse of campaign funds last week, “America witnessed the latest distasteful episode in … (the) fall from grace of a political comet.”
Grace, as any unblinkered observer could detect, is not a word that ever belonged in the same sentence with Edwards. But from the beginning of his political career, liberal enthusiasts gushed about his talents.
He was, People magazine pronounced, America’s “sexiest politician.” Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker called him “the next Bill Clinton” — without irony. Katie Couric was impressed by more than his looks: “He was the first to raise issues like poverty, universal health care and climate change,” she said. “He bucked the conventional wisdom and took political risks, speaking honestly about why he wanted to raise taxes, for example.” Ah, yes, bucking the conventional wisdom by talking about universal health care and climate change.
The Washington Post doubtless speaks for Couric and her crowd when it sees in Edwards’ fall “the spiral of the Great Man.”
In fact, Edwards, Mr. For the Little Guy, who, in his own words, “represent(ed) people who were in very difficult places in their lives and tr(ied) to give them a shot,” made his fortune as an ambulance chaser. No one who examined his career as a fortune-hunting, slick and unscrupulous trial lawyer should find any inconsistency in his later incarnation as a manipulative, mendacious and morally bankrupt politician.
As a trial lawyer, Edwards specialized in suing obstetricians after the birth of babies with cerebral palsy. Employing junk science and theatrical courtroom oratory, he convinced juries that the doctors’ failure to perform Caesarean sections soon enough caused the disorder. The Edwards technique included speaking for the unborn child. In his summation at one such trial, an emotional Edwards told the jury: “She speaks to you through me. And I have to tell you right now — I didn’t plan to talk about this — right now, I feel her. I feel her presence. She’s inside me, and she’s talking to you.”
The jury came back with a $6.5 million verdict in that case. It was one of 60 such cases Edwards handled during his career — half of the verdicts were for more than $1 million. Trial lawyers usually pocket 30 to 40 percent of jury awards. And though Edwards claimed that he was proud of his career, and that he gave “little guys” a shot, The New York Times quoted a fellow trial lawyer: “He took only those cases that were catastrophic, that would really capture a jury’s imagination. He paints himself as a person who was serving the interests of the downtrodden, the widows and the little children. Actually, he was after the cases with the highest verdict potential.”
It never troubled Edwards’ sleep that studies have shown no connection between delivery-room decisions and cerebral palsy. A 1989 report from the Institute of Medicine argued that obstetricians were being falsely blamed. Lawsuits such as those Edwards filed led to the widespread use of fetal monitors during hospital deliveries. The result has been a surge in the number of Caesarean deliveries, many of them unnecessary. This, in turn, has contributed to complications such as infection, blood clots, longer recovery times and more maternal deaths, to say nothing of the increased medical costs.
And here’s a bitter postscript: Despite the increased use of fetal monitors and the much readier resort to C-sections, the incidence of cerebral palsy in the population has remained unchanged. In fact, a study in Sweden suggests C-sections may increase the incidence of cerebral palsy.
Additionally, thanks to Edwards and his colleagues, medical malpractice insurance rates for obstetricians have skyrocketed, leading many doctors to abandon the field. It is poor women, not the rich who can travel more easily, who suffer most from doctor shortages.
Mr. For The Little Guy adamantly opposed legislation that would have capped damage awards and set up a fund for the 99 percent of brain-damaged children who did not win big verdicts. There were “two Americas” all right — those whose misfortune Edwards could profitably exploit, and the rest.
Between the 2004 and 2008 campaigns, Mr. FTLG joined Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund. While acknowledging that making money was “a good thing, too,” Edwards stressed that he was primarily motivated by a desire to learn more about financial markets and their relationship to poverty. Where, oh where, was the media’s gag meter?
Edwards seduced a cooperative press corps with ostentatious displays of affection for his stricken wife — “the love of my life” — including annual visits to the Wendy’s where the couple supposedly passed their first anniversary.
Fall of a great man? How far can a worm fall?