Monday, December 03, 2007

Book Review: Four Trials by John Edwards

Last December I started reading autobiographies by the Democratic presidential candidates. By spring I had read most of them but only posted on Obama's Audacity of Hope. I got stuck on the next one and, after rewriting it twice, finally had to just set it aside and move on. So this evening I bring you John Edwards. Fellow blogger, the Liberal Doomsayer posted his review last May.

Four Trials by John Edwards with John Auchard. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography. For one thing a co-author of sorts is listed; employing a ghost writer is probably not that unusual for a politician but one that is listed might have had a larger role than simply tidying up. For another Edwards does not tell the story of his life in linear form, the way most autobiographies are constructed. Instead he writes about four trials he worked on as an attorney, with personal information and anecdotes included in the beginning and ending section of most of the trial stories. We don’t find out he has two siblings until nearly at the end of the book. That is unusual in a standard autobiography.

Whoever actually wrote the book has a wonderful voice, even on flat paper. It is inviting and humble and puts you at ease. If it is Edwards I can see why juries would believe him. As I read the book I felt very much like this is someone I could sit and eat rice and beans with and he would not look askance at my food choices or notice if, as sometimes happens, I ended up wearing part of my meal.


Just a few pages, not much personal information.


This trial was about the overuse of Antabuse and the subsequent brain damage to the patient, E.G. It was a case that Edwards took early in his career, three years after his return to North Carolina following a few years in Nashville. In the beginning of the chapter he discusses a little of his childhood, the frequent moves due to his father’s work for a mill company, the essay he wrote at age 11 on why he wanted to be a lawyer, his clerkship for a judge, and the fact that his wife still wears the wedding ring he bought for $11.00.

Quote from p. 6:

My world is different now, and of course people close to me still suffer in real ways, but now many of them are powerful, and they have the privilege of knowing what to do and how to do it when son, daughters, mother, father, friend finds the whole world coming down. They pick up the phone and make a call, and it is often the right call. And then other calls are made that night, while they sleep or at least try to sleep. And sometimes – perhaps often – it does much good. Yes, this is my world now – I know that – and I can’t deny that in many ways I am happy that it is. But all my life I have known people like E.G. or people like neighbors of E.G. I haven’t forgotten what they are up against – in part because when I was young, I really saw what they are up against. And it is impossible to forget.


The second trial in the book concerns a breech birth that went wrong and left the infant girl with cerebral palsy. At the time the tide of medical opinion had shifted towards cesarean sections in the case of a full breech but the attending physician decided to allow a vaginal birth. The complications from this left the baby with cerebral palsy. Edwards starts off the chapter with the story of his oldest child’s birth, also a c-section. On page 71 he notes that other attorneys often made comments after the winning verdict described in the first section. His victory as was attributed to luck or his hair. In one speech before the court he recounted how cute the little girl was at age 6 and then followed through an age progression ending with “Fifty-six year-old women with cerebral palsy are not so cute anymore.” (p. 105)

This chapter has what I considered the most bizarre paragraph in the book. Edwards is talking to the jury and says on p. 107:

”And so here we are again. She speaks to you again. But now she speaks to you, not through a fetal monitor strip; 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. This is her. What I’m saying to you is what Jennifer Campbell has to say to you.”

He ends the chapter by discussing some of the medical policy changes that occurred in North Carolina after he won this case. The very last paragraph compares his daughter’s dance recital to a physical achievement hard won by the girl who was the focus of the chapter. His last sentence: “And I thought: there is, in this world, more than one form of grace.”


This section concerns the case of a young boy whose parents were killed by a tractor-trailer. It also gives a good long personal introduction to the case. Pages 115-131 discuss a lot of his upbringing and his early adult years. It starts with Edwards’ relationship with his father, his effort and failure to relive his father’s dream of playing football and going to college. Edwards was a standout football player in high school but lost his athletic scholarship to Clemson after one semester. He transferred to North Carolina State in Raleigh and then on to law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He writes about his parents and their work and the family rituals he remembers well. He was friends with his parents and is pleased to be friends with his children. Like many first generation college students (those whose parents did not go to college), and I am in this category myself, he had summer jobs that involved manual labor that encouraged him to seek out higher education. He knew the financial burden the cost of his education put on his parents and he worked hard enough to graduate in three years (as did I). On he went to law school were he felt out of his depth and met a fellow law student, Elizabeth Anania that he felt was out of his league. The day after they took the bar exam he and Elizabeth married, six years to the day before Mr. J and I said our vows.

In one of the more poignant passages (p. 128), Edwards describes what happened when he and Elizabeth, just two days after their wedding, were scheduled to meet her parents who would help them move into their new home, a rented townhouse:
Elizabeth and I had no credit cards, and we discovered that between us we could not manager the $22 in cash for the motel room. We could only scrape up $20, and that included change we found on the floor of the car. The clerk at the hotel was sympathetic, but there was a strict policy and he couldn’t let us into the room without full payment in advance. So for several hours during the second evening of our marriage, we say on a burgundy Naugahyde sofa under the flickering fluorescent lights of the Lodge Motel and waited for Captain and Mrs. Anania to arrive and front us an extra $2. I have always wondered what they said, or even thought, about their new son-in-law on that night. I have never asked.

He goes on to discuss his involvement with his children and their family tradition of eating in the same restaurant the night before a trial started and how, when court was in weekend recess, he would make them pancakes shaped like animals.

In one paragraph (p. 131) he sums up what seems to be his worldview:
I am grateful that my home was one where decency was the daily bread. But of course that had been the only world I had known. I was caught flat-footed for a time in law school when, awed by the poise and polish of some of my more privileged friends, I feared in that world decency was an insufficient currency. I was wrong. What worked in the mills of Robbins worked in the halls of the law school, and in county courtrooms, as it does in Senate chambers. There are few things I know better than this: the right to dignity – and every level of society – is and must be one of the chief guarantees of a civilized society.

On the next to the last page (p. 158) of the section, after describing the case against the trucking company that he had won, he provides the impetus for his decision to run for the Senate:

Unfortunately the insurance company also did what many powerful businesses do, and when the Republican Party took control of the state legislature in 1995, its lobbyists seized the moment. Soon a bill was passed disallowing punitive damage awards against a company as a result of an employee’s actions, unless that particular action was specifically ratified by corporate officers. Meaning, among other things, that today Golda Howard would not be able to seek punitive damages from Collins & Aikman. Yes, our lawsuit had sent a message, and that message ultimately was: if you don’t like the law, change it. Which, regrettably, they did.

The message to me, on the other hand, was one I’d confronted over my legal career and I’d grown to appreciate: if you can’t help enough people being a lawyer, consider being a lawmaker.

One brief addendum to this section. The young man who lost his parents went on to West Point and, given the years he was there, may have run across a Professor Patrick Murphy, who currently represents Pennsylvania’s 8th congressional district.


This section was the hardest to read as he writes of the death of his son Wade. Pages 161-177 discuss his family, especially Wade, incidents from his life, and the family’s learning of his death. It is well-written but not maudlin; nonetheless, have tissues ready. We learn more about Edwards’ law practice, including the furnishings. He writes of the trip he and Wade took to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, and of the friends who saw his family through the months just after Wade’s death. When he returned to his law office the case he wanted to work on was on behalf of a family whose young daughter was almost killed when the cover of a swimming pool drain shifted and she was partially sucked in and most of her intestines pulled out. Edwards writes quite a bit about the process his firm went through to prove their case against the defendants, some of whom settled. There are one or two Perry Mason moments when dramatic courtroom testimony, even if it was unintentional on the part of the person testifying, alters the course of the trial.

We also get a glimpse of Edwards’ courtroom philosophy here (p. 206):
I’ve always believed in the virtues of respectfulness. Jurors watch how you treat not just the witnesses and other attorneys, but the bailiff, the clerk, and everyone else in sight. If you’re ingratiating with the jury but rude to a paralegal, then you’ve given them reason to doubt your decency and then your credibility. A courtroom is not very much different from anyplace else: you never win points by being a bully. Now, I will admit that it is easy to get caught up in the rush of the moment in a trial – I have done it myself, I regret to say – but that is no excuse at all.

At the end of the section he writes that taking this trial allowed him to talk about the injustice of losing his son, as he spoke in court about the injustice done to his young client. It is a very moving passage but too lengthy to excerpt here. Read pages 229-230 for yourself.


Edwards sums up his life in a few short pages. For me the most compelling passage is this from page 236.:
During my years in the United States Senate, I have learned a great deal about politics and programs, about procedures and politics, but I know that what was most important was learned somewhere else and often many years before. As I have worked to serve the people of my state and my country, I have come to understand that there could have been no better experience than that of having swept the floors in that mill, or seeing my father taking notes in front of the education classes on television, or watching my parents at the kitchen table as they tried to find a way to send me to college. And there could have been no substitute for the fear and joy I felt at the birth of each of our four children, for the way the world changes when my son died, or for the chance I had to work – for twenty fine years – beside remarkable men and women as they fought for justice and a better life for those they loved.

For my part, I enjoyed reading this book. Edwards may be one of those people who is not comfortable talking about his life, or he may wish to protect the privacy of those around him, but this is the closest he has come to an autobiography. It was interesting to learn more about the legal aspects of the cases he describes and to see the glimpses he allows into his upbringing and his family.

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