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Is Edwards moving too fast?

Except for Ike, there's no one in modern times that has entered electoral politics and gained a place on a major-party ticket on such a hurried timetable as John Edwards. Is he ready? Howard Fineman reports.
Kerry And Edwards Embark On Four-Day Campaign Tour
Kerry and Edwards embark on their first campaign trip as running mates Wednesday.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

I’ve written a fair amount about John Edwards for and Newsweek — how he was a man to watch, how he hit the ground running in the capital at a furious pace, how he campaigned for a job you aren’t supposed to seek, the vice presidency. Now, a mere five years after Edwards entered politics, this man in a hurry has arrived. He’s talented, and fortune favors the brash. But is he moving too quickly for his own good — or John Kerry’s?  Maybe Dick Cheney has given caution and experience a bad name. At least critics of the war in Iraq, which he championed, would say so. Still, just because the speedometer goes all the way to 120 mph doesn’t mean you have drive the car that fast.

Except for Ike, I can’t think of anyone in modern times that entered electoral politics and gained a place on a major-party ticket on such a hurried timetable. Dan Quayle, who’d held office for 12 years when George H. W. Bush picked him, was a grizzled veteran compared with Edwards. Yes, George W. Bush had been governor of Texas for only six years when he won the presidency. But he had run for the House years earlier, and essentially had spent his entire life in the family business of politics. (A helpful reader points out to me that Richard Nixon had a similarly rapid rise. Elected to the House in 1946, he became Ike's running mate in 1952. But an Edwards-Nixon comparison is hardly one that Democrats would like to make.)

Edwards’ own explanation for his sense of impatience is the death, in an auto accident, of his 16-year-old son Wade, in 1996. But I don’t think it tells the whole story.

At 51, he hasn’t so much lived his life as hurtled through it, ignoring boundaries set by others and by chance. He is the son of a mill worker (even if we tire of hearing about it). He was the first in his family to attend college. Although not that gifted athletically, he did play football in high school and some in college. Told by law partners that medical malpractice suits were, shall we say, beneath the dignity of the firm, he struck out on his own. 

It’s been the same in politics. Told he’d never beat the Helms Machine in North Carolina, Edwards ran for and won a Senate seat in 1998, spending millions of his own money. Many advisers told him not to run for president in 2004 and told him not to quit the Senate even if he did — to be patient, get some seasoning. Well, he quit the Senate and came closer to winning the Democratic nomination than the delegate numbers indicate. Some advisers told him that Kerry would never pick him as his running mate, and that it was foolish — and counterproductive – to campaign for the job.

So much for patience. So much for advisers.  In the run up to the veep pick, Edwards kept them in the dark, operating on his own in secret with the Kerry team.

But now that Edwards has risen on the express elevator to the top, he inhabits one of the most visible spots in the world: a ticket mate in a presidential campaign. What kind of risk, if any, is Kerry facing in picking him? Edwards’ six years in politics has an almost enchanted quality. Will the spell last?

The theory goes that Edwards has already been through the identity grinder, has been examined to the max. It’s not true. Yes, he was considered by Al Gore in 2000, and the “vetter” of that day, the distinguished lawyer Jim Hamilton (who, like Edwards, was born in South Carolina)did a thorough job. So, presumably, did the equally meticulous Jim Johnson, the Kerry vetter. Edwards also spent two years running for president, and was successful enough to have experienced — and survived — a frenzy or two.

But, in fact, Edwards never got the full investigative media treatment in the primary season — he never really won enough primaries to warrant it. He will get that kind of tough handling at some point now. One top Bush-Cheney “oppo” guy told me that BC04 wasn’t going to bother digging for and dishing stories about Edwards. They think Kerry is the far richer target, and Edwards the far more attractive campaigner. Why draw attention to Edwards? OK. But if there’s something to be found — if there is something more, and something less attractive, to the story of John Edwards — Karl Rove and his minions in the Republican Party will find it.

They aren’t likely to find anything in his legal cases. Edwards chose them shrewdly. He wanted to do good for powerless people while he made money — and he had an eye toward building a little-guy-vs.-Goliath saga. The GOP tried to attack his trial lawyer career in North Carolina in 1998. It backfired.

Edwards is a quick study. He reminds me of a genial alien in “Star Man,” played with quizzical wonderment by Jeff Bridges, the genius-level creature that arrives on Earth as an infant then zooms up the steepest learning curve in creation. Edwards never makes the same mistake twice. His stump speech improved as we went along; his policy proposals grew more coherent.

But he has a whole world to master now, and no private time to prepare his case.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.