The best tale about John Edwards is neither tall nor ancient, but it serves as an ideal allegory for his life. In the summer of 1995, the hotshot Raleigh, N.C., trial attorney wrapped up his legal work for the week and strolled into a local sporting-goods store to do some shopping. Edwards explained that he was planning to climb 19,340-ft. Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in a few days with his son Wade, then 15, and he needed some good, strong hiking boots. Horrified by the customer's naive, if not dangerous, lack of preparation, the sales staff urged him to, at the very least, break in the stiff boots during the flight over the Atlantic. Edwards did not confide another problem, for which there is no known equipment solution: he's afraid of heights.
On the morning that he, Wade and two others were to summit, Edwards woke up at 16,000 ft. with altitude sickness; he had literally gone too far too fast. He urged the others to go on up without him. But descending from the top a few hours later, they ran into Edwards forcing himself up the trail alone. Swallowing his discomfort, he wanted to go all the way. And in the end, of course, he made it.
Climbing Kilimanjaro cold is more or less what Edwards has done this year, turning a long-shot bid for the White House into a spot on the Democratic ticket. Win or lose this fall, Edwards in many ways has already won: he has beaten the odds and, at 51, will almost certainly take his place as a leading figure in the Democratic Party for years to come. His out-of-nowhere performance this year would not surprise those who have known him since he scraped his way out of Robbins, N.C., the mill town he talks about at every stop and in every speech. That's because shooting the moon has long been Edwards' strongest game. He has for years been willing to ignore local conventions, bet the farm on a hunch and streak past his stunned, sometimes resentful rivals as he collected an armful of glittering prizes. It is a career arc that, in national politics at least, might be shocking were it not so much like that of another Southern pol who jumped at mid-life into high-stakes politics and found himself in the White House seven years later.
But George W. Bush inherited a global brand name that gave him a running start. The smiley kid from up-country Carolina has come further faster than anyone since Richard Nixon moved from a seat in Congress to the vice presidency in six short years. So how did Edwards do it?
What propels Edwards, friends say, is a burning desire to level the playing field. Growing up in a Carolina mill town, where he saw how his father Wallace and other textile workers were subjected to the daily indignities of life as the working poor, left him "with a real sense that some things need to be set right," says adviser Bruce Reed. His considerable ambition is neatly hidden behind loads of charm, but he also packs a happy self-confidence that other men routinely call staggering. "He has no butterflies," says Reed, laughing a bit. "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you are not self-conscious about it."