CHAPEL HILL, N.C.- John Edwards is heartbroken. That's what he told the congregation at Riverside Church in Harlem, N.Y., during a recent Sunday morning service: "We have to break the silence about the extraordinarily deep divisions between the haves and the have-nots."
Five hundred miles south, next to a modest auto shop off a short gravel driveway, Monty Johnson says the silence between him and Edwards is deafening. That's ironic because the Democratic presidential candidate lives just across the street.
Johnson, 55, a retired farmer with arthritic knees, has lived in a simple home on Old Greensboro Road in the rolling countryside near Chapel Hill, N.C., all his life. Edwards and his wife Elizabeth bought 102 acres across the street in 2005, and last summer moved into their custom-built 28,000-square-foot estate, valued at $6 million.
The Edwards estate isn't visible from the street, but county tax records reveal details of a lavish home belonging to the candidate who during the 2004 presidential campaign complained of "two Americas" under President Bush-one "that does the work, another that reaps the reward." The main living section has five bedrooms, six-and-a-half baths, and a library. A heated, enclosed walkway valued at $192,664 connects the house to a second wing that includes a basketball court, a racquetball court, a pool, a lounge, and offices.
Johnson wouldn't know about the house. In fact, he's never met his neighbors. Only approved visitors to the estate enter the long, winding driveway flanked by "No Trespassing" signs nailed to trees. Johnson hasn't been invited up, and though he sees the Edwards family drive by, they've never stopped to say hello.
But the silence was broken in March when a reporter asked Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, about a handmade sign nailed to Johnson's fence near the road. The sign reads: "Go Rudy Giuliani 2008." Mrs. Edwards unleashed on Johnson, saying he is "a rabid, rabid Republican," and calling his property "slummy."
Johnson was confounded. "I thought they were supposed to be for the poor," he told WORLD.
Though Johnson isn't rich, he's not exactly poor, and his 42 acres aren't slummy. (An abandoned house where he grew up does still face the road, but Johnson says he hasn't had the heart or money to tear it down.) Johnson's grandfather bought the property nearly 100 years ago. His father built an auto shop next to the road in 1955 and opened a small general store that served the rural community for years.
Johnson helped his father farm the land and run a successful landscaping and grading business before retiring. "We're proud of what we built," he says, climbing into a giant, gold Ford F-350 truck with a brown cowboy hat on the dashboard.
Driving down a winding road on the property, Johnson points out newly mended fences and freshly cut grass. He just planted a row of Bradford pear trees, and the yard is full of dogwoods and flowers in full bloom. Johnson and his wife live in a double-wide trailer near a pond that his father stocked with catfish 40 years ago.
Johnson says Elizabeth Edwards' comments about his property were hurtful, and that kids at the local elementary school now tease his 9-year-old granddaughter. Neither Elizabeth nor John Edwards has offered further comment. "Sometimes when you get where they are," says Johnson, "I guess you forget where you come from."
It would be hard to forget where John Edwards came from. The former North Carolina senator made the story of his humble upbringing a major theme in his 2004 presidential campaign, constantly reminding audiences that he was "the son of a mill worker." That thread is re-emerging in his 2008 presidential bid, and Edwards says his modest background drives his major campaign theme: helping the poor.
For Edwards, helping the poor hinges on expanding government programs and raising taxes. But his own rags-to-riches story doesn't hinge on government intervention. Instead, like the story of Monty Johnson, it hinges on a strong family and hard work.
Edwards was born in Seneca, S.C., in 1953 to Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, who lived in a tiny, three-bedroom rental home in a housing project owned by the textile mill where his father worked. Eager to progress professionally, Wallace moved the family several times before settling in Robbins, N.C., when John Edwards was 12 years old.
Though he didn't have a college education, Wallace worked hard and eventually earned a management position at the Milliken textile mill, solidifying the family's middle-class status. (Edwards remembers his father watching math classes on public access television at 5:00 in the morning to gain more work skills.)
Edwards emulated his father's dogged work ethic, taking hard jobs in difficult conditions: cleaning out ducts at the mill and laying carpet in mobile homes. After graduating from high school, Edwards enrolled at Clemson University in South Carolina. When a football scholarship didn't materialize, he transferred to North Carolina State University, working the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift unloading boxes at UPS to fund his education. (His mother refinished and sold antiques to help with college expenses as well.)
Edwards graduated with a textile technology degree summa cum laude in three years, and enrolled in law school at the University of North Carolina, where he met his future wife. The couple married in 1977, allowing Elizabeth's mother to pay for a one-night honeymoon in Williamsburg, Va., since Edwards was low on cash and didn't believe in credit cards.
Edwards quickly became a successful trial lawyer and formed his own firm with a friend in 1993. He specialized in medical malpractice suits, winning massive judgments against hospitals and doctors, and becoming a multimillionaire in the process. (As a U.S. Senator from North Carolina from 1999-2005, Edwards resisted malpractice reform legislation.)
Though Edwards doesn't talk much about his father's work-driven rise to middle-class status-or his own work-driven rise to wealthy status-he does talk about something else he says motivates his emphasis on "eliminating poverty": his faith.
Edwards declined several interview requests from WORLD, but in a recent interview with beliefnet.com, the candidate said Jesus would be "appalled" about the 37 million people living in poverty in America, noting the New Testament's instruction to care for the poor: "And I think I as a Christian, and we as a nation, have a moral responsibility to do something about it."
In an interview on his website with Jim Wallis, Edwards called poverty-fighting "the Lord's work," adding, "our place is to lift up these people who God and Christ would have lifted up."
But if poverty-fighting is the Lord's work, the government is the tool to accomplish it, according to Edwards. To that end, the candidate has unveiled a detailed plan that includes: raising the minimum wage, raising taxes to implement a universal health-care system that could cost $120 billion a year, and encouraging legislation to strengthen unions.
Instead of awarding school vouchers to allow families with children to choose schools for themselves, including private ones, Edwards proposes creating 1 million new housing vouchers to pay for families to move to neighborhoods with the public schools of their choice.
All the while, Edwards seems to acknowledge that private groups are better at fighting poverty than the government. He's touted the work of teen pregnancy centers, private charities, youth baseball coaches, and one-on-one mentors.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Edwards praised the work of private groups and churches in responding to the disaster effectively. "The government was a mess responding to the hurricane," he said. "But the country wasn't."
Edwards has also acknowledged the indispensable role of churches in helping the needy. "There are a lot of places in America, that without faith-based groups there is no support for the poor," he told beliefnet.com. "And [the poor] would not survive without the existence of good, effective faith-based organizations."
Edwards calls his vision of government programs for the poor the out-working of his faith, but the candidate is less clear about the inner workings of his faith. Edwards grew up in a church-going, Southern Baptist home, but drifted away from the church in college. He says his faith came "roaring back" after the tragic death of his 16-year-old son, Wade, in 1996. He also credits faith in coping with his wife's cancer, which has recently recurred.
But while Edwards often talks about his Southern Baptist upbringing, he talks little about his current church involvement. He has attended United Methodist churches in the past, but a spokeswoman for Edwards said she doesn't know what church he currently attends.
After Edwards' defeat in his bid for the vice presidency in 2004, ABC's George Stephanopoulos noted that Edwards said he wished he had been able to talk more about his faith during the campaign. So he asked Edwards: "What do you want people to know about your relationship with God?" Edwards replied: "My faith is an enormous part of my life, and this is part of who I am. But I don't believe the answer for us going forward is to invoke the Lord's name 55 times in a speech."
Edwards' religious views came under scrutiny in February when he refused to fire from his campaign two bloggers with a history of viciously offensive writings about Christians. Among other things, Amanda Marcotte had used foul, explicit language to ask what would have happened if the Virgin Mary had used so-called emergency contraceptives. Campaign co-worker Melissa McEwan called President Bush's conservative Christian supporters his "wingnut Christofascist base."
Though the bloggers eventually resigned on their own, Edwards defended his decision not to fire them. He said he was "personally offended" by the bloggers' comments, but believed they didn't mean to denigrate a particular religion.
Less than a month later, when conservative Ann Coulter foolishly alluded to Edwards as a "faggot" during a speech, the candidate's response was different: "The kind of hateful language she used has no place in political debate or our society at large. I believe it is our moral responsibility to speak out against that kind of bigotry and prejudice every time we encounter it."
Edwards' campaign website prominently displayed the video of Coulter's speech, with the headline: "Shame on you, Ann Coulter." The web page asked visitors to "help us raise $100,000 in Coulter Cash" to "fight back against the politics of bigotry."
(Edwards has said he doesn't believe homosexuality is a sin, and he favors "civil unions" for same-sex couples. He also says he would repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays. Prominent leaders of the homosexual community have endorsed his candidacy.)
The next nine months will be a race for Edwards to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the fight for the Democratic nomination. He'll be relying on his universal health-care proposal and his strident opposition to the war, seeking to go further left and out-do other candidates in these hot-button areas. (He's proposed bringing 40,000 troops home now and withdrawing all troops in the next 12 to 18 months.)
In the meantime, back in Chapel Hill, Monty Johnson will be tending to his garden and supporting Rudy Giuliani, a candidate he says "lowers taxes and crime." Johnson says he's still willing to meet the elusive Edwards, who recently told a crowd in nearby Greensboro that politicians "need to get out here in the real world and find out how it really is."