John Edwards and the Damsel in Distress

A guide to understanding what makes the vice presidential candidate tick. Originally published at The Weekly Standard

IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND trial lawyers like John Edwards, you have to recognize their one enduring fantasy. They are knights in shining armor rescuing damsels in distress.

They’ll tell you they’re “standing up for the little guy” or “enforcing the Constitution” or “sending a message” or “teaching the big guys a lesson.” But at bottom there’s always that one image — a lonely woman, young, attractive, helpless, waiting to be rescued by some hero with a law degree.

John O’Quinn is arguably the most successful trial lawyer in the country. A big, handsome, charismatic Houston native with a golden tongue, O’Quinn is a billionaire who, among other accomplishments, personally bankrupted Dow Corning over breast implants. He recently won another billion-dollar verdict for a woman with a heart ailment who allegedly died from taking the diet pill combo Phen-fen.

I interviewed O’Quinn at length last September. He’s a ball of fire, an Elmer Gantry of the courtroom who alternately soars and whispers — even during a simple interview — in an effort to convert the listener to his vision of the promised land. That vision is that the world in which we live is ruled and dominated by all-powerful, corrupt, and absolutely evil corporations.

“What kind of country are we living in?” he roared in a reprise of his closing arguments. “Was Lincoln just a fool when he said this is a country of, by, and for the people? Or did he say something that we can really believe in, that little children can recite with pride in school? No! This is a country of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the rich, goddamned corporations. A corporation can be a criminal — an absolute criminal — and nobody can do a goddamned thing about it!” (He actually used much more unpresentable language but asked me to clean it up in deference to his local minister.)

After awhile, I began to suspect there was something much more than money involved. There was an obvious emotional imperative. O’Quinn eventually explained it himself through “the picture.” In an office filled with otherwise tasteful (and original) Western art, there was one painting on the center wall that was so bad I didn’t have the heart to mention it. Two Roman gladiators battled each other in one of those romantic 19th-century kitsch settings laden with objects of allegory. It looked like something bought in a pawnshop.

But O’Quinn brought it up himself. “Do you like my favorite painting?” he asked.

“What’s it supposed to be?” I responded neutrally.

“The gladiator on the left has one client,” he said proudly. “He’s the rich man with his foot on the treasury. And the gladiator on the right has one client. That’s the woman with the baby. They’re both fighting to defend their clients.

“People ask me, `Why do you continue to do this, John? You’re already a billionaire. You don’t have to do this anymore. Why do you keep going back into the courtroom.’ And I tell them, ‘I do it because of what’s in that painting. The gladiator on the right — that’s me.”

You could see the same thing last night when John Edwards made his “closing argument.” Sure, Edwards talked about “strength” and “decisiveness” and paid lip service to the idea that somewhere out there in the world there are some pretty bad people in headdresses that we ought to do something about some day. But when it came to defining his core vision, here’s what Edwards said:

Tonight, as we celebrate in this hall, somewhere in America, a mother sits at the kitchen table. She can’t sleep because she’s worried she can’t pay her bills. She’s working hard trying to pay her rent, trying to feed her kids, but she just can’t catch up.

It didn’t use to be that way in her house. Her husband was called up in the Guard. Now he’s been in Iraq for over a year. They thought he was going to come home last month, but now he’s got to stay longer.

She thinks she’s alone. But tonight in this hall and in your homes, you know what? She’s got a lot of friends.

We want her to know that we hear her. . .

So, when you return home some night, you might pass a mother on her way to work the late shift, you tell her: Hope is on the way.

Let’s look at what’s going on here. First and foremost, we’ve got a lonely woman. There’s a passing reference to Iraq and her husband, but that’s basically to get him out of the house and out of the picture. (Remember, these are the same people who brought you the welfare system, also designed to get men out of the house and out of the picture.)

She has no friends, no relatives, no church, no community, nothing to rely on. Her husband? Well, he doesn’t even seem to write anymore. And so she sits by herself at the kitchen table, waiting for someone to come along.

What a beautiful vision of America — a nation of lonely, isolated women, in dire need of help, abandoned by everyone, waiting for some handsome trial lawyer to come knocking on their door.

Hope is on the way.

William Tucker is a fellow at the Discovery Institute. His book on trial lawyers, Civil Lynchings, will be published next year.