Commentary: John Edwards and the pitfalls of 'trying to be great'

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Jason Fritz / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / MCT

John Edwards and I were having dinner together at the Glenwood Grill in Raleigh.

It was the summer of 1997 and no one outside of legal circles had heard of him. Edwards wanted to bounce an idea off of me, Observer political writer Jim Morrill and Observer columnist Jack Betts. He was a trial lawyer, and a hugely successful one, but now he was contemplating a run for the United States Senate despite having zero name recognition and having shown little interest in politics to that point in his life.

The conversation flowed easily. Edwards was an engaging guy, with a great smile and a hearty laugh.

I asked him why he wanted to be a senator, and what his top priorities would be. To my surprise, he hemmed and hawed and stammered. He said he wanted to help people, but beyond that he couldn't really answer that simple question.

After dinner, Morrill, Betts and I talked. Morrill had been struck by Edwards' charisma, and thought he could surprise people by proving to be a political force. I was struck by how little Edwards seemed to know about the issues. It seemed to me he was running not because of any grand vision for North Carolina or the country, but because it just seemed like a good challenge. We were both right.

For all of John Edwards' sizable flaws, he's no dummy. He knew he didn't know enough about public policy and would get eaten alive in a tough political campaign. So he did what he needed to succeed: He boned up on the issues, surrounding himself with experts and delving into materials to better grasp the many topics on which U.S. senators must be conversant. He quickly memorized some key points on Social Security and health care and other issues, and I watched him recite them at stop after stop on the 1998 campaign trail.

With his money, work ethic, life story and personality, that was all the substance he needed. Once, when he arrived at a big luncheon in Greensboro, he warmly greeted dozens of people one by one before giving a speech. I was riding shotgun in his car afterward and asked him about that.

"You gotta shake every hand in the room and look 'em in the eye. Jim Hunt taught me that," Edwards said.

Edwards and I had a telling exchange on the campaign trail during the 1998 primary. He and I were sitting in a Burger King in rural eastern North Carolina. He had never run for office before, and had not yet even beaten D.G. Martin in the primary.

For some reason, though, I asked him: "If you were to win the primary, and then upset Lauch Faircloth in November, could you envision ever running for higher office ... like, president?"

The guy who had not even voted in half the previous elections grinned and said, "You never say never."

Now that's ambition. That is unparalleled self-confidence.

A thought-provoking quote was making the rounds the other day. It's from a webcomic called xkcd.com.

"You don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process."

In the xkcd comic, the quote was from zombie Marie Curie, directed at a girl who aspired to be a famous scientist. But this, I believe, is at the heart of John Edwards' spectacular fall.

Edwards thought he could become great by trying to be great. It was never apparent that he had something he really wanted to achieve through politics, other than his own elevation, so there was nothing for him to do "so hard" that he "became great in the process."

Now, it was revealed last week, Edwards faces probable federal indictments accusing him of using campaign money to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter.

Ambition and self-confidence can be powerful drivers. Along with intelligence and hard work, they helped make Edwards one of the nation's finest trial lawyers and took him from the tiny town of Robbins, N.C., to the brink of the White House. But ambition, alas, is not enough to be truly great.

Before Edwards won his Senate seat, his colleague Wade Smith told me: "What drives John is a longing to be everything he is capable of being, and a fear he may come to the end of his life and realize he wasn't."

And what a tragedy that would be.