Ballot Box

The Best of John Edwards

The bravest thing he ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of John Edwards—and what they leave out.

The story: “When I met Ethan [Bedrick], he was a beautiful five-year-old boy afflicted with severe cerebral palsy since birth. Every doctor who took care of Ethan said he needed physical therapy. If he did not get it, the doctors said, he was going to become constricted. … There was only one doctor who said Ethan didn’t need physical therapy. That doctor had never seen Ethan. That doctor sat behind a desk in a distant state and worked for a big insurance company. … Even though the law is greatly slanted in favor of HMOs and insurance companies, my firm took Ethan’s case. After two or three years of litigation, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said the doctor and the insurance company were wrong. … On one side are children like Ethan Bedrick. On the other side are powerful, well-financed interests with their legions of lobbyists.” (Edwards, Trial magazine, July 1, 2001)

Reality check: The way Edwards tells the story, he took up the case to help good doctors beat a bad HMO. But the case Edwards took up wasn’t against the HMO. It was a malpractice case against the doctor who had delivered Ethan. (The suit claimed that the doctor had failed to head off Ethan’s oxygen deprivation, leading to brain damage.) After Edwards won a settlement from the doctor, it was Edwards’ law partner, David Kirby, who won the case against the HMO. Edwards never mentions Kirby’s role and uses phrases such as “my law firm” and “we” to cover both cases.

Edwards also oversimplifies when he claims that “children like Ethan” are on one side and “well-financed interests” with “piles of money” are on the other. In the malpractice case, Edwards won a $5 million settlement, the largest in the history of North Carolina. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, although Edwards & Kirby took less than its usual one-third share of the settlement, the firm still got a seven-figure payday in that case alone.