Jewish World Review July 8, 2004 / 18 Tamuz, 5764

Collin Levey

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Consumer Reports

Presidential contest is shaping up as a battle of professional archetypes | A few words today about lawyers and businessmen. With John Kerry's choice of John Edwards as his running mate, the presidential contest is shaping up as a battle of professionalarchetypes. It will be, at its base, a race between the producers and the advocates. And a little bit of vocational history will go a long way to understanding the stakes.

You'll recall that, outside of Washington, George Bush's and Dick Cheney's private-sector careers were as business leaders — Cheney at Halliburton and Bush at the Texas Rangers and smallish oil companies. In the early days of Bush's presidency, the media made much of our first commander in chief with an MBA: His management skills were said to inform not just his political opinions but his style in the Oval Office.

That résumé won Bush and Cheney not a few detractors on the left and their corporate connections remain a rich source of fodder for the activist community. When accounting scandals were steaming up the headlines, webzine Salon trilled that Enron and WorldCom would "remind Americans of the corners Bush and Cheney cut during their days in the executive suites of corporate America."

This is a theme that certain Democrats are eager to return to during the campaign, given its power to energize the base. Democratic mouthpiece Paul Begala couldn't resist an opportunity on Tuesday to remark that Cheney was "working for an irresponsible corporation in Halliburton." It's also ever-popular with the party's single-largest source of funding, the trial-lawyer lobby.

The tort bar makes its ample living by dragging — or threatening to drag — companies in front of juries that have been prepped by long exposure to media and political rhetoric portraying corporations as the source of heartless evil. Indeed, Edwards spent his first two decades of his career as a prominent plaintiffs' attorney, specializing in medical-malpractice law and winning many colossal awards with his signature feel-their-pain courtroom style. His career in politics has consisted of a single, yet-to-be-completed term in the Senate.

Many critics have leapt on Edwards' relative inexperience as a lawmaker, citing the boyish senator's failure to get any legislation passed. His role as a newcomer itself should be no prohibitive indictment: This country has a long tradition of citizen leaders and has sought to encourage it in recent years, enacting term limits in many states. The thinness of Edwards' political résumé, though, reasonably shifts more of the focus to his earlier career. And here, the trajectory of his professional and financial success leaves plenty of room for cynicism.

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Edwards is hardly the worst of the bunch. He was famous for rejecting dozens of ripe cases and taking only those that would reflect glory in his later pursuits. The big money in the tort wars comes from cases that have little or nothing to do with helping the "little guy." The tobacco settlement, for instance, did nothing for smokers but burden them with higher cigarette taxes, split between state politicians and a group of politically connected lawyers, who will pull down $500 million a year in legal fees from the deal, probably forever. Many lawsuits take just this form: transfers from consumers to lawyers.

Edwards steered away from class actions, source of the biggest money and biggest legal outrages. Yet, a careful review of his career by The Boston Globe noted that in the field of medical malpractice, he "was one of its most prominent specialists, stretching the reach of the law for nearly two decades." Of particular disrepute in Edwards' career were awards he extracted from hospitals on behalf of cerebral palsy victims who claimed to have been afflicted by mishandled childbirth deliveries.

The science behind such claims was always iffy and now has been thoroughly discredited in a report by the Institute of Medicine. As we've seen in lawsuits ranging from asbestos to breast implants, that's no impediment to a big payday for plaintiffs and their lawyers. But lately, runaway malpractice costs have made it hard for women in many cities to find doctors and hospitals to deliver their babies — a story that has started to make the network news shows.

Edwards has famously taken a "bring it on" attitude toward political challenges to his legal career. Yet, he obviously felt the need for some inoculation against the real abuses that take place: He has offered his own proposal for panels of experts to screen malpractice cases before they're allowed in front of a jury.

The North Carolina senator believes his sympathetic plaintiffs make his legal past untouchable. But there's no question that the cost of such lawyering as Edwards once practiced has been staggering — explaining the uncharacteristically extreme reaction of the business community to his selection by Kerry.

Edwards' homey style charmed voters during the primaries, and the talents that define a top attorney — the ability to marshal facts and rhetoric into a seamless and irresistible story line that gives the listener a choice between good and evil — will make him dangerous. Nowhere will this be more evident than in the upcoming vice-presidential debates, pitting the terse competence of CEO Cheney against the heart and soul of crusading lawyer Edwards.

But don't put all your money yet on Edwards. The "hot" style of a trial lawyer plays well in the physical confines of a courtroom, where the jury falls directly under the lawyer's eye and feels emotionally intimidated into affirming that, yes, they, too, are opposed to pure corporate evil. On TV, as Howard "Yeeahhhh" Dean reminded us, cool is better than hot.

On TV, the jury is anonymous, invisible and securely in its own living room. It's not so easily intimidated by emotional theatrics. It might even be able to understand that there are tragedies for which perhaps no "bad guy" is available.

JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.

06/25/04: Could Nader help the Dems?
06/17/04: Odd man out: Al Gore's journey into irrelevance
06/10/04: A chance to settle down and see where we are

© 2004, Collin Levey