Four Trials
By John Edwards
Simon & Schuster, 237 pp., $24.00

They’ll be saying it around North Carolina for a long time to come. “John Edwards, I remember him. He was a damn good lawyer.”

And so he was, and may well be again, if and when the wheels finally come off our one-term senator’s upstart presidential campaign. Whatever Edwards’ ultimate political fate, it will remain an interesting question just what it was about the senator’s busy and lucrative 20 years in trial law that drove him into politics. Beyond that, how did he come to think that he should attempt a meteoric rise to the White House?

Clues abound in Four Trials, Edwards’ welcome departure from the traditional campaign booster book. (He’s got one of those too, or something like it–an all-business, 60-page policy brief, “Real Solutions for America.”) Edwards wrote Four Trials with the acknowledged assistance of John Auchard, a University of Maryland English professor, and while this is no John Grisham novel, it does offer some compelling narratives of real-life cases, the kind that feature both wanton corporate malfeasance and adept legal advocacy for individuals and families who’ve suffered much.

The cases Edwards recounts will jog memories across North Carolina. In Asheville, he helped a man, who was permanently disabled because his doctor gave him a drug overdose, to obtain millions of dollars to pay for long-term care. In Pitt County, he convinced a jury that a hospital was liable for a botched delivery that left a newborn with severe disabilities. In Yadkinville, he helped a family force the trucking industry to invest more in driver safety, after an over-worked driver mowed down two young parents. And perhaps most famously, near Raleigh in Medfield, Edwards won hearty damages for the family of Valerie Lakey, a five-year-old who was horribly injured by a swimming pool suction drain with a faulty cover.

Edwards gives blow-by-blow accounts, dissecting each of the cases and explaining his calculus and methods in matters ranging from pre-trial preparation to jury selection to securing high-dollar settlements. Along the way, he suggests that the lessons he learned playing legal hardball against high-powered corporate attorneys would help him fend for regular Americans from the Oval Office.

Edwards’ much-mentioned tales of growing up in a blue-collar family are retold here as well, but the trials generally prove more interesting than the personal anecdotes he salts the book with. He tells us, “On the weekend before a trial, it became an Edwards family tradition to dine together at O’Charley’s in Raleigh.” A fond enough memory, but does Edwards really need to list what each family member had for dinner? (FYI, he had the fish.)

Regarding one intimate family matter that Edwards rarely speaks about, however, his approach is fittingly discrete and tasteful. As many reviewers have noted, the book’s brief but poignant account of the death of Edwards’ 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car accident, tells how the tragedy transformed Edwards but doesn’t overreach by trying to relate the tragedy to the senator’s political aspirations.

If there’s one key insight that Four Trials provides, it may be that, in the courtroom, Edwards came to see himself as a fighter for justice, the kind who marshals every detail and every shred of sentiment to win. He may not be able to translate his skills for litigation into a viable run for the White House, but as this book amply demonstrates, Edwards could still do much public service as a damn good lawyer. –Jon Elliston

A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America
By John Kerry
Viking, 202 pp., $24.95

Until his last-minute surge in the Iowa caucuses, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, so very presidential–at least on paper–couldn’t seem to get his campaign cooking. Reading Kerry’s campaign book, A Call to Service, it’s easy to see why. Like its author, the book is patient, well-reasoned, seasoned with experience and full of lofty rhetoric. Like its author, it also comes off as mighty wonkish and dull.

In its more lively passages, A Call to Service draws on key moments in Kerry’s not uninteresting career, which has taken him from Navy gunboats in the Mekong Delta to the front lines of the anti-Vietnam War movement to important legislative battles on Capitol Hill. The preface, which comes within range of engaging, recounts an all-night flight to the Middle East during which Kerry mended fences with maverick GOP Sen. John McCain, a fellow decorated Vietnam veteran, and learned to seek common ground with his political enemies.

It’s his “vision” for unseating those enemies that ultimately comes off too formulaically to inspire. Kerry includes plenty of sharp critiques of the Bush administration, to be sure, and some detailed and sensibly progressive policy proposals. But it’s all so utterly lacking in passion, punch, outrage and humor–in anything that would resonate with disaffected voters–that readers might justifiably wonder if this is one political ace who’s flying on autopilot. –Jon Elliston

The Savage Nation: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on our Borders, Language, and Culture
By Michael Savage
WND Books, 220 pp., $24.99

Is the Fox News Channel’s ever-blunt Bill O’Reilly too polite for your tastes? Do you find the venomous author Ann Coulter insufficiently acerbic? Has Rush Limbaugh’s roar become too mealy-mouthed for you? If so, don’t despair: Michael Savage’s bestseller is the book you’ve been looking for.

A California-based talk radio host, the aptly named Savage achieved brief infamy last summer when MSNBC offered him his own weekend show. The cable channel promptly fired Savage after he made these indelicate remarks to a caller to the show: “Oh, you’re one of those sodomites. You should get AIDS and die, you pig… [G]o eat a sausage and choke on it.”

Undeterred, Savage fumes on in The Savage Nation, a wide-ranging screed against the state of things in what he calls “homosexualized, feminized America.” The book reads like a verbatim transcript of Savage’s off-the-cuff radio rants, which it may very well be. In Savage-land, “diversity is perversity,” immigrants from “Turd World nations” are the greatest threat to the good life, and the anti-war movement is populated by “rats” who “should be detained for investigation of sedition.”

Thin on facts and heavy on vitriol, the book points to signs of the country’s supposed moral decline in the most unlikely of places. “Meatballs can tell us a lot about a society,” Savage writes in one typically weird bit. “Back when America was still moral and whole, our meatballs were big, soft and tasty. Today, thanks mainly to the Demoncrats, the libs, and the Commu-Nazis who rule the courts, America’s meatballs are small, hard and tasteless. In other words, we’ve replicated the Swedish meatball, which is what socialism brings.”

Savage does offer some clues to the fount of his considerable rage. “I was raised on neglect, anger and hate,” he writes. “I was raised the old-fashioned way.” For readers seeking that sort of nostalgia, The Savage Nation offers a 220-page trip down memory lane. –Jon Elliston

Winning Back America
By Howard Dean
Simon & Schuster 179 pp., $11.95

Howard Dean: A citizen’s Guide to the man who would be president
By Dirk Van Susteren (editor)
Steerforth Press, 245 pp., $12.95

It’s not quite a year since he burst onto the stage at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting and demanded to know why “Washington Democrats” weren’t standing up to President Bush over his unilateral war against Iraq or, for that matter, anything else. “My name is Howard Dean,” he declared, “and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”

Yes, Dean stole that line from the late Paul Wellstone, which only showed his good political instincts. By attacking Bush head-on while others (Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt) fiddled, the former Vermont governor won the hearts of Democratic activists and by year’s end surged to the front in the race for the party’s presidential nomination. As significant, perhaps, Dean lit a fuse under the other candidates, so that now all of them are–come to think of it–enraged by the war, the tax cuts and all other things Bush.

Odd, then, that Dean is now under fire by these same candidates for being too blunt, too angry, and–because he was the lightning rod on the war–too easily portrayed by the Republicans as a weirdo liberal.

Is he?

In his campaign tract, Winning Back America, Dean rejects the very idea. He’s a centrist, he says. “I have always felt comfortable in the middle; it’s where most reasonable solutions are found.” It’s Bush who’s the radical, Dean charges, with his “unnecessary and costly war” and “reckless $3 trillion tax cut program.”

The authors of Howard Dean: A Citizen’s Guide, nine Vermont journalists who’ve seen him at close range, agree. It’s ironic that Dean must show he is not “a strange duck, not weak, not too far to the left,” because he’s nothing of the sort, says Jon Margolis, the former Chicago Tribune national political writer and Vermont resident whose chapter opens the book. “He is a middlebrow who has lived his life according to the accepted norms,” Margolis says, and as a Democrat “is slightly right of center.”

Dean’s book is of interest around here mainly for its discussion of his brother Charlie’s death. Charlie, who was 15 months younger, was a student leader at UNC-Chapel Hill in anti-Vietnam War times. He was captured and killed in Laos in late 1974, apparently by the Pathet Lao. Dean thinks his brother was there as the continuation of a post-graduation trip through Asia, and not as any sort of government agent, notwithstanding the fact that while Charlie was missing, he was classified POW-MIA.

Chapel Hillians will also note Dean’s favorite books. His short list includes Nickel and Dimed, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of life among the working poor that so infuriated campus Republicans when it was picked as the common read for incoming frosh at the university. “If you think the discussion of the travails of the middle class and the working poor is a liberal invention, you must read this book,” Dean says.

His favorite book? Truman, by David McCullough. Harry Truman is his political hero, Dean says.

Dean is not one to waste words. He is “fairly religious,” he says, and though not a regular churchgoer, prays daily. Less than 100 words later, he’s on to something else.

Fortunately, A Citizen’s Guide is a surprisingly good telling of the Dean story in just over 200 fast-moving pages. It doesn’t contradict the candidate but it does flesh out the bare bones of his own accounts. Who is Dean? Well, first of all he’s a doctor, with all the personality traits thereof. He’s quick to diagnose, and can be prickly when questioned. On the other hand, there’s nothing phony about him–like most people who aren’t politicians, he tells you what he thinks straight up. And he’s all about helping others, not himself.

Dean is the oldest of four brothers, scion of a rich Republican family and a product of New York City, the Hamptons, a Newport, Rhode Island prep school, Yale and the anti-war years at Yale (Class of ’71, three years behind Bush). As Guide’s reporters tell it, he has all the self-assurance that such a privileged start could provide, and all the need to prove himself that it could freight upon him.

Directionless at Yale, Dean at first went to work on Wall Street, as his dad and granddad had before him, but within a year he struck on a novel path. Though he’d taken not one science class as an undergraduate, he decided to go to medical school, and–after two years of night courses at Columbia–did so at Albert Einstein Medical School in NYC. He didn’t get any of his first three choices of medical residencies, all in New York. His fourth choice was Burlington, Vermont, where a younger brother was in college.

Vermont brought the perfect fusion of Dean’s needs and talents. As a doctor, and a Democrat, his declaration of independence from dad was total. He was a natural leader (the oldest boy, smart, and a good athlete), and Vermont was a small pond in which he made big ripples right away, demonstrating the seriousness that he lacked at Yale but now–especially since Charlie’s death–absolutely exuded. He gave up drinking not because of a problem with it; rather, “it served no purpose.”

And that “bike path” you’ve heard about that caused him to no longer be an Episcopalian? Actually, it was a nine-mile waterfront conservation project along the dilapidated industrial lakeshore in Burlington, a major open-space initiative that pitted Dean and a few other conservation activists against condominium developers who wanted to build right on the lake. The Episcopal Church owned some of the land involved and was no help. Today, the waterfront is Burlington’s jewel and has generated far more economic development for the city than the condo developers ever imagined.

Dean’s story in Vermont is much like that of George H.W. Bush, who left his aristocratic New England family behind for the life of a Texas oilman. Dean took up a new occupation in a new place that was as different from dad’s as it could be. (George W. Bush, by contrast, was a pale imitation of his father as an oilman and came to own the Texas Rangers only because dad’s friends cut him in on it. Ditto, one might say, the Texas governorship and, for that matter, the presidency.)

On the other hand, Vermont’s politics encompassed for Dean his own egalitarianism and the best of his father’s Republicanism: It’s a state of rural centers governed by town meetings, where people look out for each other and their community while squeezing a buck; it’s also a place where people care deeply about the land and environmental conservation.

Off his lakeshore success (and while waiting for his fiance, Dr. Judith Steinberg, to finish her residency in Montreal and join him in family practice), Dean jumped into local politics and within eight years was elected lieutenant governor. He became governor when Republican Richard Snelling died unexpectedly.

Snelling was a great centrist figure in Vermont and Dean, publicly embracing Snelling’s approach, continued his policies. Operating from the middle, and occasionally clashing with liberal Democrats over his parsimonious budgets and pro-business stance, Dean was elected to five successive two-year terms. His major achievements: extending health insurance to many more lower-income Vermonters, and adding 470,000 acres to Vermont’s public forests and open space preserves.

Dean also signed the legislation allowing homosexual couples to enter into civil unions with the same legal rights as married couples. He announced his support for that initiative about an hour after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state must either allow gay marriage or its civil equivalent. Dean chose a conservative approach to protect human rights; he does not support gay marriage, making his position similar to all the other leading presidential candidates–except, of course, George W. —Bob Geary