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John Edwards' Problem Brother

A seeming liability could politically aid the candidate.

September 29, 2004|Dalton Conley | Dalton Conley is the director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research and author of "The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why" (Pantheon, 2004).

Wesley Blake Edwards -- better known as the kid brother of vice presidential nominee John Edwards -- is scheduled to go on trial today in Colorado, answering 10-year-old charges of driving while intoxicated.

Wesley Edwards has been arrested on numerous occasions for driving drunk. He has skipped out of court appearances. So, while he finally faces the music, political junkies must be wondering: Is he Roger Clinton lite? Or perhaps the second coming of Billy Carter?

Democrats would probably like to sweep Wesley Edwards under the rug. They shouldn't, for two reasons: John Edwards' tribulations with his younger sibling only enhance his image as the only candidate with true "Joe Sixpack" roots. And, as John Edwards grapples with his brother's problems, we may actually learn something compelling about this man who wants to lead us.

Most American families, rich or poor, have some black sheep -- a brother or sister or cousin -- who causes immense pain to the rest of the family as relatives fret over whether to bail him or her out yet again. What humanizes John Edwards, though, is that his brother's situation particularly identifies him not with the elite but with the rest of us.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 01, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Edwards' brother -- A Wednesday commentary said that a Colorado drunk driving trial for John Edwards' brother, Wesley Blake Edwards, was scheduled to begin Wednesday. Actually, it had been postponed until Nov. 29.

When a sheep goes astray in a working-class family, there are usually not enough money, time and connections to do much about it, especially when the family's efforts have already been expended on the star, say a John Edwards or a Bill Clinton.

Working-class families that produce presidents are no longer exceptional, and so we are becoming more familiar with the antics of the siblings left behind. There was Donald Nixon's "loan" from Howard Hughes to support his marketing of Nixonburgers. There was the infamous Billybeer venture, not to mention Billy Carter's registration as an "agent" of the Libyan government. And Roger Clinton's drug arrest hardly added luster to that family's image.

Contrast those tales with similar stories among presidential families that are rich and prominent. In poor families, the star often gets the biggest slice at the proverbial family table, but in well-to-do households, it is usually the laggard who gets the most parental investment. Jeb Bush was an honors student, graduating college at 20 to become a rising star in Florida politics. Less successful Bush brothers Neil and George W. kept needing -- and getting -- second chances as they flailed about in the business world. Remember Neil and the Silverado savings-and-loan scandal? Or a young, fun-loving George W.'s failed attempt at drilling oil?

Or take the case of the Kennedys: The family even went so far as to strong-arm the head of the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles into backdating Ted Kennedy's driver's license renewal so that he would have been a legal driver when he drove Mary Jo Kopechne to her death at Chappaquiddick.

George W. and Ted Kennedy didn't turn out so bad after all, despite being black sheep. Just goes to show what wealth and power can do to smooth over family problems.

Of course, when we elect an individual, we get a family. The more we see that family in action, the better we know the candidate. Siblings in crisis make for a good eyewitness opportunity.

When Jimmy Carter was confronted with Billy Carter's Libyan shenanigans, he merely remarked that his brother was a private citizen and free to do what he wanted. This might be seen as a signal of Carter's nonconfrontational style, not to mention his attitude toward discipline and loyalty. By contrast, when then-Gov. Bill Clinton was faced with the sting operation in Arkansas that would land his brother in jail, he did not stand in the way of the police. That might seem coldhearted or self-serving.

John Edwards, however, may have gotten it just right: He has been generous with his money, going so far as to buy his brother the house in which he lives, but he hasn't been afraid to show tough love -- forcing Wesley Edwards to own up to his outstanding warrants.

If John Edwards deals with political friends and foes the way he dealt with his problematic brother, then he should be a great leader.

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