Thrust into the spotlight

Cate Edwards on the campaign trail

Staff WriterAugust 15, 2004 

The south side of Kansas City glittered for a late-night appearance by the Kerry-Edwards campaign, one stop in a cross-country blitz that would take the Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates to 22 states in 15 days. The stage was set on the front steps of Union Station, a grand local landmark. You could see the glow for miles.

It was nearly 10 p.m. when John Kerry, John Edwards and their families arrived Aug. 5, expecting a crowd of maybe 4,000 people. Twenty-five thousand had come.

"I'll tell you, you look beautiful from here," Edwards shouted into his microphone, squinting to see the screaming throngs spread all the way up the grassy hill.

Behind him, standing between her mother and one of John Kerry's daughters, was Edwards' daughter Cate, following her father's gaze into the crowd. But with a difference: She had her left arm up, palm stretched out, shielding her eyes against the huge searchlights' white glare.

That's sort of how it's been for 22-year-old Cate Edwards the past five weeks, since Kerry chose her father for a running mate: out there, on stage and blinded by the light.

Maybe no upbringing could prepare a person for the fishbowl life of a modern presidential campaign, in which everything about a candidate is scrutinized, not just policy positions but also personal details, down to their choice of spouse and the genetic traits of their progeny. But Cate Edwards' life before her father's foray into national politics seems an especially stark contrast to the one she is living.

"It's sort of surreal," she says. And a three-day jaunt along the two-week whistlestop trip, dubbed the "Believe in America Tour," gives a sample of what she means. Up early, onto a chartered bus or train or into a minivan, off to a rally in some town she's never heard of in a state where she's never been, approached by strangers who know her name, watched over by Secret Service, cheered by thousands as she and her family take the stage.

A privileged life

As the speeches drone on -- she knows every line, every joke before it's said -- she sometimes looks like a distracted college student sitting in class. That's what she was until just a couple of months ago, when she graduated from Princeton. She knows there are other things she could be doing, like starting her new job in New York, or setting up her new room in her new apartment there -- getting on with her new life.

But here she is, on the road, believing, as her father's would-be boss Kerry tells every crowd, "This November, everything is at stake. Everything is on the line."

For a child of John Edwards, it seems unlikely that anything could be so dire. Cate well knows that her father's millions, earned in the courtroom representing people gravely injured by negligence or medical malpractice, form a suit of armor that makes moot most of the issues of his political platform. She had a fine home, two, in fact, including one at exclusive Figure Eight Island; she never lacked health care; she attended public schools through 12th grade but didn't have to worry about paying for college. While millions of women struggle to find a job that can pay the bills, Cate sent out one resume, had one interview and got an offer from one of the country's most popular magazines, though she's likely headed for a career in law.

"I was looking for a fun, interesting job where I could meet a lot of people," she says. "And Vanity Fair is a mix of serious and glamorous. In my interview, they told me that I might be researching the war in Iraq one day and Michael Jackson the next."

She is smart, one of the best students in her graduating class at Raleigh's Broughton High School and scoring a perfect 800 on the math section of her SAT. She's pretty, slightly resembling a young Brooke Shields. A natural athlete, she played soccer and basketball, and pitched for the girls' softball team. Her father was one of her early coaches.

"It's almost not fair, she's so good at everything," laments Anna Arnett, a close friend since kindergarten.

Still, at least until she was 14, Cate was just the really bright second child of one of Raleigh's most successful lawyers.

Then, in 1996, Cate's older brother, Wade, was killed in a freak auto accident on the way to the beach. He was 16.

The family was devastated.

For a while after the accident, Cate slept in her parents' bedroom. Her mother, Elizabeth Ananias, an accomplished bankruptcy attorney, left her practice and dropped her maiden name. John Edwards quit practicing, too.

After talking it over with Cate, the couple decided to try to have more children. Emma Claire, now 6, and towheaded Jack, 4, arrived as Cate was finishing high school and heading to college.

Cate, once the younger sibling, is now the adored big sister. Throughout college, she and friends say, she came home at every opportunity to spend time with her family and build a relationship with her little brother and sister.

"Emma Claire looks up to her so much," says Settle Plyler Monroe, who has known Cate since both were 3. "Her family really is the No. 1 thing for her."

Daddy's girl

In an interview during the presidential primaries, when her father was still a contender, Cate confessed that her dad's nickname for her is Caty-Did. Is she Daddy's little girl?

"I would definitely consider myself Daddy's little girl," Cate answered. "We've always been really close, but I guess he's the kind of dad who really spoiled me."

When her father decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Cate's friends say, she knew he could win. When he ran for president three years later, if she doubted his chances, "She never said so," Monroe says. "I think she's always believed in her dad. In school, people would ask her about it. I think she just truly believes in everything he believes in, and she believes in him."

So Cate made time, she explains in an interview in Kansas City the morning of the Union Station rally, to catch up with him on the campaign trail, stand behind him on the podium or cheer from a seat in the audience, watching the spectacle while being a small part of it.

Edwards bowed out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in March. He had surprised pundits with his strong showing, but was unable to win enough states to secure his party's nomination. When it was over, he took time to be with his family. Cate was there.

Then came the whispers of renewal, talk of John Edwards being named Kerry's running mate.

By the time it was announced July 6, Cate had been offered the job at Vanity Fair, fact checking and chasing information for stories by the magazine's contributing writers. When she called to tell them her father -- her country -- needed her, the magazine told her she could start after the November election.

An even more reluctant public speaker than her mother, Cate was asked to give a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. At least it was an easy subject for her. She introduced her mom.

"When she came out on that stage, I just started bawling, I was so proud of her," Monroe says. "... I would have been freaking out, and she was so calm."

The speech amazed Phil Ratliff, who taught Cate in his advanced placement history class at Broughton. Cate was a brilliant writer and a clear thinker, Ratliff says, but in his class, he could not make her speak out. Twenty percent of every student's grade was for participation, and Cate's participation grade was barely passing. The Boston speech made up for it.

"I sent her a telegram," he says, not sure if she received it. "It said, 'Great job, Cate. Oral participation grade: 100-plus.'"

Cate managed not to worry too much about the glare she would face on stage as she gave her speech, a loving introduction in which she said her mother is a strong but joyful woman who helped teach her daughter to dream big and reach high.

"I was fine until about 10 seconds before I went out," she says. "I had spoken to maybe 30 or 40 people before, but never 50 million."

No time to rest

Since then, it's been motorcades, national newspapers, network TV. In Boston, she was feted at parties attended by such luminaries as Ben Affleck and John Cusack. She has become close friends with Kerry's daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa.

Raleigh friends Monroe and Arnett knew Cate was running in some rarefied circles, but didn't really appreciate it until they joined her during the convention.

"That's when we got the first taste of the fact that some really famous people know who she is," Monroe says. "Her world is kind of changing. I mean, we had to go through Secret Service."

And yet, Arnett says, "It was just awesome to hang out with her and see that she's still the same person we've always known, and she's still funny."

Lately, Cate has had almost no time to herself, particularly during the whistlestop tour. Event planners tried to squeeze in as many public appearances by the candidates and their families as possible. The pace of the tour gave it an if-this-is-Tuesday quality, and tested the endurance of the campaign's stars, staff and the cadre of press trying to keep up.

"I can sleep 12, 13 hours if given the chance," says a sleepy Cate, who has caught a mere six hours' rest since arriving in Kansas City on the train.

On public streets, the motorcade is a traveling traffic jam that requires legions of police officers. About half the trip is made by train, an assembly of Amtrak coach cars for the press and mahogany-paneled private cars for the families and their staff, hand-picked from rail collections across the country. An event like this takes at least two months to plan and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Everywhere the entourage goes, supporters crowd the route holding Kerry-Edwards signs, shouting, waving. They stand in the parking lot of the tractor dealership and outside the American Legion post in Smithville, Mo. They will wait for hours in the sun before a rally in La Junta, Colo., and stand in mud puddles over the tops of their shoes down the line in Raton. Babies on shoulders, they hope for a glimpse of someone who might one day be president.

They were occasionally joined along the route by Bush-Cheney supporters. At one rally, a man stood on the edge of the gathering with a sign that read, "Kerry for President -- Of France."

Families, especially children, of the candidates sometimes seem like elaborate props in a grandly staged play.

"It is a bit like being a rock star and not really having an instrument to play," Alexandra Kerry, 30, has said.

Being on the ground

The Smithville event is an invitation-only gathering of about 100 people on a 630-acre farm with horses and cattle. The message of the day is the Kerry-Edwards energy policy. With his daughter and stepson seated on hay bales for benches and a federal agent standing watch from the edge of the corn rows, John Kerry takes a moment to acknowledge the stress this life puts on children.

During Kerry's four terms in the Senate, his daughters have had their share of the spotlight, along with his wife, Teresa, and her two grown sons, Andre and Chris Heinz. Her eldest son, John Heinz IV, has avoided public life and campaign events.

"It's tough on kids," Kerry tells the gathering. "We choose to do this, so it's my life, and the kids get dragged into, so it becomes their life whether they like it or not."

To Cate, though, it's an exciting journey, an antidote to the CNN.com synopses of her father's and Kerry's vision for the future of America.

"I think it's very easy to get caught up in the message -- or the theory of the message," she says. "But then, you get out here on the ground, and you see how much these things really mean to people, the effect it could have on their lives.

"To me, the really exciting thing is being out here on the ground."

Cate's mother is known for making friends in line at the grocery store. And her father nearly makes people swoon on the campaign trail by asking their names and speaking directly to them as he answers their questions. Like them, Cate Edwards looks into people's eyes. She smiles and waves at the waitress at the restaurant who recognizes her face. She shakes hands with almost everybody who is gathered onstage for the rally in La Junta.

"I always knew that I was in a life of privilege and that this was not how most people lived," she says. "My parents always taught me to look out for people who were less fortunate. My parents always taught me never to look down on people."

Like the rest of the Broughton student body, Cate did community service work in high school. She was a regular tutor at the Wade Edwards Learning Lab her parents set up near the school in memory of her brother. But the measure of a person, she says, is in the day-to-day.

"I think it's more in how you treat people," she says.

After the Smithville event, 79-year-old Robert Stanton of Rockport, Mo., shoulders his way through the noonday crowd to tell Cate, whom he knows only as one of the candidates' daughters, that he has a picture of her he snapped from an HDTV image of her giving her convention speech.

"It's absolutely beautiful," he says, and offers to send her a copy. Yes, please do, she tells him, shaking his weathered hand. "I don't have one."

Her life on hold

Later that afternoon, Cate and Elizabeth have a couple of hours together. Emma Claire and Jack have gone to the zoo, and the mother-daughter pair want to relax, get their nails done and go shopping at a Kansas City shoe warehouse they've heard about. Friends say Cate and her mother are voracious bargain hunters.

Cate has finished reading John Irving's "A Widow for One Year," and would like to shop for books if there's time. If not, she has a handful of magazines -- Allure, the New Yorker and her future employer, Vanity Fair -- to thumb through on the road.

The family doesn't like to discuss their feelings of loss about Wade's absence. "It's private," Cate says politely.

But she says her brother would have enjoyed campaigning.

"He would have loved it. He would have been in the corner of the bus, cracking jokes and being a goofball. He would have been a great relief.

"He would be very proud of my father."

By putting her life on hold this summer, Cate is missing out on things. With friends' help, she finally managed to unpack most of the boxes at her new apartment in TriBeCa and bought a gallon of celery-green paint for the walls of her room. But she hasn't had time to apply it. There have been a couple of friends' birthday parties and a concert this very night by two of her favorite singers, Matt Nathanson opening for Howie Day, at Jones Beach Theater in New York.

Instead, she will be in the confines of a rail car Harry S Truman is rumored to have traveled in, as it rolls through tired, sad towns where regular people will stand almost with their feet on the tracks wearing expressions of what Cate and her father read as hope.

A political science major with an emphasis on economics, Cate can talk above her friends' heads about issues and world events. She says the Democratic campaign issue she most connects with is the call for ways to help people afford college, "so that everyone can have the kind of amazing experience I had," but that the real reason she thinks the country needs Kerry-Edwards is for their sense of possibility and optimism.

"I like the idea that tomorrow may be brighter," she says.

The next day, in La Junta, a small New Mexico town, a couple of thousand people wait all morning for the campaign to arrive for a rally in a park. It's hot; at least one attendee is taken out in an ambulance before the candidates arrive.

When the candidates finally do show up, two young women from La Junta welcome the campaign to town by announcing that this fall, when they vote for the first time in their lives, it will be for Kerry and Edwards.

The young women, Molly Johnson and Ebony Ramsey, both 19, are rising college sophomores, using scholarships and loans that they will have to repay for years after they graduate. Can Cate Edwards relate to them? Does her presence on the campaign inspire them to vote or to support the Democratic ticket if they do?

"I think she's very understanding," Ebony says of Cate, whom she and Molly got to meet, along with the candidates and other family members, before the rally began. "And even if it's not your issue, you can understand the issue and want to help."

"That's what politics is all about," Molly says.

It's not about the style

Resigned to the fact that reporters take note of what she eats, what she wears, how she styles her hair, Cate says she hopes that people see something more in her desire to spend the summer and fall of the year she's 22 in the background of her father's race to fulfill a dream.

"It's all kind of silly," she says of the national media comparisons of herself and the Kerry girls to the twin daughters of George Bush, who recently went on the road for their own father. "But, I mean, you have to think why we're here. We're not out here to look pretty and impress people with our sense of style. We're here for my dad and for John Kerry and to improve the country, which is about a much larger task."

Critics accuse John Kerry of being politically fickle; folks sometimes show up to wave flip-flops during his public appearances. John Edwards, whose political history is much shorter, is sometimes characterized as a greedy attorney whose emotional pleas to juries have resulted in higher medical costs for everybody.

Cate is surprised that anyone would think of her dad as a sleazy trial lawyer.

"That is so not my dad," she says, but she resists the urge to always come to his defense.

"It's like there's a wall. I already know my dad and who he is, and nobody is going to change that. You just have to suck it up and say, 'They're wrong,' and hopefully they'll figure it out."

In a couple of years, Cate says, she hopes to attend law school, like her parents.

"I can see her in a courtroom," says her friend, Monroe. "And I think I'd be scared of her."

There will be time for that. Right now, Cate says, she is enjoying this heady time with her family.

It's Saturday, and the Kerry-Edwards train is rolling, a little late, into Albuquerque. A marimba band stands on the platform, and hundreds of people are waiting as the train hisses to a stop.

It is almost midnight when the doors open, and Cate's father and John Kerry step out, reaching to shake people's hands. They might as well be reaching for heaven.

Cate gets ready to climb out, and step into the glare.

Staff writer Martha Quillin can be reached at 829-8989 or marthaq@newsobserver.com.

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