Billionaires and Mill Workers

Presidential candidate John Edwards tells every audience that his “father worked in a mill.” It’s right there on his MySpace page: “My dad was a millworker.” Google “john edwards mill worker” and you’ll find lots of journalists and reference sites reporting that as fact. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson upped the ante, declaring that “Edwards grew up poor.”

But is Edwards’s story true? Not quite, according to Boston Globe reporter Patrick Healy, who actually visited his home town back in 2003. Healy found:

On the campaign trail today, the senator regularly describes himself as the son of a mill worker but rarely if ever notes that his father was part of management. “They weren’t quite as humble as Edwards makes it sound,” says Pat Smith of Robbins. “Wallace was a very important man at the mill. … They weren’t rich, but they weren’t struggling poor.”

“John was more middle class than most of us,” says Bill Garner, a high school friend and college roommate.

In the LA Weekly Doug Ireland is more tendentious:

“The Edwardses were solidly middle class” when Johnny was growing up, according to a four-part profile of the North Carolina senator in his home state’s most prestigious daily, the Raleigh News and Observer. It’s true that for a few years as a young man Edwards’ father worked on the floor of a Roger Milliken textile mill. But Edwards père (a lifelong Republican, like his reactionary boss) quickly climbed upward, becoming a monitor of worker productivity as a “time-study” man — which any labor organizer in the South will tell you is a polite term for a stoolie who spies on the proletarian mill hands to get them to speed up production for the same low wages. Daddy Edwards’ grassing got him promoted to supervisor, then to plant manager — and he finally resigned to start his own business as a consultant to the textile industry.

Edwards was no millionaire scion, like the Roosevelts and the Kennedys and the Bushes. And even today he’s no billionaire like possible candidate Michael Bloomberg and avid, though struggling, candidate Mitt Romney. Nor did he completely make up a family history stolen from another candidate in another country, like Joe Biden.

But his background is more middle-class than he tells voters, and he wouldn’t connect so well with union audiences if he noted that his father was a mill manager. Indeed, his upbringing seems to have been more secure and comfortable than that of, say, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.