I have mixed emotions about Edwin Edwards who died yesterday at the age of 93. He dominated Louisiana politics for a quarter of a century. He served 2 consecutive terms as Governor followed by 2 non-consecutive terms for a total of 16 out of 24 years. He won 4 of 5 statewide elections the most important being 1991’s election from hell when he defeated David Dukkke. A victory for which I remain profoundly grateful, but I still have mixed emotions about the man and his political legacy.
Edwin Edwards was more than just a politician. He was a folk hero with a Cajun swagger. He charmed his way out of trouble. That’s how he got away with the shenanigans that eventually sent him to prison after 3 corruption trials.
By any standard, his first two terms were a success. I’m not going to repeat in detail what’s being said in the Gret Stet MSM about the 1974 constitution and his concern for the poor and elderly. I think that Edwards’ greatest accomplishment was being the first Louisiana governor to treat Black folks as full citizens. As a result, the African American community became his base through the trials and tribulations of his less successful third and fourth terms.
My first Gret Stetwide election as a Louisiana resident was 1983. The Edwards campaign was a well-oiled machine that year as he defeated Dave Treen a nice but dull man who was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Edwards had a lot of fun mocking Treen as a stiff. He later regretted being so snarky about Treen who supported efforts to commute his sentence in the 21st Century.
I voted for Edwards in 1983 and 1991, but not in 1987. His third term was something of a disaster. The oil bust led to cuts in state spending and higher education took the biggest hit. He spent a hefty chunk of that term on trial. He was not convicted but it left a cloud over him that led to his primary loss in 1987 to Buddy Roemer who also died this year. Edwin’s passing leaves the world’s youngest hasbeen, Bobby Jindal, as the only living former Gret Stet governor.
In defeat, Edwards proved his political genius. He declined to face a run-off against Roemer. This has been painted by many as a sign that he knew he’d lose. That’s true but his motivation was to kneecap Roemer politically by limiting his vote to 33%. It worked: in 1991 Roemer got 26% finishing third in the primary.
I’m often asked by out-of-state friends if Edwin Edwards was a liberal. He was by Gret Stet standards but not by national standards. His record on Civil Rights was good but he gave the oil, gas, and chemical companies free reign as long as they paid tribute in the form of higher taxes and campaign contributions. The same went for gambling interests. The latter led to his downfall.
I met Edwin Edwards on several occasions. He was a warm and friendly man who excelled at retail politics. He was an excellent storyteller and a skilled liar. His last lie was a harmless one. Last week, he claimed that entering hospice care did not mean he was on death’s door.
Edwin Edwards was a genuinely funny man, especially about his reputation as a womanizer. That’s led to a lot of “boys will be boys” commentary on his greatest failing: his treatment of women. You’ve likely heard about his blond trophy wives Candy and Trina both of whom were much younger than the man my friend Clancy DuBos called Le Guv.
I have a story to tell about Edwin Edwards and women. I mentioned working in the press box for LSU football games in a column for Bayou Brief. It was during Edwards’ third term and the governor’s box was nearby. (I don’t know if it still is.) The Governor liked to mingle with the media, which was Edwards at his best. He also displayed his worst side by cruising women in the press box and stands with his first wife Elaine in the nearby governor’s box. It was not harmless flirtation as I saw phone numbers exchanged.
I’d heard the stories of Edwards cruising sorority row in a limousine but didn’t believe them. I thought he was too smart to do something so blatant. I realized after watching him in action that the stories had to be true.
I’m no prude and usually don’t care about politician’s personal lives. BUT I was appalled that he was so indiscreet and disrespectful to his wife. It was a sign of the arrogance that proved to be his undoing after his fourth term. Arrogance cloaked in charm and wit is still arrogance.
On balance, Edwin Edwards was a good governor. He did a lot for New Orleans and poor people while at the same time helping himself and his cronies. If he’d been honest, he could have been a great man. Life in the Gret Stet of Louisiana will be duller with his passing.
I dislike criticizing other Democrats, but a warts and all portrait was the only way for me. This was theme of my first Krewe du Vieux march with PAN, after all:
The tagline that year was “a return to competent corruption.” There are worse things than that as we saw with Team Trump’s incompetent corruption.
The last word goes to the Rolling Stones: