“I have always loved Louisiana, its people, its bayous, its land, and its eternal joie d’vie. That’s my hope for you: That you will never lose your love for living.”
—Gov. Edwin W. Edwards
Earl K. Long once surmised that the “ideal” governor of Louisiana would be “a Frenchman with an English-sounding name who was a Catholic and could speak French.” The irascible and wily younger brother of the martyred Kingfish, “Uncle Earl,” as he famously called himself, wasn’t describing anyone in particular; he was attempting to solve a riddle at the crux of Louisiana politics.
Louisiana is really three states, argued John Treen, younger brother of former Gov. Dave Treen and a longtime GOP operative who had the unique misfortune of narrowly losing a campaign for the state legislature to white supremacist leader David Duke despite being publicly endorsed by both President George H. W. Bush and former President Ronald Reagan. “The North and the Northshore are Republican. New Orleans is Democratic,” he explained to Christopher Tidmore of Louisiana Weekly a few years ago. “How the Cajuns vote swings elections. So goes Acadiana, so goes Louisiana.” Treen, who passed away from covid-19 last year at the age of 94, understood the state’s map much in the same way Long did, though, importantly, during Long’s time, Louisiana was a one-party state.
Had he lived another 20 years, Uncle Earl would have doubtlessly insisted that he had prophesied the political career of four-term Louisiana Gov. Edwin Washington Edwards, the only person to have occupied the office longer than he had. Edwards was a civil rights crusader, the driving force behind the 1974 state constitution (which is still the newest state constitution in the country), and the only person in the state’s history to have served on all three levels and, thanks to a brief stint as an ad hoc judge on the state supreme court in 1980, in all three branches of government.
In 1991, he made the second extraordinary comeback of his career and did one thing that John Treen couldn’t: He kicked David Duke’s lily-white derriere so bad that every other person named David Duke in the entire world suddenly either began calling themselves “Dave” or “Davey” or permanently installed an initial in the middle of their name.
On Monday, July 12, 2021 at 7 a.m., Edwards died inside of his home in suburban Baton Rouge. His final words, delivered to his seven-year-old son Eli Wallace Edwards, were “I love you too.” He was 93 years old.
Whereas the Long political dynasty sprawled over Louisiana politics for more than a century, beginning with Julius Long’s election as District Attorney of Winn and Jackson Parishes in 1912, six years before Huey won a seat on the state Railroad Commission, and ending only a year ago when term limits prevented their Republican third cousin Gerald from running again for the state Senate, Edwards remained a towering and singular presence for nearly seven decades.
Within the past 22 months, former Louisiana Govs. Buddy Roemer, Mike Foster, and Kathleen Babineaux Blanco have also died, which means as of this writing, 50-year-old Bobby Jindal is now Louisiana’s only living former governor. “Our condolences for the Edwards family. We keep them in our prayers,” Jindal wrote in an awkwardly paltry tweet, which failed to distinguish between the family of one of his predecessors and the family of the current governor, John Bel Edwards.
Edwin Edwards was, in many ways, the complete opposite of a politician like Jindal: A lifelong Democrat who championed the poor and believed in a government that did things, preternaturally charismatic, devastatingly quick-witted, irreverent, bombastic, and in command of a weapons-grade sense of humor. His political longevity and the durability of his popularity were always a mystery to his opponents, who saw corruption and graft in everything he touched and who used the machinery of the federal government to embark on a decades-long series of investigations into his personal and professional affairs, culminating in his conviction in May of 2000 on conspiracy charges related to the issuance of casino licenses. For his part, Edwards steadfastly maintained his innocence, and the decision of the trial judge, Frank Polozola, to sentence the 73-year-old former governor to ten years behind bars prompted many, including former President George H. W. Bush and former Gov. Treen, to lobby for Edwards to be granted a presidential pardon. Despite widespread claims to the contrary, none of Edwards’ convictions involved actions he had taken while in office or the misappropriation or theft of any public monies.
I first met Edwin Edwards seven years ago, in late June of 2014 and at the beginning of what would be the most astonishing and likely the most joyous chapter of his life. He was two months shy of his 87th birthday. Three and a half years before, he walked out of the federal penitentiary in Oakdale, Louisiana, having completed eight years of the ten year sentence that many believed amounted to handing him the death penalty. He was remarried to Trina Grimes, a beautiful, razor-sharp blonde woman still in her mid-thirties, and together, they were raising their infant son. Oh, and he’d just launched a campaign for the United States Congress. (The last time he served in Congress, neither his wife nor his opponent had been born). At the time, I was living in Dallas, gearing up for my final year in law school, but when Trina passed along word that Edwards had agreed to sit for an interview with me, I hauled it down to Baton Rouge too fast for anyone to begin rethinking the campaign’s schedule. I had prepared some serious policy questions—about efforts to legislate litigation against Big Oil out of court and the troubling procession of bills by White men to restrict the ability of women to make their own healthcare decisions. But before things immediately jumped into policy, I figured an ice breaker that would surely make things—really, make me—less anxious.
Like his wife Trina, I told him, I was originally from Alexandria, only 35 minutes down the road from Marksville, which, as everyone knows, was his birth place and ancestral home. Right?
“Well, that’s not quite right,” he told me. “Have you ever heard of a dot on the map called Moncla?”
“I guess I know some of the Moncla family, but I didn’t know they had their own village,” I said.
“Used to be an old post office. Moncla. Write it down. That’s where I was born.” Details like these mattered to Edwards.
He was an easy conversationalist, and believe it or not, for a time, an active emailer. In private, he could sometimes come across as soft-spoken or even bashful. It was an aspect of his persona mentioned all of the time.
In 1974, during the middle of Edwards’ first term as governor, Roy Reed, the renowned Arkansan journalist who covered the civil rights movement for the New York Times, visited Marksville with the hope of understanding the unique appeal of Louisiana’s most prominent Cajun.
“[U]nlike most Cajuns, [Edwards] does not drink. He detests smoking,” Reed wrote. “One of his brothers calls him an introvert who has spent all his life trying to be an extrovert. His friends say he never reveals much of himself. He never explodes, either in anger or laughter. His English is French‐accented, but he speaks softly.
“‘He’s not relaxed like the normal Frenchman,’ Ralph Schwartzenburg of Marksville, his brother‐in‐law, said, as he sat in his parents’ kitchen one day this week.
“To which his mother, the Governor’s mother‐in‐law, replied in a fond, even voice, ‘Maybe that’s because he’s ambitious.'”
“I was destined, I thought, when I was born to be a king. And tonight, I can be.”
— Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, speaking at the Palace of Versailles Hall of Mirrors of King Louis XIV (namesake of Louisiana), Jan. 21, 1984.
Edwin Washington Edwards was born in Moncla, Louisiana on August 7, 1927, the third of Clarence Washington “Bo-Boy” and Agnès Brouillette Edwards’ five children. Despite his Welsh surname, which can be traced back to, among others, the swashbuckling 18th century pirate Robert Edwards, he was decidedly a descendant of French immigrants, on both sides of his family. Edwin Edwards was also a Brouillette, a Bordelon, a Laborde, a Dupuy, and a Gagnard. However, although popularly characterized as a Cajun, Edwards did not have Acadian ancestry.
Like the majority of Avoyelles Parish natives of his generation, Edwards learned to speak French at home and English in school. As he frequently recounted throughout his political career, his father was a sharecropper, and his mother was a midwife, assisting with the delivery of hundreds of babies in the early part of the 20th century. While he took particular pride over his working class roots, his family were also among the most prominent and well-respected in the region and included several political leaders, dating back more than two centuries. In the 1780s, when Louisiana was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, his maternal 3rd-great-grandfather Jacques Gagnard was appointed to serve as the first commandant of the Avoyelles Military Post.
William Edwards, his paternal great-great-grandfather, was a wealthy and politically active planter whose home stood as a local landmark until it was dismantled in 1969. William, who moved to Avoyelles from Kentucky in 1826, was staunchly opposed to secession, a position that put him at odds with many of his neighbors and ultimately resulted in his murder in May of 1862, a story that earned national attention and became a part of local legend. He was killed, the story goes, by a group of Confederate cotton-burners after intervening to prevent the execution of an elderly man “arrested as a spy.” The man had been dispatched to the region by the New Orleans Subsistence Committee “to obtain food to feed the wives and children of the soldiers who were away in the Confederate army” and “would have been hung had not William Edwards and his two sons gone to [his] assistance,” according to a report that appeared in the New York Times on July 13, 1862. William Edwards named all of his sons after prominent Americans: Stephen Decatur Edwards, Thomas Jefferson Edwards, James Madison Edwards, Patrick Henry Edwards, Henry Clay Edwards, Oliver Perry Edwards, Benjamin Franklin Edwards, and Edwin’s great-grandfather, William Washington Edwards.
When he was still a small child, his family moved from Johnson Settlement, north of Marksville, to a home west of town, in an area known as Gum Ridge.
After the newly-created Rural Electric Authority began lighting up the countryside, young Edwin taught himself the basics of electrical work, scrounged together enough to buy copper wiring from the local Western Auto, and then hooked up his family’s home. “We were the envy of the neighborhood,” he recalled to biographer Leo Honeycutt, “and I helped neighbors wire their homes. It would not have passed inspection but did basically work and did not set fire to anyone’s home, thank God.”
In his early teens, he joined his paternal grandmother in the congregation of the local Nazarene Church, initially because the church’s regular services offered him the easiest means of transportation into town. The church also gave him his first opportunity behind the pulpit, and eventually, he fashioned himself as a teenage preacher. Borrowing heavily from John Wesley as well as the evangelical Holiness Movement popular in America at the turn of the century, the Nazarenes emphasized discipline, austerity, and helping the poor. Nazarenes were told to abstain from drinking and smoking; sex before or outside of marriage was a sin, and women weren’t allowed to cut their hair or wear anything short enough to show their knees. Like his grandmother, Edwin enjoyed the Nazarene community but didn’t care too much for the Nazarene dogma. Still, he liked the idea of helping and not judging the poor, and his brief tenure as a youth minister gave him as good of a reason as any to read the Bible, front to finish. It also allowed him to hone his skills as a public speaker and taught him the importance of mixing heavy doses of humor into his routine.
He wasn’t born to be a preacher, though. As he got older, he became more skeptical about not just the Nazarene Church but about organized religion in general. It was hard for him to overlook the hypocrisies, all of the holy men who never really practiced what they preached, and he knew far too many people who were waiting on a miracle that was never going to happen. Eventually, he returned to his mother’s Catholic Church, largely at the urging of his first wife Elaine, though he would regularly express his doubts about the “supernatural.”
At his 90th birthday celebration, Edwards recalled bringing Elaine, her mother, and his mother to Jimmy Carter’s White House for a private audience with Pope John Paul II. “I met with him, asked him to hear my confession. He declined,” Edwards joked, “because he said he’d only be in town three days.”
Indeed, what was unusual about Edwards—at least unusual in comparison with other Louisiana politicians— was that he was always upfront about his skepticism. This perhaps explains, in part, why he was uniquely popular among evangelicals.
“We as ministers helped put him in Congress,” Bishop G.A. Mangun told The Town Talk on the first day of Edwards’ fourth term as governor. After moving to Louisiana in 1950, Mangun transformed Alexandria’s 38-member First United Pentecostal Church into the 2,200-member Pentecostals of Alexandria, one of the largest Pentecostal churches in the nation. “We’ve been with him all the way through.”
Indeed, in his prime, Edwards could have taught a masterclass in what political candidates need to do to win over an entire congregation. During his campaign for a third term in 1983, after receiving a rousing reception at the Winnfield United Pentecostal Church in rural Winn Parish, a reporter asked the church’s pastor, Rev. Clarence D. Bates, how he could support Edwin Edwards, a man who “gambled, chased women, laughed about lying, and was constantly under investigation for corruption.”
“Well, he doesn’t drink or smoke,” the preacher replied.
“I asked my father why the bus did not pick them up since their school was on the way to ours. I remember his words: ‘That is one of the many unfair things about life that will be changed someday and maybe in your lifetime and maybe with your help.’ He was right. Everyone talked about fairness and equality, but when it came to Negroes, no one talked of fairness and equality. I felt sorry for those kids and felt worse for being on the bus. I vowed then that I would not deal in the hypocrisy I saw all around me. These images stick in my head to this day. We worked with and dealt with ‘colored folks,’ called that at the time, in the fields and in our little country store which my father operated in the late 1930s and 40s. These events and my father’s compassion had a large influence on my life, attitude, and political career.”
—Gov. Edwin W. Edwards
At 17, Edwards left Marksville for LSU and after his freshman year, took a train to California, where the Navy taught him how to fly an airplane. The war ended before he completed the training, but because he’d enlisted, LSU let him breeze through his undergraduate degree and right into law school. He was only 21 when he became a member of the Louisiana Bar Association.
In 1949, he married his childhood sweetheart and the mother of four of his five children, Elaine Schwartzenburg, and together, they moved to the town of Crowley in Acadia Parish, primarily because, as he would claim later, there were far fewer French-speaking lawyers in Crowley than in Marksville. But it also helped that his older sister Audrey and her husband, a Nazarene preacher, had moved there a few years before.
He began his political career in 1954, winning an at-large seat on the Crowley City Council after making the practically unheard of decision to run on a ticket that included two Black candidates. At the time, his position on civil rights put him far to the left of the vast majority of White Democrats in Louisiana, but it also put him on the radar. He became a close and personal friend of two of the state’s most prominent young progressives, Crowley city judge Edmund Reggie and Alexandria attorney Camille Gravel, who also served as the Louisiana Democratic Party’s National Committeeman. Gravel and Reggie had a strained relationship with Gov. Earl K. Long, who, as the state’s highest elected Democrat ordinarily would have been provided deference with respect to how Louisiana’s delegates would be allocated during the Democratic National Convention, but when Long left the 1956 DNC a day early, Gravel and Reggie were the only Southerners willing to take an active part in a plan for a surprise surge of support behind U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy as a nominee for Vice President. The gambit worked flawlessly for JFK: He fell short of the nomination to Tennessee’s Estes Kefauver, but by the end of the convention, Kennedy would already be considered the presumptive frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination in 1960. For their early loyalty to the Kennedy clan, both men were tasked with overseeing the campaign’s operations in Louisiana, which began, albeit unofficially, after Kennedy accepted Reggie’s invitation to the 23rd annual International Rice Festival in Crowley in October of 1959.
An estimated 135,000 people showed up to the festival that year, more than 100,000 than ever before, setting the stage for a 32-year-old councilman named Edwin W. Edwards to serve as the master of ceremonies. (Decades later, Reggie, whose family owned a vacation home near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, became Sen. Ted Kennedy’s father-in-law after his daughter Vickie married the legendary senator in 1992).
In 1964, Edwards scored an upset victory for a seat in the Louisiana state Senate against 30-year veteran legislator and well-known local real estate developer Bill Cleveland in the Democratic primary election. Gov. John McKeithen tasked Edwards as his floor leader in the legislature’s upper chamber, a role that he would keep for less than two years before, at the urging of Camille Gravel, he decided to run for the now-defunct Seventh Congressional District, a seat that had become suddenly empty after Congressman T. Ashton Thompson was killed in a car accident in North Carolina. Edwards was initially elected to serve the remainder of Thompson’s unexpired term.
Whereas Thompson of Ville Platte had been an ardent segregationist and a signatory of the so-called “Southern Manifesto,” the young Edwards was a liberal populist, an admirer of Huey P. Long’s style and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s substance. He hadn’t taken the oath of office in time to vote for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but in 1966 and then again in 1970, when Congress considered five-year extensions of the law, Edwards was one of the handful of Southerners who supported its passage. Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs was among one of the few others.
On the same day that Richard Nixon won the White House while Louisiana handed Alabama segregationist Gov. George Wallace the state’s ten electoral votes, Edwards coasted to another term in Congress by winning the support of a staggering 80% of his district’s voters.
Edwards won an early battle on quotas on rice production against Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, convincing President Lyndon B. Johnson to overrule Freeman and keep the quotas in place, and he soon became a member of LBJ’s inner circle.
“With very few exceptions, my career in Congress was very non-productive. Most of the legislation passed by large majorities,” Edwards acknowledged to Honeycutt. “They were meaningless paper tigers, legislation that didn’t matter to the country whether they passed or didn’t pass. Very few things were controversial. I was, however, a close political friend of President Lyndon Johnson.”
Congress was also where Edwards would collect the first major scandal of his career, though the story wouldn’t emerge until four years after he left Capitol Hill. In 1971, for reasons that Edwards could never convincingly explain, his wife Elaine accepted $10,000 (the equivalent of about $70,000 today) from South Korean businessman Tongsun Park, who was later revealed to have been working on behalf of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency with the presumed goal of influencing Democratic lawmakers to reverse President Nixon’s decision to withdraw American troops. All told, Park distributed cash to 30 members of Congress, ten of whom were implicated directly in the scandal. Edwards claimed Park was a personal friend of his wife and that the money was intended to be a gift. The explanation strained credulity, but the gift was only a fraction of the sums Park doled out to others. The Edwardses were never charged with any wrongdoing. Two congressmen, including Louisiana’s Otto Passman, were. U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. Passman, whose defense team was led by Camille Gravel, was acquitted after a jury trial in Louisiana. Regardless of what Park’s actual intention had been in providing the $10,000 gift, Edwards already had one foot out of the House’s door.
Louisiana voters were interviewing applicants for the job Edwards had always wanted. On Feb. 1, 1972, they would elect Louisiana’s 50th governor, but for Edwards to prevail, he first needed to beat a field of 16 other Democrats, including the state’s incumbent lieutenant governor, a powerful state senator from Shreveport, a former U.S. representative and a current one, both of whom also happened to be members of the Long family, and a two-term former governor who would always be better known for the song “You Are My Sunshine.”
Edwin Edwards knew one thing for certain about the 1971-1972 race for Louisiana governor: Dave Treen, a Metairie Republican who had struck out in the 60s against incumbent Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs, losing in 1962, 1964, and 1968, was going to lose again. Nearly all 17 of the Democratic candidates could have defeated Treen, with the exception of a white supremacist named Addison Roswell Thompson and Dave Chandler, stringer for Life Magazine who had recently single-handedly ended outgoing Gov. John McKeithen’s future political prospects by writing a series of sensational and cynically deceitful stories that alleged Carlos Marcello—not “Big John”—ran things in Baton Rouge. Chandler decided to qualify as a candidate for governor, he said, because he wanted to write a book about it. This assessment—that Treen, the presumptive Republican nominee (He would beat Robert Max Ross in the party primary with more than 92% of the vote) had no chance in the general election was not a personal judgment of Treen; it merely reflected the political reality at the time.
Louisiana had been a one-party state since the late 19th century, not long after the end of Reconstruction. This meant that all of the stagecraftng, the roles, the secret alliances, the stalking and Trojan horses had to get sorted out first. Edwards seemed to be the presumed frontrunner, but in a field so large, it’s not always easy to know. State Sen. J. Bennett Johnston was also a force with whom to be reckoned: Young, ambitious, reasonably moderate, and presumably in command of North Louisiana. He pivoted to the right of Edwards, hoping to campaign as a coalition candidate. Former Gov. Jimmie Davis’ late entrance into the contest, which had been cooked up by political consultant Gus Weill, cut into Johnston’s territory but hardly moved the dial. Edwards took first in the primary, 23.54% to Johnston’s 17.79%, but the Democratic runoff was a nail-bitter. Throughout most of the night, as the urban votes arrived first, Johnston appeared to be cruising to a victory, but Edwards began tacking on big margins in rural parishes, particularly in Acadiana. He beat Johnston by a razor thin 50.2% and then easily defeated Treen in the February general election.
When Edwards and his wife Elaine moved their family into the Governor’s Mansion on May 9, 1972, a couple of miles down the street, a pair of new parents in Baton Rouge, John and Cynthia Graves, were still welcoming an addition to their family home, a baby boy they named Garret.
“To the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the thousands of black Louisianians who have not yet enjoyed the full bounty of the American dream, we extend not a palm with alms, but the hand of friendship.”
—Gov. Edwin W. Edwards
When Edwin Washington Edwards took charge of Louisiana in 1972, state government was clunky, outmoded, bloated, and almost exclusively White. Whereas Huey P. Long modernized the state’s physical infrastructure, famously paving thousands of miles of roads and highways, building bridges, schools, hospitals, and even a new skyscraper Capitol, Edwin Edwards can rightfully be credited with modernizing the human infrastructure of state government and transforming the mechanics of civil society to better ensure fairness, inclusion, and diversity. As Judge Reggie once noted, Edwards’ most significant accomplishments as governor weren’t tangible things stamped with his name; they were often ministerial or legalistic.
His first order of business as governor was to scrap the state’s closed party primary elections in favor of an open nonpartisan system known as “the jungle primary,” a calculated risk for Democrats but obviously appealing to a populist like Edwards. In late July, after the death of U.S. Sen. Allen Ellender, Edwards appointed his wife Elaine to fill the seat temporarily, and thus, for 12 weeks, she served as only the second woman to represent Louisiana in Congress. Huey P. Long’s widow, Rose McConnell Long, was the first.
He would wait until his second year in office before embarking on the most ambitious item on his agenda: The adoption of a new state constitution.
His predecessor, John McKeithen, had been the first governor in the 20th century to serve two consecutive terms, the result of a change in state law (and his successful reelection), but toward the end of his second term, McKeithen’s popularity took a nosedive, primarily due to public frustration over the construction of the Superdome and fallout over a sensational series of reports in Life magazine—later found to be scurrilous and false after a year-long investigation by a state legislative committee— that reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello had taken control of state government. Edwards had inherited a state that seemed mired in the doldrums and injected it with a spirit of vitality and optimism. During his first two terms, press coverage of “Louisiana’s colorful Cajun governor” was overwhelmingly positive, often to the point of seeming obsequious. In one article published across the state, a reporter wondered whether Edwards could be considered too handsome.
To be sure, as the controversy over Tongsun Park proved, Edwards could sometimes be too clever for his own good, and by his own admission, his relationships with “shady” individuals and willingness to conduct private business with people involved in government invited suspicion. However, the portrayal of Edwards as a “crook,” a word that his supporters would later irreverently embrace to juxtapose him against white supremacist David Duke, first entered the public consciousness as a result of a case that had nothing to do with him: The criminal investigation and subsequent conviction of Charles “Budgie” Roemer, Edwards’ Commissioner of Administration and the father of future Gov. Buddy Roemer.
In 1979, with Edwards on his way out of office, Roemer, who agreed to serve as treasurer for the gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Sonny Mouton, had a series of discussions with three insurance brokers in business with Carlos Marcello. They were attempting to sell the state’s next governor on a deal that they claimed would save Louisiana taxpayers $1 million a year, and to demonstrate their commitment, they provided Roemer with a $25,000 donation for the Mouton campaign. Unfortunately for Roemer, who initially neglected to record the donation on campaign finance reports, two of the men were undercover FBI agents, and the other was a convicted fraudster who had agreed to connect them with Marcello in exchange for a reduced sentence. The FBI sting, codenamed Brilab, and subsequent trial dominated the news. But despite securing convictions against Marcello and Roemer (which were later vacated as a result of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court), the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney John Volz engaged in a series of highly problematic and ethically questionable, if not reckless, actions in pursuing and then prosecuting the case (including injecting considerable sums of money into the campaigns of multiple gubernatorial candidates). By falsely creating the impression to the public that Edwards was somehow involved, Volz, who had been appointed to the job by President Carter in 1978 but switched to the Republican Party in 1980 to ensure favorability with Ronald Reagan, gave himself the pretext to sell his next blockbuster case.
Edwards was succeeded in office by Dave Treen, his former rival in the 1972 gubernatorial general election. Treen, who, in 1972, had become Louisiana’s first Republican congressman since Reconstruction, was now the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction as well. Treen’s narrow victory, which was facilitated by infighting among Democrats, was, in many ways, the best possible outcome for Edwards, who could legally run for a third term in 1983 without having to challenge a Democratic incumbent.
The 1979 contest had been the most expensive non-presidential election in American history, but it would lose that distinction only four years later when Edwin Edwards made his first of two extraordinary political comebacks, with one of the most memorable and masterful campaigns in state history. Louisiana was flush with cash, the consequence of a change in how the state calculated the severance from oil and gas that Edwards had enacted years before, and clearly, it was willing to let the good times keep rolling. (The story of the 1983 election was chronicled in John Maginnis’ spectacular book The Last Hayride).
The outcome of the race was never really in doubt. Treen’s win four years before had been a fluke, and while he was known to be wonderfully warm and genuinely funny to almost everyone he met personally, Dave Treen, in public, often came across as dull and humorless. The contrast with Edwards could not have been more stark.
Freelance journalist Barry Yeoman recently recalled following Edwards during the 1983 campaign. “What I remember most of that 1983 campaign tour, though, was his story of Horace the peg-legged pig,” Yeoman tweeted. The story begins with a traveler stopping at a farm when, as Edwards told it, ‘”a pig ran out from under the porch, hobbling on a peg leg.”
“The traveler asked the farmer why the pig had a peg leg. The farmer introduced the pig as Horace and said it had saved the family when the house caught fire. But why, asked the traveler, did the pig have a peg leg? The farmer said that Horace once saved his daughter when she had an accident. But why the peg leg? The farmer replied: ‘You don’t eat a good friend like that all at once.'”
“We’ve lost a leg and an arm and an eye and an ear. We’ve been picked to pieces a little bit at a time,” Edwards told a crowd in Ville Platte, according to Yeoman.
There was no need to worry, the former governor declared, “The healer is coming.”
On Oct. 22, 1983, Edwards trounced Treen, winning more than 62% of the vote and becoming the first (and still the only) gubernatorial candidate to garner more than one million votes, a feat he would repeat in 1991. But the campaign had taken a toll on his marriage, and the following year, he and Elaine announced they were divorcing.
During his time away from the Governor’s Mansion, Edwards returned to his law practice. Among others, his clients included billionaire mall developer and Louisiana Downs owner Edward DeBartolo, Sr. He also entered into a business partnership with a pair of entrepreneurs who hoped to turn a profit through the acquisition of nursing home Certificates of Need, which are issued and regulated by the state. There was nothing inherently improper about the business, and not long after he decided to launch his campaign for a third term, Edwards dissolved his interests in the partnership. But U.S. Attorney John Volz thought he could make a case against Edwards for conspiracy and political corruption.
In 1985, Edwards was criminally indicted, though Volz’s theory of the case was convoluted and flimsy. Volz’ basic premise was that Edwards, as a private citizen, should not have entered into an otherwise entirely legal business partnership because, as a former governor who could potentially run for and win back the job of governor, he was a “potential public official.” The argument had no basis in the law. During the first trial, 11 of the 12 members of the jury voted to acquit Edwards on all charges, but a hold-out juror ensured a mistrial. Volz defiantly vowed to retry the governor, and in the second trial, his case unraveled completely. Edwards’ legal team was led by Camille Gravel and Mike Fawer. After the prosecution wrapped up its case, Fawer had been so convinced of Volz’ failure that he pitched a risky but bold move: Instead of presenting their defense, they would rest, immediately sending the case into closing arguments and to the jury. Gravel agreed it was a smart strategy, but Edwards wanted to deliver his closing arguments personally. He asked his lawyers to at least make the request to the judge. It was pure showmanship, a way of amplifying Volz’s humiliation. The request was properly rejected, but either way, it didn’t take long for the jury to vote for acquittal.
Edwards’ political standing, however, took a major hit as a result of the two trials. He was also hampered by a budget crisis. Falling oil prices made Louisiana especially vulnerable. In 1987, for the first time in his career, it appeared Edwards was headed toward defeat. When a young Democratic congressman named Buddy Roemer turned in a first-place primary finish, Edwards saw the writing on the wall. Instead of competing against Roemer in a runoff, Edwards conceded the election. It was a painful decision, but it later proved to be politically savvy, depriving Roemer from the opportunity of claiming a mandate from the majority of the state’s voters. The “Roemer Revolution” was not really a popular revolution, and as Buddy Roemer attempted to steer Louisiana onto a path of economic recovery, Edwin Edwards was plotting his return.
In 1991, Gov. Buddy Roemer, a whip-smart Harvard graduate, made two stupid mistakes that put his chances of a second term at a major disadvantage. First, in February, he announced he was switching his party affiliation and becoming a Republican. There was little strategic sense in the decision. Almost immediately, Roemer lost the support of key Democratic campaign activists and staffers, including press aide Mark McKinnon, who had been critical in building his successful operation four years before. Roemer’s defection would also ensure that this time, Edwin Edwards could claim the Democratic mantle for himself.
Adding insult to injury, the Louisiana Republican Party wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about their newest member.
But perhaps even more damaging, Roemer also decided not to take David Duke seriously. He underestimated the former klansman at his own peril. Duke had been doing his very best to reinvent himself to the public. He had a series of cosmetic procedures. He upgraded his wardrobe. He expressed regret over some of the most incendiary chapters of his early career. He professed to be a born-again Christian. And most importantly, he polished his collection of dog whistles.
It should have been clear to anyone in Louisiana in 1991, especially to the sitting Louisiana governor, that David Duke no longer imagined himself to be a protest candidate. He was building a political movement. When Duke ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 against Democratic incumbent J. Bennett Johnston, he received the support of nearly 60% of White voters.
On Oct. 19, the night of the jungle primary, Edwin Edwards finished in first place, capturing 523,096 votes, and David Ernest Duke finished in a terrifyingly close second, less than 30,000 votes behind Edwards and nearly 80,000 votes ahead of Roemer.
The Louisiana governor’s race—”the race from hell”— suddenly became the biggest political news story on the planet and a ratings bonanza.
Just as he had been in 1983, when Dean Baquet of the Times-Picayune heard him declare that “the only way I lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy,” the ultimate outcome was never actually in question, but Edwards recognized that anything too close could result in catastrophic reputational damage to the entire state. He also decided to lift a page from the playbook that Buddy Roemer’s campaign never ended up using: He repeatedly emphasized the message that David Duke was bad for business.
In the end, Edwards won comfortably, 61.17% to 38.83%, and for the second time in his career, he captured more than one million votes. His fourth term, which was dominated by the legalization of gambling, would be his last.
In 1994, he married Candy Picou, who was then still in her thirties, and together, they built their “dream home” in an exclusive Baton Rouge neighborhood that surrounds the Country Club of Louisiana. They wanted to have a child together and spoke publicly about how they were consulting with fertility doctors. Edwards once again returned to his private law practice, working out of an office in a building he shared with his son Stephen. But the future that Edwin and Candy Edwards imagined for themselves suddenly became out of reach when a pair of brothers from Houston, Patrick and Michael Graham, struck a secret deal with the FBI after they told a bizarre and fantastical story about the construction of a private juvenile prison in Jena, Louisiana, the relocation of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team, and plans to bribe a governor who was no longer in office. “They may be the most accomplished con men in Texas state history,” attorney Kent Schaffer said in 2000. The story the brothers told about Edwards was entirely fabricated, but it was all the justification the government needed when it decided to put Edwards under extensive surveillance in 1996.
The federal government finally succeeded in convicting Edwards in 2000, which will be the subject of an upcoming story in the Bayou Brief, but Edwards spoke emotionally and at length about the investigation and the trial in the speech he delivered at his 90th birthday celebration.
For now, it also should be noted that Edwards survived his time behind bars and thrived for another decade.
“The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough,” Edwards told the press on the day he was convicted, “the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river. I suppose the Feds sat by the river long enough, so here comes my body.” It was an expression he had mentioned numerous times throughout his life, but despite his repeated insistence that he was quoting a Chinese proverb, the first time the exact quotation appeared in print was in James Clavell’s 1975 book Shogun. That it would resonate with Edwards should be no surprise. It is, in some ways, a variation on the story Longfellow told in his poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.
At his 90th, Edwards told guests about the fates of the men who led the prosecution against him. Both Eddie Jordan and Jim Letten ended their careers in public office in disgrace. Jordan, who had become the Orleans Parish District Attorney, was found to have violated federal anti-discrimination laws. Letten’s top two deputies were exposed for authoring troves of anonymous online comments about active cases and ongoing investigations.
“And now I sit on the bank of the river,” Edwards said, “rocking Eli cuddled in my arms and his beautiful mother sings a lullaby. And in my mind’s eye, I watch those who tried to do me hurt float down the river. That’s almost as good as it gets.”
Edwin Washington Edwards is survived by his wife Trina, his daughters Anna and Victoria, his sons Stephen, David, and Eli, and the people of the Great State of Louisiana.