When Edwin Edwards finished his fourth and final term as Governor of Louisiana, I was just a freshman in high school. Not surprisingly, I don’t remember much from the Edwards years. He had already served two terms before I was born. But I do recall, quite vividly, how terrified many people were in 1992, when it looked like there was a possibility, albeit remote, that former KKK leader and Nazi apologist David Duke could be elected Governor. I remember blue and white “This is Duke Country” yard signs lining Bayou Rapides Road in Alexandria, which made me think the neighborhood was dangerous, and I remember the collective sense of relief after Louisianans decided to “vote for the crook” and re-elect Edwards to an unprecedented fourth term.
Over the holidays, I finished reading Leo Honeycutt’s tome Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana, the new authorized biography of the former Governor published by Jim Brown’s Lisburn Press. Because the book is a biography of Edwards, it is also, by nature, a chronicle of contemporary Louisiana history, and in my opinion, it is the finest and most compelling book of its kind. Sure, it’s an authorized biography, which means you’ll probably be inclined to root for Edwards, the protagonist, even if you know that Edwards as inmate is a foregone conclusion. But Honeycutt knows how to tell a riveting story and, without a doubt, the story of Edwin Washington Edwards is riveting.
But instead of launching into a full-on book review (four stars), I’d rather discuss a few things Honeycutt’s book impressed on me:
Despite his failings, Edwin Edwards was an incredibly sharp and brilliant politician. To any student of Louisiana politics, that should be unquestionable. The man was elected to the most important and powerful position in the State four times throughout three decades. His first two terms, from 1972-1980, as former Secretary of Insurance Jim Brown has said, represented some of the most productive and successful years in Louisiana political history. Honeycutt’s book reveals Edwards to be funny, brash, arrogant, quick-witted, but, above all, fiercely and fearlessly dedicated, even at his own peril. Some may also say that Edwin Edwards was simply too smart for his own good, that his hubris prevented him from fully appreciating the intensity of his opposition. But it is also true that many of his most outspoken opponents, like The Times-Picayune, pretended to be objective, good government watchdogs without ever fully disclosing the depth or scope of their own personal, corporate, and/or political agendas.
At first, many in the corporate media didn’t trust Edwards because he was a smooth-talking Cajun outsider, and the more powerful Edwards became, it seems, the more distrust and skepticism he generated. Edwards loved to engage, enrage, and challenge the Louisiana corporate media, but he may have never completely appreciated that, more than anything else, the corporate media explained and defined his character to the people of Louisiana. It didn’t matter that Edwards was found not guilty of obstruction of justice, mail fraud, and bribery during his third term as Governor, and it didn’t matter that U.S. Attorney John Volz threw away substantial public resources in an attempt to convict the sitting Louisiana Governor on the flimsiest of charges– charges so flimsy, in fact, that Edwards’s attorney, Alexandria’s own Camille Gravel, didn’t call a single witness to the stand during the second trial. The prosecution actually made the case for Edwards’s defense. None of this mattered, and Edwards became branded a crook. He may have been found not guilty, but in politics, perception is reality. Volz, by insisting on trying and then retrying a ridiculous case, burdening the entire State with the ignobility of having its Governor on trial for corruption, successfully defined Edwin Edwards a crook, a label that stuck with him.
I was also struck by Honeycutt’s exhaustive account of the trial that ultimately sent Edwards behind bars. Regardless of whether or not you think Edwards was guilty of conspiracy, according to Honeycutt’s version, it certainly doesn’t seem like Edwards received anything resembling a fair trial. The government unethically installed wiretaps and video cameras in Edwards’s private home, bedroom, and office. They dragged their feet for nearly a year before finally handing down indictments, all the while withholding evidence from the defense. They entered into plea bargains with shady businessmen, a few of whom were able to avoid jail time and massive fines simply by appearing on the witness stand and agreeing to testify against Edwards, even if it meant telling wholly unbelievable and implausible stories. To me, the way Honeycutt’s account reads, the government was more than obliged to overlook other crimes and forgive other criminals, as long as they could convict Edwards, then a private citizen, for accepting money from prospective casino owners in exchange for providing licenses that Edwards never actually procured. To be sure, Edwards, as a private citizen, considered himself to be both a consultant and a private attorney, and despite the government’s best efforts, they were never able to prove Edwards exerted any undue influence over the Casino Licensing Board. Then again, in politics, perception is reality, and for most people, myself included, it’s definitely fishy that Edwards accepted $400,000 in cash from a man seeking a casino license, even if the payment was disclosed to the IRS.
Either way, Honeycutt presents a captivating story of a compelling, brilliant, and flawed man, a man who, despite his transgressions, leaves the people of Louisiana with an indelible and unforgettable legacy.