The fascination with former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards continued last week with his release from a federal prison in Oakdale. That isn’t surprising since no one has had more of a political impact on this state than our Cajun King.
I am sure Edwards loves the attention. Who wouldn’t? After all, he has been at center-stage for most of his political life. However, the rest of us need to simply wish him well and get back to more serious business at hand.
Reform was his goal when Edwards became governor for the first of four unprecedented terms in 1972, and he delivered on his promises. The American Press and other newspapers endorsed his re-election in 1975, saying he deserved another four years in office.
Unfortunately, second terms are usually troublesome for Louisiana governors. The late Gov. John J. McKeithen (1964-72) was the first in the last century to serve two consecutive terms. He had to deal with the reality that organized crime had too much influence in the state.
Most of the problems experienced by Edwards during his last three terms can be traced to his ongoing efforts to reward his friends and political supporters.
Edwards, by his own count, was investigated a dozen times. He escaped justice at two earlier trials, but his lucky streak finally ran out.
In 2002, he was convicted on racketeering, extortion and fraud charges in connection with the awarding of riverboat gaming licenses.
“I know in my heart of hearts that what happened to me is the result of former friends who changed their story,” Edwards said after his conviction.
Others said the jury believed those witnesses and that wiretapped conversations of Edwards proved to be the most damaging evidence against him.
Members of his family were heartbroken after the conviction, but Edwards accepted his fate.
“I regret that it has ended this way, but that is the system,” he said. “I have lived 72 years of my life within the system. Whatever consequences flow from this, I’m prepared to face.”
Despite the verdict, Edwards to this day insists that he did nothing wrong.
“I’m saying I didn’t do anything to justify my being here today,” he said in October of 2002 before entering the gates of a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
The former governor proved to be a model prisoner who made friends on the inside. And the public heard no bitterness during the eight years and two months he eventually served. He earned 432 days off for good behavior that shortened his 10-year sentence.
Buddy Roemer, who became governor when Edwards dropped out of the runoff in 1987, summed up the sentiments of most adversaries of the former governor.
“I’m glad he successfully completed his term,” Roemer told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. “I know he’s happy, so I’m happy for him. He completed his full term, no special favors, no quick outs. He did it all, and that’s the way it should be for a public figure, treated just like other people. It’s a good day for him.”
I, too, was one of those adversaries, and want to thank Edwards for all of the material he provided me over the years. My collection of columns about the former governor is extensive.
When extremist David Duke and Edwards ended up in the 1991 gubernatorial runoff, I endorsed the former governor for a fourth term.
“As bitter a pill as it may be to swallow, Edwards is the only choice we have,” I said in the election dubbed “the runoff from hell.”
Edwards always had the last word when we met publicly. He was fast on his feet and quick with a quip. I remember in 1984 when I was invited to the mansion along with other editorial writers.
“Glad you could make it, Jim,” the governor said when I stepped up to the buffet line. “Sorry we don’t have any razor blade soup,” he said out of earshot of others.
Whatever they thought about Edwards, most agreed he was an astute politician who cared for the less fortunate of the state. And he brought women and blacks into state government.
On the other hand, many wondered where Louisiana would be today if Edwards had used his wit, charm and political prowess for the good of the state. Instead he let his friends and supporters trade on his good name and position.
Roemer said in 1995, “The last time I checked,we were last in teacher pay, we had per capita income worse than any state in America, we had lower-rated bonds than any state, and may be headed down. We had highways often unbuilt, and when built, not maintained. We had a younger generation moving out, not moving in.”
A resident of Covington summed up the Edwards years in a 2002 letter to The Times-Picayune.
“As the single most-powerful person in Louisiana during the last quartercentury, no one individual is more responsible for our pitiful infrastructure, failing education system, pathetic economic state and unacceptable poverty level,” the man said.
Citizens of Louisiana have to share some of the blame for the Edwards failures. We winked at his political lifestyle and considered his escapades to be entertaining sidelights to everyday political life in this state.
Talk of Edwards running for office again is simply wishful thinking. Those days are gone.
Justice has been served, and the final judgment on Edwin W. Edwards will be determined by time and history. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to end our fascination, cut our connections and let the 83-year-old former governor spend his remaining days in peace.