Long Read: “Edwin Edwards Will Live Forever”

Marc Jacobson, in NYMag, has a great profile of one of the Trickster God’s favorite sons:

When Edwin Washington Edwards, the soon-to-be-87-year-old four-time governor of Louisiana (1972–80, 1984–88, and 1992–96) was sent to federal prison in 2002 following his conviction on a variety of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, and fraud charges including accepting $400,000 from the then-owner of the San Francisco 49ers to secure a riverboat gambling license, it seemed as if one of the most outrageous political careers in a state known for outrageous politicians had come to an end. Edwards, a.k.a. EWE, the Cajun Prince, the Silver Fox (for his gleaming locks), the Silver Zipper (for his roving eye), the Lizard, and several other a.k.a.’s, was already 75 years old and rumored to be not in the best of health. It was even money that the Zipper, who for years ran a weekly high-stakes poker game at the governor’s mansion, would draw his last breath behind bars…

The kicker came a few months ago: Proclaiming “I know my ­Creator is not done with me yet,” Edwards announced his intention to seek the congressional seat in Louisiana’s Sixth District, a mule-­collar-shaped realm that runs from the Baton Rouge suburbs in the south to the coonass (the preferred self-identifier of some Cajuns) precincts of Terrebonne Parish. There was a symmetry to the plan, since if Edwards won, he’d return to Congress exactly 50 years after first being elected to the House in 1965…

Edwards began to talk about Bobby Jindal. Jindal was all over, in New Hampshire and Iowa, “everywhere but Louisiana,” in hopes of landing on the ass end of the 2016 Republican national ticket, Edwards declared.

Edwards explained that pols like Jindal sell themselves as “good government” in that they’re the favorites of the rich and well-brought-up. They are supposed to be above corruption. But was that really true? Declaring himself an advocate of “pretty good government,” Edwards said, “I’m the shady politician, right? But what happens when Jindal turns down billions of federal money for Medicaid­ to help people in need, a program that could mean as much as 17,000 jobs!—just because he doesn’t want to be seen as taking anything from Obama which is going to hurt him with the right-wingers? Who’s the self-serving one then? Is that good government?…

The morning after Eric Cantor lost, I suggested to EWE, never a Bible Belt favorite, that he should convert to Judaism. His favorite comics were Shecky Greene and Don Rickles, yet still he had an alarmingly large cache of Jewish jokes. ­If he won and converted, this would keep the number of Jews in Congress steady. “Could take you up on that,” Edwards said breezily. “But it is hard to replace someone like Eric Cantor. I could never be that big an asshole.”

Accompanied by Trina and Eli, Edwards had driven into New Orleans to appear on WBOK-AM, a black-oriented station with a powerful signal. African-Americans made up about 22 percent of the vote in the Sixth; Edwards was going to need it all.

Back to his Congress days, when he was one of only a very few southern members to vote for extending the Voting Rights Act, Edwards always ran strongly with ­African- Americans, a crucial state voting block. As governor, he often appointed blacks to high positions. The David Duke victory really put him over the top. With Duke carrying the majority of the white vote, Edwards said, “Tonight Louisiana has won, but if the next merchant of bigotry is free of the apparent vulgar signs of the KKK and the swastika, will the people simply reject it as we have done? Or will our nation accept again the stereotype of the welfare queen? Does Willie Horton live on?”

At WBOK, Edwards sat with the Reverend W.L.T. Littleton, pastor of the Greater Morning Star Baptist Church in Algiers, who in honor of the occasion was wearing a tie EWE had given him 20 years earlier. The switchboard lit up, calls came in. This wasn’t a forum where Edwards was going to take any heat about being behind bars. Louisiana incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than any other state in the union, a wildly disproportionate number of them African-American. Caller after caller phoned in to thank Edwards for all he’d done for “us.”…

35 replies
  1. 1
    Corner Stone says:

    I’m not sure. Are we celebrating the man?

  2. 2
    MattF says:

    The article mentions the bumper sticker seen during the Edwards-Duke race: ‘Vote For The Crook– It’s Important.’ And it was, and they did.

  3. 3
    Baud says:

    Ha! Edwards is a corrupt-to-the-bone, old fashioned Democratic populist. Only a Republican could make him look good.

  4. 4
    Baron Elmo says:

    I’ve been waiting for a revival of the George W. Plunkitt school of politics. I’d I’d vote for this guy in a heartbeat over any Tea Party dipshit, that’s for damn sure.

    Plunkitt became wealthy by practicing what he called “honest graft” in politics. He was a cynically honest practitioner of what today is generally known as “machine politics,” patronage-based and frank in its exercise of power for personal gain. In one of his speeches, quoted in Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, he describes the difference between dishonest and honest graft: for dishonest graft one worked solely for one’s own interests, while for honest graft one pursued the interests of one’s party, one’s state, and one’s personal interests all together.

    He made most of his money through the purchase of land that he knew would be needed for public projects. He would buy such parcels, then resell them at an inflated price. (This was “honest graft”. “Dishonest graft” according to Plunkitt, would be buying land and then using influence to have a project built on it.) He defends himself, saying, “I could get nothin’ at a bargain but a big piece of swamp, but I took it fast enough and held on to it. What turned out was just what I counted on. They couldn’t make the park complete without Plunkitt’s swamp, and they had to pay a good price for it. Anything dishonest in that?” Plunkitt was also a thoroughgoing party man, believing in appointments, patronage, spoils, and all of the practices that were curtailed by the civil service law. He saw such practices as both the rewards and cause of patriotism.

    Plunkitt is also remembered for the line he used to defend his actions: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

  5. 5
    BillinGlendaleCA says:

    @Baud: And they do. Vote for the Crook.

  6. 6
    Botsplainer says:

    Glorious.

    I’ll happily take a good old-fashioned back-slapping favor-doling populist over chubby, bloodless, racist “good government” pretenders every time.

  7. 7
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @MattF:

    I remember it more as Vote for the Crook, Not the Nazi. There were probably several iterations of the message, though.

  8. 8
    Botsplainer says:

    Interesting thought – old line Democratic populists with a touch of larceny in their veins spread the wealth among a wide class of people, generally within their voting constituencies. GOP “good government” assholes shut down broad based benefit programs and hand incomprehensible sums to national concerns and to activists that aren’t within a single plane leg of their districts.

  9. 9
    Linnaeus says:

    Better a lizard than a wizard!

  10. 10
    Howard Beale IV says:

    Jindal’s own history will prevent him from going any farther than being the governor of one of the most corrupt states in the Union. Hell, I’d float an campaign that would force Louisiana to from their own country, given their Franco-Catholic background is out-of-phase with the rest of the Dispensatioanlism-Evangelical South they’re surrounded by.

  11. 11
    MattF says:

    @Howard Beale IV: Yeah, I’d be very cautious about generalizations based on Louisiana politics. It’s not like any place else.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    I don’t see how people like Jindal can argue that they are “good government” types. As I always understood the term, “good government” types were those who, no matter what their ideological proclivities might be, made sure that the trash was picked-up, the roads maintained, and the levers of power kept as much as possible from the influence of money. You know, early 20th century Germans and Scandinavians in the upper Midwest. No way Jindal, et al., fit that profile.

  13. 13
    Mike E says:

    @MattF: Yep. Same goes for NC, also. Too.

  14. 14
    James E. Powell says:

    @Baron Elmo:

    I was all set to post a George Washington Plunkitt reference but you beat me to it. Plunkitt of Tammany Hall is essential reading for anyone interested in American politics or history.

    Years ago I represented a client who extended his business operations into New Orleans. It really was like a movie or a novel written collaboratively by Kafka & Faulkner.

  15. 15
    efgoldman says:

    I’d vote for him, if I could, for the entertainment value alone.

  16. 16
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @efgoldman: You can vote for Buddy Cianci instead.

  17. 17
    efgoldman says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    You can vote for Buddy Cianci instead.

    No I can’t. I don’t live in Providence.
    And he’s nowhere near as fun and entertaining as Edwards.

  18. 18

    @Linnaeus: Gaiadammit, that’s the funniest fucking thing i’ve read today.

  19. 19
    raven says:

    Jody Hice looks like the winner in GA 10.

  20. 20
    Linnaeus says:

    @BruceFromOhio:

    I thought that was pretty funny too when I heard it back in 1992 or so.

  21. 21
    efgoldman says:

    @raven:

    Jody Hice looks like the winner in GA 10.

    Is there a Dem?

  22. 22
    dp says:

    EWE is one of those infuriating southern Democrats whose heart, while not in the right place, is in a significantly better place than those of his opponents. I only ever voted for him against Duke, but I’m thinking I’m gonna vote for him this fall, simply because of his knuckleheaded opposition.

  23. 23
    Ben says:

    @Linnaeus:
    Remember, both David Duke and Edwin Edwards were both “wizards between the sheets”.

  24. 24
    dp says:

    And another thing — his corruption is taken for granted because he was convicted. I don’t think EWE was any more honest than he had to be. But the evidence at his trial (his third one, remember; he walked two times earlier) was actually pretty weak, and every call went against him with a very conservative judge. Even so, there was a juror who held out against conviction — unanimity was required — and the judge solved that problem by dismissing the holdout to facilitate the guilty verdict. It was a bit of a scandal in BR at the time.

  25. 25
    Badtux says:

    Edwin Edwards was the last good governor we had in Louisiana. Yes, he was corrupt, but he was Chicago-style corrupt, the kind of corrupt that had the state running well and got things done. There was massive investment in roads, schools, universities, and healthcare during his four terms of office, and when he left there was a state guarantee of healthcare for all Louisianians via the state charity hospital system, as well as low tuition public colleges that virtually everybody in Louisiana could afford. Louisianians didn’t have to worry about healthcare if they were in college or lost their job, the state hospital system was there for them. Louisianians didn’t have to worry about what would happen to their mentally disabled child when they died, there was a state mental hospital system too. Then his successors dismantled it all, with Bobby Jindal doing most of the work as Mike Foster’s axeman during Governor Foster’s two terms of office, and finishing it off during his own turn as governor.

    I don’t think Edwards really understands politics in the era of Fox News though. His populist message is not going to resonate with a propagandized populace that has been conditioned like zombies to mutter “gov’ment evil, gov’ment bad” as they shuffle off to their Medicare-funded Hoverrounds on their way to their Medicare-funded doctor’s appointment. And old people and zombie losers are pretty much all that’s left in Louisiana. Anybody with brains — like me — saw what was going on, and got the hell out of there…

  26. 26
    Badtux says:

    BTW, my gratuitous Louisiana corruption story: We were competing for a contract with a school district. The competition flew the entire school board out for an all expenses paid vacation err “conference” in the Virgin Islands. My boss was outraged. “How am I going to compete with that?” So he started talking to the school board members one on one, finding out what they wanted. So one school board member’s son got a free computer. Another school board member’s wife got a consulting job. Another school board member got free Internet access. And so on and so forth.

    We got the contract.

    But my boss was stomping up and down the halls for weeks, yelling “God damn all these corrupt sons of bitches, they’re going to nickel and dime me to death!”. It was what he had to do to win the contract (and he won it fair and square actually — his gratuities basically cancelled out the Virgin Islands trip, and when they did the evaluation it was fairly well done on the merits). But he certainly wasn’t happy about it — and neither was the other company, actually, a big national firm that knew the score and eventually ended up pulling out of Louisiana because they didn’t know the political culture well enough to give the right bribes.

    That’s Louisiana. That’s the kind of environment Edwin Edwards came up in. So if you think he isn’t corrupt… well. You’re deluding yourself. He is what he is, an old-school Louisiana politician of the Long populist school.

  27. 27
    J R in WV says:

    @efgoldman:

    EF,

    Pretty sure this is a Repugnant primary runoff. Of course, the worse the R nominated, the betgter for the Democratic candidate come November.

    JR

  28. 28
    Paul in KY says:

    @dp: You damn well better vote for him! He is miles better than any GOP POS.

  29. 29
    Tone In DC says:

    I love reading this stuff.

    Edwin Edwards is the incarnation of Paul Newman’s Earl Long in “Blaze”.
    Younger B-Jers may not remember that flick, from the tail end of the 1980s.

  30. 30
  31. 31
    low-tech cyclist says:

    @Badtux:

    I don’t think Edwards really understands politics in the era of Fox News though. His populist message is not going to resonate with a propagandized populace that has been conditioned like zombies to mutter “gov’ment evil, gov’ment bad” as they shuffle off to their Medicare-funded Hoverrounds on their way to their Medicare-funded doctor’s appointment.

    Maybe so, but you don’t win in the long run unless you’re getting your message out there. Edwards will do that, and get a lot of publicity while doing it, simply because of who he is. He may win, and even if he doesn’t, he’ll get people thinking.

    “It is hard to replace someone like Eric Cantor. I could never be that big an asshole.”

    Gotta like a guy who speaks his mind.

  32. 32
    Brother Dingaling says:

    @Baron Elmo: I remember that as one (of many) criticisms of Mayor Nagin. He was taking bribes but nothing was getting done. The previous mayor, Marc Morial, everyone thought of as corrupt, but things actually got accomplished in the process.

  33. 33
    Humbert Dinglepencker says:

    Hmmm. “The Greater Morning Star Baptist Church.” Doesn’t Lucifer translate to ‘morning star?’ A little Xtian satanism, p’raps?

  34. 34
    ET says:

    @MattF: God that was a horrible choice wasn’t it? That was my last vote in Louisiana and I felt so dirty after I voted Edwards.

  35. 35
    rea says:

    @Tone In DC: Edwin Edwards is the incarnation of Paul Newman’s Earl Long in “Blaze”.

    I kinda thought Earl Long was the incarnation of Paul Newman’s character in Blaze

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_Long

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