Commentary

Louisiana’s handsome, gifted, charming governor Edwin Edwards had it all — except integrity | Robert Mann

July 16, 2021 7:22 am

Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, 93, who served four terms as governor of Louisiana. In this file photo from 2014, the 86-year-old Edwards announces his run for U.S. Congress at the Belle of Baton Rouge Hotel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Edwards spent eight years in prision following a felony conviction arising from the licensing of riverboat casinos in his fourth term as Governor. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The following is an excerpt from “The Comeback of the Cajun Prince,” a chapter in Robert Mann’s memoir, Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics, which hits shelves Aug. 9.

When I read the endorsement of Edwin Edwards in the Shreveport Journal, the newspaper where I began working in August 1983, I knew covering that year’s governor’s race would be fun. 

“Edwin Washington Edwards is a leader in the very best sense of the word,” the Sept. 23 editorial asserted. “He is one of those rare men whose style, energy and ideas can be transferred to the people, and thence to cooperative accomplishment.” 

I was the paper’s new political reporter, assigned to cover Edwards’s bid for a third term. Although I had nothing to do with the endorsement, I knew the enthusiasm of my editor and publisher for Edwards’s campaign against incumbent Republican Gov. Dave Treen could only help me. 

While the paper confessed some concerns about Edwards’ ethics, his interview with the editorial board had calmed those fears. Little did the editors know that by March 1985, barely a year into his third term, a federal grand jury would indict him and six associates on 50 counts of racketeering and fraud. Edwards would beat those charges.

That August, I began traveling with the 56-year-old former governor. I had never met him before being assigned to cover his campaign. And, under normal circumstances, he and his staff should have been skeptical of a young reporter who wanted to tag along to every event for several weeks. 

Here is where the Journal’s endorsement saved me. From almost the first day, Edwards and his aides welcomed me. I sat in the back seat of the campaign car with an aide at the wheel and Edwards riding shotgun. 

Edwards was solicitous, and sometimes chatty, as we burned the back roads from meeting to meeting and rally to rally. The black sedan had a car phone, but he usually resisted any temptation to use the phone and, when not talking, leaned back and took a nap. I’ve never known anyone who could fall asleep so quickly, snooze for five or 10 minutes, and then awake as refreshed as if he had slept for an hour. 

For the first few weeks, it had usually been just me, Edwards, and an aide plying the back roads. But on Oct. 1, the campaign launched an ambitious, nine-day, 3,000-mile tour that would take the candidate to each of the state’s 64 parishes. 

Suddenly, I was one of about two dozen reporters, some of them national and international writers, eager to observe the self-styled “Cajun Prince” at work. 

He launched the tour in his hometown of Marksville. In that speech on the Avoyelles Parish courthouse square, Edwards recalled his mother, Agnes Brouillette, an untrained country nurse and midwife who often provided free health care to neighbors and friends.

“I remember thinking how important it was to help people,” Edwards told the crowd, “that my mother was always there to help, that people, no matter who they were, should be able to get help when they need it.” 

With that, Edwards launched into attacking Treen for cutting the state’s $50-a-month allowance for nursing home residents. And then he sharpened his attack, focusing on what he said was Treen’s inability to help those looking for work. 

“They can’t find a job and can’t find anyone to talk to,” Edwards said. “Have any of you ever called Dave Treen? Go ahead and try it and see if he calls you back. By the time you hear from him again, I’ll be in the Mansion answering the phone.” 

The audience roared.

Edwards on the stump

The most memorable stop on the tour came on day six, after we rolled into the town square in Lake Providence. It was noontime as Edwards climbed atop the stump of a 150-year-old oak tree and addressed his mostly Black audience, reminding them of his devotion to them during his eight years as governor in the 1970s. 

“Are there any senior citizens?” he asked, pretending to search the crowd from his perch. Finally, he spotted someone, an elderly man.

“Raise your hand, old man,” Edwards said. “I know you’re a senior citizen. Look at him. He don’t have a tooth in his mouth and he’s trying to decide if he’s a senior citizen. Boy, you’d make a good politician. You can lie with a straight face.” 

The man beamed. 

Then, Edwards wheeled around to another part of the crowd and took aim at his opponent. “He cut taxes in 1980 to help the rich folk,” Edwards said. “And now he’s out of money. You know what he wants to tax now? Snuff. I know you’re not going to admit it, but there are some snuff dippers in the crowd. And if you’re a snuff dipper, you better go buy some snuff because he’s going to put a tax on snuff.” 

He was referring to Treen’s proposal to increase state sales taxes on tobacco and alcoholic beverages.

Next, Edwards asked if there were any police jurors in attendance. Several hands shot up. Edwards said, “What’s happened to your road fund, brother? Who took care of you when he was governor?”

“You did,” the man replied.

“Tell them about it, Mike,” Edwards said, impressing the crowd by recalling this local official’s name. “You lost twenty-five percent of your rural road funds and that means that twenty-five percent of the people you would have taken out of the mud and the dust are going to be in the mud and the dust until next year when I get back in.”

Everywhere Edwards went, he inspired many voters to long for a return to what they considered Louisiana’s halcyon days before the austerity of the Treen years. 

As the tour went on, Edwards’ attacks on Treen became even harsher — and funnier. At a rally in Metairie one evening, Edwards went after Treen’s famous penchant for overthinking decisions. 

“He’s been governor three and a half years and he hasn’t made a decision yet. What can you do with a guy who takes an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes?”

Edwards the womanizer

As I followed Edwards, I not only witnessed his casual relationship with the truth; I also saw that his reputation as a Casanova was well earned. 

One day in late August, we flew from Baton Rouge on a rented King Air to Lake Bruin (outside St. Joseph in northeast Louisiana), to the home of state Sen. Billy Brown, one of Edward’s biggest supporters, for a rally featuring the popular Cajun-Country singer Doug Kershaw. 

When the rally was over, we headed for the plane for a short hop over to Shreveport, where Edwards would spend the night, and I would jump off the campaign trail for a few days before rejoining Edwards elsewhere.       

When we arrived at the airstrip, I noticed a new passenger — an attractive young woman — was onboard, ostensibly, as someone one of Edwards’ aides had invited along. I suspected he had invited her along for Edwards, notorious for his sexual appetites. 

The woman appeared nervous. Maybe she had never flown before. More likely, she had never been picked up by a former governor 30 years her senior and flown off with him into the night.

When we landed in Shreveport, I pulled the woman aside as the governor ducked into the men’s room before she, Edwards and his entourage went off to a nearby Ramada Inn. I slipped her a piece of paper with my home number on it. 

“Call me if anything goes wrong and you need someone to come get you,” I said as we parted. She gave me a slight smile. 

I didn’t see her again until seven years later, in the summer of 1990, when I was working for Sen. J. Bennett Johnston during his reelection campaign. I saw her a rally in Monroe. Although I could tell that she remembered me from that night, she said nothing about it. 

Edwards knew how to manage the press, if nothing else. He knew what I could not print and what I could. 

One day, as I settled into the back seat of his car after an event in Shreveport, I asked him some impertinent question. It annoyed him. Instead of giving me a long answer that amounted to nothing, he wheeled around, looked me in the eyes and said, “F— you,” and then laughed. He knew I couldn’t quote him. 

Corruption allegations

Sex wasn’t the only part of Edwards life that confounded me. Corruption accusations and federal investigations dogged him for years. 

During his second term, he was accused of having received illegal contributions during his first gubernatorial campaign in 1971-72. In 1976, Edwards admitted his wife, Elaine, accepted $10,000 in cash from South Korean businessman Tongsun Park during the 1971-72 campaign. Edwards claimed Elaine forgot to tell him about the gift until the Internal Revenue Service began investigating him. 

This and more were subjects of a 1977 book by a former Edwards aide, Clyde Vidrine,” Just Takin’ Orders.”

In this file photo from March 17, 2014, former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, then 86, poses with his wife Trina Scott Edwards before announcing his run for U.S. Congress at the Belle of Baton Rouge Hotel on March 17, 2014 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Edwards, who served four terms as governor of Louisiana, died Monday at 93. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Vidrine’s book included outrageous tales of Edwards’s gambling trips to Las Vegas, his dogged pursuit of women, and alleged vote buying and kickbacks. I read it — wide-eyed — to prepare for covering Edwards. 

Imagine my reaction the first time I observed a supporter approach the former governor with a copy of Vidrine’s book — a tome filled with lurid accounts of Edward’s alleged criminality. 

Any other politician would have declined a request to autograph the book. Not Edwards. Although he maintained the book was full of lies, I watched him sign every copy anyone pushed into his hands.

The Edwards-Treen campaign gave me a crash course in hardball campaigning. When it was over, it felt like I learned a decade’s worth of political lessons in six months. 

Watching Treen make an all-out push to woo the Black vote, I learned that — in Louisiana, at least — Black voters almost never vote for Republicans. Treen seemed to think he could close the gap with Edwards by campaigning hard in Black churches. 

On election day, Treen would win only about 5 percent of the Black vote, slightly more than he earned four years earlier.

I also learned that public images rarely match private behavior. In front of a crowd, Edwards was suave, charismatic, funny and outgoing. Treen was his exact opposite before an audience — dry, technocratic and often humorless. 

Offstage, Edwards and Treen swapped personalities

By the end of the race, having spent weeks watching both candidates up close, I realized their real personalities — who they were when the crowds drifted away and the lights went off — were far different from what most people saw. 

Edwards could still charm in private, but his default demeanor was to withdraw into himself. He did not crack jokes. He rarely smiled. Not that he wasn’t friendly, but I recognized he was an introvert who overcame those tendencies to perform in public. 

I discovered Treen was witty, warm, and down-to-earth with me and others in ways that were difficult for Edwards. Treen’s charisma disappeared when he mounted the stage; Edwards’s receded when he stepped down from it.

Robert Mann holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and is the author of the upcoming memoir “Backrooms and Bayous,” published by Pelican Publishing.

Everywhere Edwards went, crowds greeted him like a messiah.

One evening we arrived for a big rally at the Fairgrounds racetrack in New Orleans. This crowd was massive and particularly enthusiastic. Marsha Shuler of The Advocate, John Maginnis of Gambit and I were among the reporters following the campaign that day, but arrived in a staff car that trailed behind his motor home. 

When Edwards saw the crush of people, he waded through the crowd to check on us. “You alright?” he asked. We told him we were. He nodded. “Stay close to me.” 

We stuck as close to him as we could, plowing through the enormous crowd, protected by a phalanx of police and security guards, as we made our way to the stage. We might not have arrived safely without Edwards’ intervention. 

After a month of travels with Edwards, my editor, Stan Tiner, assigned me to the Treen campaign for the campaign’s final week. Having spent weeks with Edwards, I still leaned toward voting for Treen. Despite his charisma and many kindnesses to me, Edwards represented so much of what I despised about Louisiana politics. 

By then, however, Treen’s campaign had run out of steam. He and his staff tried to keep up the pretense that he could pull out a win, but it was painfully obvious to anyone who followed the campaign that Edwards would breeze to victory. 

Everywhere Treen went, small, lackluster groups greeted him. In some cases, when a crowd failed to show, Treen resorted to prowling grocery store aisles and asking shoppers for their votes. It was an embarrassing, humiliating end to a respectable but politically inept term as governor. 

For Edwards, meanwhile, it was his triumphal return to the pinnacle of Louisiana politics. He won the election in a landslide.

I have known few politicians as skillful and charismatic as Edwin Edwards. He was movie-star handsome, with smooth, silver hair and a charming, roguish sense of humor. 

He seemed never to forget a name. I lost count of the times I saw him astound onlookers by pulling some seemingly unfamiliar person’s name from the deep recesses of his mind. 

I have never known a politician better at summoning a clever, devastating rejoinder in debate. And I have yet to meet his equal in conjuring electric energy on the stump. He exuded an astonishing, natural charisma when he mounted a stage. For attendees, an Edwards’ rally was a near-religious experience. 

Edwards had it all, except integrity.

To his long-term detriment, his Cajun charm was exceeded only by his dishonesty.

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Robert Mann
Robert Mann

Robert Mann holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication. Prior to joining the Manship School in 2006, he served as a spokesman for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Sen. John Breaux and Sen. Russell Long. From 2013 to 2018, he wrote a weekly column for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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