Saturday, August 7, 2021

Four-time Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, RIP, silver-tongued and flamboyant but a true populist in the progressive tradition of that word


(Edwin Edwards)

On the night of October 24, 1987, I wrapped up a 17-hour day covering the Louisiana governor’s race in New Orleans and finally left the Hyatt-Regency Hotel campaign headquarters where half-hearted Republican candidate Bob Livingston seemed so happy to have lost that he pulled out a harmonica and rock ‘n’ rolled on the stage with an Elvis impersonator. You’d have never known from the jubilation in the crowd that Livingston had lost.


As soon as I returned to my more modest hotel, I remembered something fellow team reporter John Hill had told me. Be sure to catch Edwin Edwards’ concession speech, he said. I turned on the television.


Indeed, the silver-tongued populist Democrat was on the screen and about to concede his first-ever political loss, this time to conservative Democrat-and-future Republican Buddy Roemer. Edwards walked solemnly to the stage that had been prepared at the Hotel Monteleone on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter.


Admitting that he had lost the race, Edwards vowed his continued commitment to the people of Louisiana. “Tears come to my eyes at night for the poor people and the elderly,” Edwards said, a finger—as I recall—touching his cheek. “No one will ever know.”


Ah, populism—the real kind! You’ve got to love it! Edwards, who’d go on to serve a fourth term as governor after defeating former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in what was called the “Race from Hell” in 1991, died last month at the age of 93 after a long career in the public eye that included an eight-year stint in prison for influence peddling in connection with casino licenses. An irony is that Edwards never smoked or drank, but he loved to gamble.


“All this fun has to end at some point,” he reportedly said as his life ebbed away.


Edwards was a blast for this old political reporter to cover back in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember a Democratic Party political event on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1992 in which Edwards and former Mississippi governors Bill Allain and William Winter were the featured speakers. All three gave great speeches, but Edwards had the crowd laughing with a risqué joke about a rogue Catholic priest.


Turning to a priest who shared the stage with him, Edwards said, “Sorry, Father. That was another parish.” Edward grew up near Marksville, Louisiana, the son of a sharecropper-turned-merchant who was an anti-Catholic Protestant and a French Cajun mother who was Catholic. He and his brother Marion attended Nazarene services.


As Edwards spoke, I noticed two beautiful and buxom young women sitting at a table near the stage with a couple of muscle-bound guys who looked like Mafia hit men. I turned to a fellow correspondent from Louisiana at my table and asked about the blondes and the hit men. “They (the women) are for Edward after the speech tonight.”


Edwards was a bit of a rascal, three times married, the last time to 32-year-old Trina Grimes when he was a ripe old 83 and newly freed from prison. Of course, his most famous quote may be something he said in 1983, asserting that the only way he could lose an election would be to be caught in bed "with a dead girl or a live boy."


Investigated and indicted in the past but never successfully prosecuted until that last time, he cut a swashbuckling path through always colorful Louisiana politics, pushing the same kind of progressive agenda that predecessors Huey Long and his brother Earl had done before.


(To the right, Huey Long)


Back in the 1920s and 1930s Huey took on the oil and timber barons who ruled Louisiana and cut them down to size, claiming nearly dictatorial powers at times, it’s true, but along the way finally giving the state’s poor and working class a piece of the pie in oil-rich Louisiana. An assassin ended Huey’s life and rule in 1935, but Earl picked up the baton. He pushed for higher old age pensions and free school lunches, and like Huey resisted the racist ranting that other Southern pols like Theodore Bilbo and James K. Vardaman in neighboring Mississippi used to solidify their poor white support.


(To the left, Earl Long)


Edwards broke records in the number of African Americans he appointed to office and went after the oil industry that had grown rich in Louisiana. By linking oil taxes to the price of oil (and not volume), he boosted state coffers—at least during times when the industry was booming. In the mid-1980s, he helped retire his campaign debt by organizing a laissez les bons temps rouler trip to Paris, France, for his buddies and supporters. The price for a ride was $10,000 a person.


Edwards was no angel, but he brought some delicious spice to politics, and he represented a true populism, one that is progressive, not the right-wing kind that Donald Trump has come to symbolize. Trump-style “populists” are nothing more than old school Bourbons in disguise, serving the same wealthy interests that the old Southern gentry always served and that Republicans still do.


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