The last time I saw Edwin Edwards, he was breaking the law. It was 14 years ago, in the cafeteria of the Russell B. Long federal courthouse in Baton Rouge, where a portrait of Russell’s dad Huey—the Kingfish himself—kept watch over the lobby. At the building’s ribbon-cutting several years earlier, Edwards, who was then in the last of his four nonconsecutive terms as emperor/governor of Louisiana (and who is now running for Congress), had joked that the ceremony was “my first invitation to a federal courthouse not delivered by U.S. marshals.”
Like all his best lines—and Edwards always had the best lines (on his electoral chances: The only way I can lose . . . is if I’m caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy; on his deliberative competitor: Dave Treen is so slow, it takes him an hour-and-a-half to watch 60 Minutes)—the one at his courthouse christening was dark, perfectly timed, and rooted in truth.
By early 2000, though, the joke was on Edwards. Claiming he was the victim of a political witch hunt, he had slipped the feds for decades in over a dozen grand jury probes. He’d even won two jury acquittals during the ’80s for the same alleged hospital-contracts scheme. But Edwards was finally on trial with six codefendants, including his son Stephen, for improperly influencing the disbursement of state riverboat casino licenses after leaving office. He was offered a plea deal which for only a year in prison would’ve let Stephen walk (his son told his dad he’d blow his brains out if dad capitulated). As an ice-water craps player who earned millions at Vegas gaming tables, often raising eyebrows by hauling cases full of cash to and from the governor’s mansion, Edwards rolled the dice.
Many Edwards-watchers found it peculiar that the law was finally closing in on Edwards, a populist Democrat in the Long tradition, for selling an office that he no longer owned. If you bug-zapped all the parasites who buy and sell influence in Washington, the city would fast resemble a postapocalyptic moonscape. And in graft-riddled Louisiana, where a large swath of elected officials have historically proven amenable to under-the-table remuneration, many considered Edwards’s activities to be run-of-the-mill lobbying. Besides, Republican Mike Foster had already replaced Edwards as governor. How much influence did Edwards have to peddle with a state gaming board he hadn’t appointed?
The feds had surreptitiously wired Edwards’s life—reportedly tapping even his bedroom, and perhaps giving them a salacious soundtrack. (The unapologetic womanizer once said the only thing he had in common with his electoral opponent David Duke, a former KKK member, was that “we are both wizards under the sheets.”) With 26,000 recorded conversations, there was no indisputable smoking gun. But the prosecution trotted out all manner of curiosities and a large cast of costars—large dollar figures scribbled on cocktail napkins, huge sums of cash stashed in ash bins or duck carcasses, heavy-breathing from codefendants wondering about people being wired—that kept everyone awake during a four-month trial. (Except the juror who was dismissed for sleeping.)
Both a fierce verbal jouster and wily former country lawyer (he was born the dirt-poor son of a sharecropper in Cajun country), Edwards never did himself many favors in the looking blameless department. In a turn that largely endeared him to the public while enraging his antagonists, Edwin habitually goosed his own outlaw image. Once, upon hearing that some jurors in his mid-’80s trial had stolen towels from the hotel where they were sequestered, he deadpanned, “I have been judged by a jury of my peers.”
This was a ploy straight out of the Longs’ populist playbook. Edwards as governor was never as dictatorial or demonstrably crooked as Huey, who hired and fired LSU football coaches and insisted state employees kick 10 percent of their salaries back to his “deduct box.” Nor did he run as hot-blooded and crazy as Huey’s brother, Earl, who kept his political machine chugging along from a mental hospital in Mandeville, after his own wife, Miz Blanche, had him committed, possibly out of vengeance for Earl’s publicly squiring a stripper. But Edwards absorbed the lessons of their appeal: Stand up for the little guy, and don’t be afraid to kick the big guy in the shorts. (Numerically, there are a lot more little guys than big guys who vote.) Tap the oil and gas companies in the carotid artery, and keep the revenue stream flowing. Keep the people swimming in gravy, from roads and bridges to hot school lunches to patronage jobs, patronage being right up there with shrimping and oil refining as one of the state’s leading industries.