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Excerpts from Leo Honeycutt’s authorized biography, Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana

Editor’s Note: A contemporary of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, Jim Brown — former state representative, secretary of state and insurance commissioner — is beside himself these days, flush with newfound publishing success. Like Edwards, Brown served time in prison on federal charges, and like Edwards, he has sought to straighten the record in prose. In Brown’s case, it was his 2004 self-penned book, Justice Denied: How the Federal Justice System Failed Former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown. Self-published and now distributed through his own imprint — The Lisburn Press — the book has sold moderately well, so it’s little surprise Brown, now a political consultant and commentator in Baton Rouge, was unprepared for the success of Lisburn’s latest title, Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana.

“I sucked it up and went with 10,000 [copies],” Brown recalls of the initial order. His first instinct was to order 5,000 and see how sales went. Those 10,000 copies sold out in three days. Another 10,000 are already accounted for, and Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other retailers are jockeying for more. “Edwin hasn’t been on a ballot in 20 years and is in jail right now,” Brown says. “I had no idea.”

Edwards generated more than his share of detractors during his life in politics, but some unlikely alliances were also forged. Following his 2000 conviction on racketeering charges and throughout his incarceration, the late former Gov. Dave Treen — a Republican and ideological opposite of Edwards — lobbied President George W. Bush for Edwards’ pardon. Bush left office without making the pardon, and Treen, whose one term as governor (1980-84) was book-ended by two of Edwards’ three terms, died last October, his last public mission unfulfilled.

“I believe the federal government, and by that I mean Judge Frank Polozola and U.S. attorney Jim Letten, doubled [Edwards’] sentence from the prescribed five years purely out of vindictiveness,” Treen writes in the foreword to Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana. “They didn’t like him.” Treen later adds, “Even if Governor Edwards were guilty of what he was convicted, he certainly never stole a dime from taxpayers. That’s one of the few things he was never accused of. I’m not even saying he was guilty at all, because the investigation and trial were certainly dubious.”

Written by award-winning broadcast journalist, filmmaker and novelist Leo Honeycutt, Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana is an engrossing account of the life and times (and trials) of Edwin Washington Edwards, a poor boy from Marksville who turned the G.I. Bill into a law career in Crowley, and who starred in a modern Louisiana version of a Greek tragedy spanning the last third of the 20th century. The biography is based largely on countless hours of interviews of Edwards by Honeycutt. Financial underwriting for the project was provided to no small extent by B.I. Moody III, owner of Louisiana State Newspapers, which publishes The Crowley Post-Signal, The Abbeville Meridional and more than 25 additional small newspapers around the state. LSN papers are generally conservative politically, but the Moody family, after whom UL’s college of business is named, has been a staunch supporter of Edwards. After President George W. Bush refused to pardon Edwards or commute his sentence, the local newspaper chain penned a scathing front-page editorial, noting that Bush would “go down in history as the worst president ever and deservedly so due to his ineptness, incredible incompetence, and his lack of truthfulness, intelligence and compassion.” Shortly afterward, however, LSN wrote a front-page mea culpa, noting that the editorial offended “the majority” of its readers and explaining that the editorial page, along with decisions to publish such opinions, is reserved for LSN corporate rather than local management at individual papers.

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The former governor, meanwhile, will be sprung later this year, but he’s already getting his side of the story out — the bio hit shelves three weeks ago. Edwards is expected to walk out of the minimum-security Oakdale Correctional Facility sometime around Thanksgiving, and his former colleague in state government will be ready. “Hell,” boasts Brown, “I’m going to slap a new cover on it and have a foreword by Edwin!”

Following are excerpts from Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana, reprinted with permission from The Lisburn Press. To order a copy ($28.95), contact Louisiana Distributors at (337) 266-2105 or go to edwinedwards.net.

From chapter 3 — Right Out of Law School and I Couldn’t Get a Job
Because of a special program offered to veterans to catch them back up with coursework, Edwin finished his undergraduate degree in only 60 hours. He whistled through law school by the end of 1948, graduating in January 1949. The same program also relieved Edwin of having to take the bar exam. On February 16, 1949, the ambitious son of poor parents became, at the age of 21, Edwin Washington Edwards, Esquire. Yet, with impeccable Dean’s List grades, not a single firm appeared interested.

EWE: “I tried for a job with Phillips Petroleum to be a corporate lawyer but I didn’t get the job. Right out of law school and I couldn’t get a job. In Marksville, I thought I might team up with an attorney named Philo Coco but found Marksville already had 28 lawyers for only 5,000 people.”

Edwin knocked on door after door, typed up resume after resume, asked around for anyone needing legal help. Marksville attorneys didn’t want any more competition. Audrey invited him to Crowley, Louisiana, where she and Andrew had been drawn to lead a fledgling Nazarene flock deep in the heart of Catholic country. Edwin’s sister knew she and her husband were considered “heretics,” espousing a doctrine of “heresy” to the Roman Catholic Church, but Audrey was gentle like her father and made friends quickly, even Catholic friends who didn’t view her church as a threat.

Edwin’s convictions had eased in that department. He could be Catholic to Catholics and Protestant to Protestants, but more importantly, he could be French to Cajuns, a singularly unifying asset. He checked the phone book, curious to see how many attorneys were in a town quadruple the size of Marksville and how many touted French-speaking ability. If Marksville had 28 attorneys, Crowley should have a hundred. To his astonishment, Crowley had only thirteen attorneys in the Yellow Pages. Walking along the town’s main street, Parkerson, indeed he saw few attorney-at-law signs. Newly commissioned Attorney Edwin W. Edwards had hit the legal jackpot.

From chapter 6 — The Coonasses Win!
On April 13, three weeks before inauguration, Edwin received a standstill budget reflecting a $30 million deficit Governor McKeithen was leaving. The state’s bank accounts were $12 million in the red. Observed Sam Hanna, “Mr. Edwards has an almost impossible task ahead of him, if he is successful in re-organizing state government and at the same time operating the state with current revenue without curtailing services.”

Legalized gambling came up as a revenue source, proposed in conversation at a press convention by Insurance Commissioner-elect Sherman Bernard. Bernard insisted untaxed illegal gambling already existed in Louisiana. “I’m not in favor of legalized gambling,” Edwin rebutted, surrounded by reporters. “It’s not working in the states that have tried it and in a few years you’re right back where you started. You still need money and you’ve added the problems that gambling attracts.”

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1959. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy
addresses a crowd at the 23rd annual Crowley
International Rice Festival, with Democratic
committeeman Camille Gravel, center, and Rice
Festival President Edwin Edwards, right.
 

As lawmakers fought to continue deficit spending as they had under McKeithen, Edwin risked alienation, telling them sharply, “I don’t care whose pet project gets turned over, whose relative gets fired, whose road doesn’t get built, whose building isn’t built. I will not permit my balanced budget proposal to be tampered with!” Quickly, opposition began to mount. Special interests lined up against his call for a new constitution but Edwin called them out, telling reporters, “Organized labor is all for a new constitution if it can be assured there will be no right-to-work provision in it. The city marshals’ association is all for a new constitution if it is assured that the provision relating to city marshals is left alone. None of that belongs in a constitution and if that’s the kind we’ll have coming out of a convention, I’m for reprinting the old one and save the money.”

On Inauguration Day, Tuesday, May 9, 1972, even Baton Rouge’s Morning Advocate lauded his hard preparation.

“Gov. Edwards brings to the office experience as a state legislator and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He brings the vigor of young manhood and a zest for meeting challenges. He brings an inherent cognizance of the time to be light-hearted and the time to be solemn. He is endowed with far more than an average ration of political sagacity.”

At the Inaugural Mass in St. Joseph’s cathedral, New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan who presided over President Kennedy’s funeral offered prayers for Edwin in a cadence Edwin remembered from Kennedy’s requiem. Multicolored rays through stained glass bathed the Edwardses as the snow-fleeced archbishop spoke of unity.

Shortly after Edwin had won, someone fired a bullet through a window in the Edwards Law Office in Crowley.

The gunman was never found. On March 5, Robert Blanton, III, of Gonzales was arrested at Ryan Airport for having an illegal pistol silencer, leaving authorities to speculate he was plotting to kill Edwin. Blanton was later booked in a murder case.

As Mass continued, extraordinary security forces including the Secret Service lined the inaugural parade route and sealed off the capitol with heavy guard in the rotunda. Nearly 200 armed Louisiana State troopers joined 56 plainclothesmen in the crowd. Secret Service agents, FBI, deputy sheriffs, city police, and National Guard military police were called in. Ambulances stood by while the second floor trauma center of nearby Our Lady of the Lake Hospital staffed up for an emergency.

From chapter 8 — Bon temps Roulette to the Presidency?
As the 1970s peaked, television eclipsed newspapers as America’s favorite source for news. The new workforce of twin paychecks had little time to read daily newspapers, quickly preferring the immediacy of broadcasts. To slow the exodus, newspapers competed by becoming still more indepth. Television and radio had limited minutes; newspapers had unlimited ink. Print reporters could thoroughly explain stories beyond the ten-second soundbites, but they were often overshadowed by the new army of superficial, blow-dried television reporters who did half the work for twice the pay.

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1971. Edwards presses the flesh in Opelousas on the campaign trail.
 

Print reporters looked for crucial information they could withhold or stall until TV reporters vacated the capitol at 6:00 p.m. The next morning’s headlines were often more exciting as they held out for any shred of late-breaking accusation or controversy. If quick television stories directed readers to tomorrow’s newspaper, print reporters had to drum up something better. To their advantage, newsmakers were often more apt to open up away from cameras and give a better quote, even if the newspaperman were later accused of having taken that quote out of context.

Despite a hostile press, at the close of the 1976 session Edwin wielded greater power and control. The Legislature allowed him to streamline and reorganize state government from 200 state agencies down to twenty cabinet-level departments, with eleven under his direct control. While consolidation would not be complete until the end of 1977, Edwin had the power to hire and fire across the spectrum of government. He also led lawmakers to increase homestead exemption, codify most of the state’s election laws and commission a coastal zone resources management program. By the 1970s, marine biologists were sounding the alarm that Louisiana’s coastline was disappearing into the Gulf, potentially destroying the seafood and petroleum industries.

Exasperated with the [Super]Dome [project], legislators additionally turned those operations over to Edwin and approved $14 million to kick-start the showplace. In turn, Edwin sought professional management, saying, “It’s important to the New Orleans metropolitan area economy, as well as that of the state in general, to keep the Dome open.” He enacted the session’s death penalty and anti-abortion bills but, signing them, admitted they would likely be found unconstitutional. He signed them “because legislators overwhelmingly approved them. There’s no question the legislature is more independent now than in the past.” Opposing Senator Charles Barham admitted, “He is a man of his word and he fulfilled his promises. He did what he said he would do.”

From chapter 12 — We’re Both Wizards Under the Sheets
Saturday November 16 dawned as clear as the Picayune editorial: “Edwin Edwards vs. David Duke is the choice of our lives. For those who are tempted to sit this one out in disgust or complacency, we repeat: Edwin Edwards, our flawed former governor, is the only alternative to David Duke.” Putting down paper and coffee, 150 Edwards campaign workers fanned out from Canal Street. In Lake Charles, dozens of Duke supporters met at an office building to do the same. Duke maintained contact from Metairie with seven field offices. Edwin, as always, posted motivated workers in each of Louisiana’s 64 parishes to shuttle voters to the polls. For the October primary, Edwin’s get-out-the-vote expenses topped $337,000. Duke spent nothing.

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1974. Edwards presents Elvis Presley with an award
acknowledging Presley’s contribution to the
Louisiana State Police Boys Camp.
 

As polls closed at 8:00 p.m. and tallies began, America sat on the edge of its chair watching Louisiana. The race had become another proving ground for the creed of the country. And within minutes, Louisiana broadcast a loud message: while social problems endured, extremism was not the answer. Edwin leapt out front and never looked back. Duke’s “silent majority” materialized for Edwin, giving him 61% of the vote to Duke’s 39%. Polling well over one million, Edwin received the most votes of any governor in Louisiana history. Celebrating his fourth victory at The Monteleone, his appearance in the spotlight rattled chandeliers. “Tonight, Louisiana became first,” he said, “first to turn back the merchant of hate, the master of deceit. Tonight is the first night of our journey to decency, to honesty, to fairness, to justice, to respect, to honor, and to hard work. I will make our people proud of our state, proud of our governor.” In Baton Rouge, Duke told supporters, “Right doesn’t win every battle, but right always triumphs in the end.”

Edwin believed in a different right, especially where it concerned his power with lawmakers. He was disheartened by a sweeping exit poll showing an uphill battle ahead. In a survey conducted for ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN of 1,634 voters, fifty percent of those voting for Edwin said they went to the polls to vote specifically for Edwin; however, almost as many, 47 percent, said they voted for Edwin as a vote against Duke. But most discouraging of all, the survey exposed well over half, 62 percent, believed Edwin was guilty of political corruption. The acquittal in the Volz trials had made no difference. Regardless of evidence, he was branded for life.

Edwin was a local story, however. The national news focused not on Louisiana’s repudiation of Duke as much as on the phenomenon of Duke, playing right back into his hands by giving airtime and a platform to continue a divisive message. “Perhaps the messenger was rejected,” Duke told CNN’s Newsmaker Sunday, “but the message wasn’t. The people of this state and the people of this nation believe in what I believe in.” Calling an end to junk news, at his own press conference Edwin humbly told reporters, “I want to be a good governor. I recognize the opportunity I have. We’re going to do this right.”

From chapter 17 — The Dead Body of Your Enemy Will Come Floating Down
Monday morning, October 21, 2002, dawned crisp on Club View Drive. Lacy fog rose from the lake behind his house like hovering ghosts but the blue skies above, for Edwin, meant a perfect day for flying. He had risen from the warmth of a plush antique bed alongside Candy instantly aware that when he lay down that night, it would be on a steel bunk at faraway Ft. Worth federal prison. He walked Caesar a last time, breathing in as much autumn air as his lungs could hold. He made mental snapshots of the way things were, knowing they would be different when he came back. If he ever did.

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1984. Inauguration day
 

At breakfast, Candy was unable to stop crying. Edwin stopped rattling off last-minute instructions and slipped into a bright red jogging suit, the only clothes he would carry. His son David and daughter Anna picked him and Candy up for the trip to the airport. An hour later, Edwin was copiloting David’s twin-engine blue and white Mitsubishi MU-2 at 5,000 feet, with Anna and Candy in the cabin. As they cut across the heart of Louisiana, for one last time Edwin soaked up the pastoral patchwork of fields and forests he’d seen so many times from this vantage point during campaigns, of all the small towns and hamlets below where so many had welcomed him into communities and hearts. He had cut so many ribbons, made so many speeches, shaken so many hands, seen, listened to, and touched so many people. The needs were so great and he had done all he could.

Far too soon, the MU-2’s rubber screeched on the runway in Ft. Worth. Edwin complimented his youngest on a fine landing. Renting a green Ford Taurus, the four dined at a Chili’s restaurant. At the red and green Tex-Mex themed franchise, no one recognized the former governor of Louisiana. Once a king who ruled over legislators like Napoleon and Caesar, now he was anyone, unnoticed as he ate a hamburger, his last meal as a free man.

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