Jim Brown on the authorized biography of Edwin Edwards

Thursday, December 16, 2009
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

WHY ALL THE INTEREST IN EDWIN EDWARDS?

The new authorized biography of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards went on sale this week. In three days, the first run of 10,000 books was completely sold out. And there are pre orders for 10,000 more. People in the Louisiana book trade say they have never seen anything like the demand to buy the Edwards book. He is 82 and in the federal penitentiary. So why all the interest?

According to author Leo Honeycutt, Edwards is an enigma…a puzzling political personality shaped by his background, and a lifetime effort to climb to the top of the heap. Did he cross the imaginary line of political propriety in his public dealings? Honeycutt astutely argues that the line often moves with the times, and can be bent and shaped by unscrupulous federal prosecutors.

The project of an authorized biography, the Edwards story with both his and his family’s full cooperation, began five years ago a few years after Edwards began serving his 10 year federal sentence. Some longtime friends of the former governor were anxious to have a “balanced” perspective written of Edwards’ public and private life. After interviewing a number of prospective biographers, Leo Honeycutt was given the task.

Three reasons emerge as to why there continues to be so much interest in the continuing saga of the state’s longest serving governor. First of all he is a likeable rogue. Even his ardent distracters over the years found him to be funny and highly entertaining. Few came close to mesmerizing a crowd like the Cajun from Crowley. He could have handled a late night talk show with much more pizzazz and humor than Conan Obrien on any night of the week.

During Edwards’ third term as Governor, I invited him to speak in New Orleans to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. A crowd of some three thousand was in attendance representing both regulators and the insurance industry. I took the liberty of handing the Governor a few prepared remarks, suggesting that he tell the crowd what a great insurance commissioner Louisiana had, and a few other bland comments about the state.

He promptly discarded my efforts, made good fun of me, and kept the national crowd in stitches for over an hour. After his speech, a number of those in attendance told me they had heard humor from the best. Bill Clinton, a number of other public officials, and even Ronald Reagan. None came close entertaining as did Edwin Edwards.

Secondly, some naysayers disregard the Edwards years as all negative with no progressive public accomplishments by his administration. There is no doubt Edwards became bogged down in his later terms as his legal problems with the federal government mounted. But a number of more neutral observers will stack up Edwards first two terms as the most productive and positive in the 20th century.

I posed the question of Edwards’s accomplishments to a group of journalists that had covered the state capitol for many years, going back to the administration of Gov. Jimmy Davis in the 1960s. When asked to name the states’ shining period of progress, they all pointed to the 1970s during Edwards’ first two terms. A new constitution, tax reform, a new ethics code, the creation of an architect’s and engineer’s selection board taking these decisions away from politics that became the prototype throughout the country, the passage of the strongest public records and open meetings laws of any state, all done under Edwards leadership.

I was hosting a radio show in Baton Rouge this week on WJBO discussing the Edwards’s years and opened up the phone lines for listener comments. Former Public Affairs Research Council Director and President of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Ed Steimel called in to comment. He said during the 1970s, Edwards both embraced and worked for passage of every one of PAR’s good government recommendations. Steimel also agreed the 70s were a “special, productive time” under the Edwards’s administration.

The third reason Edwards continues to command so much interest is the feeling by many observers that he did not get a fair shake in the federal trial that sent him to prison. Former Governor Dave Treen, recently deceased, summed up this prevailing view in the last public letter he wrote as an introduction to the Honeycutt book. “I believe the federal government….doubled his sentence from the prescribed five years purely out of vindictiveness. They didn’t like him. That’s not a good reason to double someone’s sentence and is, I believe, a misuse of power.” Even many of Edwards’ ardent distracters agree.

Leo Honeycutt’s biography will stay on the Louisiana best seller list for a long time come. Edwards will be released from prison in a little over a year. And don’t be surprised to see a new, updated addition of the book released with the former governor doing book signings all over the south. Yes, Edwin Edwards is an enigma. A complex mix of a Louisiana figure who, like Icarus, flew so high with abundant success, then fell for many reasons, including some of his own making.

Greek tragedy? Maybe. But the final verse of Edwin Edwards’ life is far from written. Honeycutt’s original version of his book went some 1600 pages. Edwards insisted much be left out, at least for the time being. Another book in the making when the former governor comes home? Look for Edwards himself to have a lot more to say in the years to come. In the meantime, the Edwards’ biography fills the gap and paints a vivid portrait of the man who many feel is the most dominant Louisiana political figure in the past century.

*****

“People say I’ve had brushes with the law. That’s not true. I’ve had brushes with overzealous prosecutors.” Edwin Edwards

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south. To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.

5 thoughts on “Jim Brown on the authorized biography of Edwin Edwards”

  1. I enjoyed this article. I, like many who lived in Baton Rouge during the 70s and the governorship of Edwin Edwards, recognize the good things he did for the State and the genuine friendliness and care the Governor showed for the common person. At the time I taught Louisiana history in a Catholic school in Baton Rouge. I am a native of Pennsylvania and was new to Louisiana and it colorful political life. I was completely impressed with the Governor. He was even accessible to my students, returning a call to one of them who was doing a report on the Governor. This young man will never forget the experience and was even invited to the mansion to meet the Governor. There was no politics invoved with this–no media attention. This was a genuine show of concern for the people by the Governor. I pray for him and hope he is released soon. I look so forward to reading the book and have my name on the list for the next shipment. By the way, congratulations to you for a very good radio show and a lovely daughter. Linda Greene

  2. I just got finished reading Leo’s (cousin to My wife Reba) book and could not believe the things that I had forget about Edwin’s time in office. The many things that he did for the common man, both black and white. Also, the things that were passed to make government honest. I know that he benefitted from his time in office, but that is what life is all about. Thanks to Leo and Edwin for making this a true and great book.

  3. Keep me posted. I believe I may be his biggest fan. Can’t wait until he is released and don’t want to miss the opportunity to attend a parade for him and to have the opportunity for him to sign his biography for me in person, if possible, with a picture too. Love Gov. Edwards. Your admirer and fan, Adrienne Krass Gondolfi. God Bless you.

  4. My comment is above. He’s the best Governor the citizens of Louisiana has ever had (and probably ever will have). God Bless you,
    Gov. Edwards.

    1. Adrienne, would you happen to be Edwin’s new love interest we heard about last night on the news?

      I know for me personally, an opportunity to sit down with him for a couple of hours would be a dream interview.

      sop

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