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’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.