This month, former Governor Edwin Edwards will reign as grand marshal over the 75th International Rice Festival in Crowley, his former hometown. When he first appeared as president of the festival in 1959, Edwards stood at an arms’ length from the young U.S. Senator John Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, who spoke briefly in French to a crowd of more than 130,000 people. The handsome young couple made a visit to Acadiana just 60 days before Kennedy formally announced his bid for the presidency of the United States.
No one attending the festival could predict that Edwards would become the most powerful and legendary politician of our time. He was the first Roman Catholic in the 20th century to serve as governor of Louisiana, a position he held for an unprecedented four terms, twice as many terms as any other governor in the state.
Edwards’ popularity remains strong, regardless of his eight years of incarceration. He is still embraced by those who knew him when. In the first eight days after creating a Facebook page this summer, 5,000 “friends” signed up, which is the maximum allowed; another 3,000 attempted to join that same week.
Surrounded by TV cameras, political heavyweights, and adoring fans in July at the Hotel Monteleone, hundreds of people were clamoring for a handshake at his “roasting” and 84th birthday party. Edwards remarked to the press corps how flattered he was to have received such a reception. He also mentioned that he had received 35,000 letters while in prison.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much that meant to me,” he said. “This is Louisiana. We love each other and we take care of each other. I’m proud of the fact that I entertain people. It makes them happy in these dire times,” he remarked during the press conference prior to the roasting. “I am really happy to be back. I was born a Democrat, and in 19 to 20 years, I will die a Democrat.”
Louisiana’s most colorful politician who is famed for his one-liners and womanizing, Edwards quipped during a Baton Rouge gathering in July, “A man is only as old as the woman he feels,” and “I really feel like I came out of prison more popular than I went in.” Perhaps his most famous quote while running against Dave Treen years ago was, “The only way I can lose is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
I recently had the pleasure of visiting with former Governor Edwards at his new home in Gonzales, where he resides with his new wife, Trina (née Scott) and her two sons, Logan and Trevor. It is a family affair at the Edwards’ residence, which is situated in a quiet, gated subdivision in the Pelican Point area of Ascension Parish.
Edwards had just come back from another book signing for Leo Honeycutt’s authorized autobiography, Edwin Edwards, Governor of Louisiana, which began flying off the shelves the day it was released. “He has been very busy with the book signings,” Trina said to me on her way to pick up Logan and Trevor from school.
When she returned, the boys gravitated to Edwards, who asked them about their school day as they snacked. I detected a strong sense of family, and the children’s obvious love for Edwards. He appeared relaxed and elegant, and showed no signs of slowing down. He was razor-sharp and displayed a powerful intellect as always, and had much to say about the current state of Louisiana politics during our interview.
At the time of this writing, in late August, Edwards had just announced to the media that if he could, he would consider challenging Governor Jindal’s reelection bid this fall, rather than having him “walk back into the office unopposed.” He had also disclosed this during our interview two weeks earlier. Edwards declared that in the relatively short time he has been out of prison on racketeering charges, he has discovered “there are a lot of people who want Jindal to have opposition, and a lot of people who want me to be governor. You put those two factors together, and you have a lot of talk about the possibility of my running. It has been both flattering and understandable, given the status of Louisiana politics today.”
Edwards stated that he had recently been approached by Democratic Party leaders regarding the upcoming gubernatorial election. However, due to his conviction, Edwards is precluded from running for a fifth term as governor unless he would receive a presidential pardon.
Fans of the former governor created a Facebook page this summer named “Ask Obama to Pardon Edwin Edwards.” Among the more than 1,700 “likes” to date, when this issue went to press, were 60 Minutes, the New York Post, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News; and such notable people as Drew Brees, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, former President Bill Clinton, former Governor Kathleen Blanco, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Jay Leno, Harry Connick Jr., Aaron Neville, Michelle Obama, and even President Obama, the man who has it in his power to make it all happen.
As we sat in the stately dining room at his home for a one-hour interview, I asked Edwards about settling into his new life in Ascension Parish, and about his 50-year political career in Louisiana.
What are you enjoying the most about being back?
I am enjoying being with my family, my wife, and my friends, being able to get good medical attention when I need it, and good food when I want it. I am very pleased to be living here. We moved into the house June first. We have a modest home in a golfing subdivision, and we are living comfortably, not extravagantly.
What food did you miss the most?
Shrimp, okra, and crab gumbo. Trina and I both like to cook.
How has Trina been a blessing in your life?
I know that people will be curious and maybe even apprehensive about an 84-year-old man being married to a 32-year-old honey. A young woman is usually after a man with power and money. But I was in prison and broke. She visited me every Saturday and Sunday, and on every holiday. In the course of that, we fell in love. We agreed to get married while I was in prison. I want people to know what she is all about. They just don’t come any better than Trina—only in books and in the movies.
What would you say are the most glaring political changes that have occurred in Louisiana since you were governor, especially in the last decade?
It has been the migration of people from the Democratic to the Republican Party. It has become popular to say that you are a Republican. It doesn’t mean that you change your philosophy or attitude, just your registration. All of the South has moved away from the National Democratic Party because of policies that were not favored in the South toward races, like caring for the poor and the disabled, and policies of trying to make government work for the people. And of course those policies were very important to people in the South. But as time went on, the conservative attitude began to permeate the state and the nation.
What do you think President Obama has to do in order to succeed in winning the election?
I think Obama will have trouble unless the economy picks up. Most of the time, in the absence of war, people vote with their pocketbooks. It’s pocketbook politics. If the economy picks up and people have jobs and can keep their homes, he’ll be reelected.
What do you think about former Governor Buddy Roemer announcing his bid for the presidency, and about David Duke’s announcement that he is considering joining the race as well?
I saw a speech Roemer made to a group in Iowa about pro-life, but he didn’t mention the pro-life bill he vetoed when he was governor. Most of the gambling in the state came about under his administration, including the riverboats and the lottery. But he goes around talking about how he’s opposed to gambling. Roemer presided over the greatest expansion of gambling in the history of our state. He succeeded with the newspaper editors, who were so opposed to me because they were willing to embrace his no gambling, no taxes platform. It was a total collapse. He had no control over the legislature. He bragged about being pro-life and he vetoed the pro-life bill. He bragged about being a fiscal conservative, yet he left a deficit. Roemer doesn’t have an acceptable program. The last time he had a platform, in 1987, it collapsed and he made no effort of rectifying this. When I was for something, I was for it. When I was against it, I was against it. Roemer is the first governor in modern times who couldn’t get enough votes to make the runoff. He certainly cannot talk about his success as governor of the state. He ran third after David Duke in the primaries. It’s a ready-made campaign for Duke, with a black president. I was asked during a campaign if there were any similarities between me and David Duke, and I said we were ‘both wizards under the sheets.’
Would you consider running for governor again?
I’d love to run. But they have passed laws which prohibit me from entering. I guess I’m lucky. I’d probably win, and I’d be stuck with the problems from Jindal, and his $1.5 billion deficit. He has hurt teachers, education, the civil servants, local governments, and most regrettably, he has hurt the sick and disabled, the people who are the least able to be further disadvantaged.
How do you explain the lack of Democratic contenders in the upcoming gubernatorial election?
There are no serious contenders against Jindal, despite his dismal record and allowing the state to get more than $1.5 billion in the red. If I had done some of the things he did, they would have hollered for me to go back to jail! He has spent time in states including Minnesota, California, and Florida collecting campaign funds. The speculation is that he will not serve out his next term.
I recall in the 1970′s, you predicted the OPEC fiasco, and fought to raise Louisiana’s meager 25-cents-a-barrel oil severance to 12.5 percent of value. Then when oil skyrocketed after the Arab oil embargo, money started pouring into Louisiana. What would you do today about the oil industry if elected governor?
The price of oil is $100 a barrel, and we’re basically getting nothing for it. The first thing I’d do, I would immediately put a $5 surtax on a barrel of oil, which would come to a little over $300 million a year. In four years, it would erase the deficit that Jindal left us. The solutions to our problems are in the state, not on the way to Washington. For the past 10 years, oil production has declined by 4.4 percent and it is projected to decline another 2.2 percent. If we don’t take advantage of the situation now, we may not be able to do so down the line. I would immediately restore the cuts that were put on education, and restore the advantages for poor and disabled people so that they may get better health services. We would also start eating crawfish instead of shish kabob in the governor’s mansion. Just kidding, but I think if some good candidates ran against Jindal, they could beat him in the election. Jindal said one time when he was in college that he performed an exorcism on a passed out woman. If
I saw a girl lying on the floor under a spell, I wouldn’t waste any time trying to take the devil out of her.
What do you think about the status of the BP payouts?
A very good man is supervising the claims. You have great in-fighting from BP all the way down to the smallest contractor. They’re all pointing fingers. The thing I’m very pleased about is Obama has insisted that they put up a $20 billion fund.
How do you think social media is affecting political races?
Social networking is making people aware of the things people in the media do not want to cover. I think social media is going to play a much larger role in politics. Tara Hollis is making good use of email and calling attention to things in her campaign.
Did you ever consider running for president of the United States?
At one time, Teddy Kennedy and I were talking. We had a slogan, “Teddy and Eddie,” but then things happened on a national level, and he decided it wouldn’t be a prudent thing to do. I remember when Gennifer Flowers alleged during Bill Clinton’s campaign that they had a 12-year torrid love affair. When I met him at the airport, his aides told me what she was saying on TV. And I advised him that I would simply say, ‘There’s no such thing as a 12-year torrid love affair!’
How are you spending your time these days?
I play golf. One of my great hobbies was hunting, but I can’t hunt anymore. I’m not allowed to use guns under federal law. I hope after we get through with the book tour and the children are settled down in school, I’d like to take a trip to the mountains.
What is your favorite thing about Louisiana?
It’s definitely the people. I have been around the world six times, and there’s no one like them anywhere.