The Party’s Over For EWE

A day or two before Edwin Edwards reported to federal prison in 2002, he had lunch in Baton Rouge with his friend and attorney, Lewis Unglesby. The two men had a pleasant meal at Gino’s Restaurant and afterward walked to their cars.

What stuck out for Unglesby is what happened next. “He hugged me, which was unusual for him,” Unglesby recalled recently. “Then he said, ‘Lewis, have a good life.’”

Unglesby understood the unspoken message.

“I didn’t think he’d survive prison,” Unglesby said. The former governor was 75, after all, and he was about to begin a 10-year sentence that would mean leaving behind his family, his freedom and his comfortable lifestyle. “I don’t think he thought he’d survive prison.”

Edwards, now 87, not only survived prison, but he has flourished since his mid-2011 release. He married a blonde beauty less than half his age, fathered a child with her, saw his authorized biography become a best-seller in Louisiana and campaigned for a seat in Congress, nearly 50 years after first being elected a congressman.

Wherever Edwards went during the just-completed campaign, he became the center of attention. Women wanted kisses, men clapped him on the back and practically everyone wanted a photo. National Public Radio, The National Journal, Mother Jones and CNN all saw fit to profile him.

“Edwin Edwards will live forever,” headlined New York magazine, with a photo that featured the former governor and his infant son Eli in front of a grand piano, his wife Trina standing behind them.

Edwin Edwards, a Democrat, lost the 6th Congressional District race on Saturday with only 37.5 percent of the vote. But in many ways he emerged as a winner, which helps explain why he surprised friends and analysts by deciding to mount a longshot bid to win an office gerrymandered to elect a Republican.

“Most candidates lose and say, ‘Why did I waste that time and money?’” said Jim Brown, a former state senator, Secretary of State and Insurance Commissioner who has known Edwards for years. “But he’s different than 99 percent of the other candidates. The campaign was all part of the Edwin Edwards rehabilitation tour. He is selling the Edwards brand. He has told his story to thousands. The campaign was part of an effort to very much stay in the game.”

Stay in the game? Mission accomplished.

The state’s other former governors have faded from public view. Not Edwin Washington Edwards, the oldest of the bunch.

“Soon, I’ll have to print another 10,000 books,” said Brown, who owns Lisburn Press, which published the authorized biography, “Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana.”

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Edwards admitted in an interview three days before the election that while in prison he didn’t expect to become the target of public affection again, much less seek public office. He said that as he performed his duties at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Institute – he worked as the chief librarian, helped other inmates study for the GED and assisted them in writing letters – he fretted about how the public would treat him after his release.

“Next to being a pedophile, being a convicted former public official is a pretty low status,” Edwards said.

Salvation came in an unexpected fashion. With friends of Edwards fronting the money, Brown hired a former morning TV host named Leo Honeycutt to write the authorized biography. For five years, Honeycutt made the two-hour trek from Baton Rouge to Oakdale every Saturday to interview Edwards for three hours. The 611-page book was published in December 2009, with Edwards still in prison.

The first 10,000 copies sold out in four days. Brown hurriedly ordered 10,000 more. They sold out in two weeks.

Edwards began receiving dozens of letters a day in prison, including copies of the book with requests that he sign it. The former governor soon realized that his worst fears were unfounded.

“It’s amazing, and it’s hard to understand,” he said, during the interview. “I came out more popular than I went in. The book had a lot to do with my rehabilitation.”

A month after his release, Edwards married Trina, whom he met after she sent unsolicited fan letters to him at Oakdale. When she came to visit, other inmates would enviously watch her walk across the parking lot.

“Everyone was congratulating me,” Edwards told New York magazine. “That made me a real hero in there.”

The marriage took place at the Hotel Monteleone, a French Quarter establishment long favored by Edwards. The Times-Picayune’s Chris Granger shot what would become the iconic wedding photo: the newlyweds walking beneath a strip club neon sign that read, “The Hustler Club/Home of the Hustler Honeys.”

A month later, friends organized a roast for Edwards at the Monteleone. Gawkers and fans jammed the hotel lobby. Those who came to attend the roast could barely squeeze through.

As The Times-Picayune reported, Marion Edwards teased his brother “that at his age, sex could be dangerous to one's health."

“Well, Marion," the former governor replied, "if she dies, she dies."

And so it went as Edwards got invited to speak around the state, and he sold and signed copies of his book.

Perhaps his first foray to North Louisiana came when the West Monroe Chamber of Commerce invited the ex-con to keynote its annual banquet in December 2012. Northeast Louisiana had not been Edwards territory during his five races for governor. Billy Hance, the chamber board chair who conceived the idea, immediately began getting calls of complaint. Some members resigned from the chamber in protest.

Hance had chosen Edwards because he thought the former governor might be a good draw. Perhaps they would sell 300 tickets, Hance hoped. The actual count was 430, and the final 30 had no place to sit.

Hance was thrilled, but his excitement vanished the moment Edwards pulled up to the West Monroe Convention Center, with Honeycutt at the wheel. The former governor was groggy from the drive, and his hair was disheveled. As he shuffled off to the men’s room, Hance thought he was witnessing an old man long past his prime. He contemplated how he would handle the impending disaster.

Instead, “as soon as he walked out, his hair was slicked back, and he was as sharp as a tack,” Hance said. “It was like Superman going into the phone booth.”

During his speech, Edwards was humble, funny and charismatic, and when the crowd gave him a standing ovation, he teared up. People mobbed him afterward, and he was the last to leave.

First, though, Hance handed Edwards his $2,500 honorarium. “Billy, please give the check to your wife,” the former governor requested.

Puzzled, Hance gave it to Kayla. Edwards then asked her to hand it to him. Kayla did so. “I’ve given a lot of money to women in my life,” Edwards said with a laugh. “But I’ve never had a woman give money to me!”

“That sealed the deal for us,” Hance remembered. “It was priceless.”

Honeycutt has toured the state with Edwards and repeatedly seen a repeat of the scene at the West Monroe Convention Center. “He gathers energy from the crowd,” Honeycutt said. “He may be sneezing or coughing and not feeling well. You may think it won’t go well. But as soon as he tells the first joke and gets laughter, he is on his way.”

To be sure, many voters have long since stopped laughing and wish Edwards would disappear once and for all. Bob Mann, an LSU journalism professor and author who writes the trenchant blog, “Something Like the Truth,” expressed outrage when the Louisiana Democratic Party endorsed Edwards.

The former governor, Mann wrote, “represents the worst of the state’s political history – a sorry legacy of corruption that has now sullied their party and finally persuaded me to change my party registration.”

Mann added: “To any Democrat who suggests that Louisiana still needs Edwards’ ‘illustrious’ leadership, I would simply ask you the same questions I posed several months ago: after serving 16 years as governor, how did Louisiana’s poor citizens fare under Edwards? How about our children? Did our poverty rate plummet during his tenure? Did record numbers of businesses flock to the state to offer our citizens jobs?

“Hardly.”

After his first election as governor in 1972, Edwards oversaw the modernization of Louisiana’s state Constitution. It dated to 1921 and had been amended so many times that it prevented state government from performing simple tasks. Edwards cleaned up several scandals left over from the John McKeithen administration and brought record numbers of blacks and women into state government.

Edwards also got the Legislature to link the state oil and gas severance tax to a percentage of the market price. When prices jumped, the state earned millions and millions of additional revenue, and Louisiana’s oil-based economy flourished. Voters overlooked a series of scandals and his jaunts to Las Vegas.

Edwards won re-election in 1975, and, after having to sit out a term, crushed Gov. David Treen in 1983. The hayride was over, however. Oil prices plummeted, and Edwards had to push a massive tax increase through the Legislature to balance the state budget. He paid the political price. He lost the 1987 governor’s race to Buddy Roemer – the only loss in 26 races before Saturday.

Edwards won the 1991 governor’s race and then got the Legislature to legalize a land casino in New Orleans. Unpopular and suffering from a heart problem, he did not seek re-election in 1995, leaving him as the only governor in Louisiana history to have served four terms.

John Maginnis, the long-time political reporter who died in 2014, once explained Edwards’ appeal. “There’s an outlaw mentality in the state,” Maginnis said. “Edwards has never been a hypocrite, and people here like that.”

Edwards explained his approach nearly 20 years ago during an interview. “I have a philosophy that is both disarming and suspicious, depending upon how you view me, of just telling it like it is,” he said. “It’s better to take the fall all at one time and hit the bottom than go down the steps one flight at a time, busting your head every other day.”

David Duke, the one-time Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and state representative defeated by Edwards in the 1991 governor’s race, once put it this way. "He was devoid of principle,” Duke said, “but at least he was honest about it."

Jim Brown and Edwards were tried together in 2000 on charges that they defrauded an insurance company. They were found not guilty, but Brown ended up being convicted of making false statements to an FBI agent and spent six months at Oakdale. Afterward, he wrote “Justice Denied,” an account of how he believes the Justice Department railroaded him.

Brown said his conviction still “gnaws” at him, but he marvels at Edwards’ lack of rancor.

A comment the former governor once made to Honeycutt helps explain why. “You want to live a long life?” Edwards asked him. “Then never hold a grudge.”

One exception to that philosophy ought to be Jim Letten, who led the team of federal prosecutors that convicted Edwards in 2000 of extorting nearly $3 million from companies that applied for riverboat casino licenses during and after his fourth term in office.

Not only that, but Letten afterward repeatedly dismissed calls for leniency from Republicans and Democrats alike. The aging former governor had abused the public trust and should serve his full sentence, Letten argued.

Before the Saints’ Monday night game on Nov. 24, Edwards was walking down a Superdome hallway when he crossed paths with Letten. The two men hadn’t seen each other since the trial.

Instead of upbraiding or shunning the former prosecutor, Edwards reached out his hand, and Letten shook it. “I’ve got to tell you this, governor,” Letten blurted out. “You look amazing. It’s unbelievable.”

“That’s what prison will do for you,” Edwards shot back. The two men smiled and wished each other well.

Letten said later: “Nobody can not agree that he’s not a resilient person.”

In the interview with this reporter, Edwards said what kept him going in prison was the knowledge that he had not committed any crimes. And he said that he’s taken satisfaction in outliving the trial judge, Frank Polozola, and in the comeuppances dealt to his prosecutors.

Then-U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. resigned after a disastrous tenure as the Orleans Parish District Attorney, and Letten resigned as Jordan’s successor at the U.S. Attorney’s office following revelations that key subordinates had been secretly commenting on Times-Picayune news articles.

Edwards said growing up poor during the Great Depression – in an unpainted farmhouse in Avoyelles Parish without running water or electricity – taught him how to survive hard times.

With last Saturday’s defeat, Edwards will live on his $5,100 per month state pension and his $800 per month federal retirement, plus whatever he earns giving speeches and selling books. So far, his authorized biography has sold an astounding 65,000 copies, Brown said.

So expect Edwards to continue to be invited to speak before Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, women’s groups and the like and for him to show up with books in hand, at $30 a pop. Honeycutt is preparing a coffee table book of photos that would chronicle Edwards’ life and career. He hopes it will be published in November next year.

The end to Edwards’ political career came quickly and unceremoniously on Saturday night at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge. Not even an hour after polls had closed, Edwards climbed onto a raised stage in a meeting room, Eli in his arms, Trina by his side. As he waited for supporters to crowd in, Edwards lightly sang, “The party’s over. It’s time to turn out the lights.”

He kept the tone light during his concession speech. “If you sit by the river long enough, sooner or later you lose an election,” he said at one point, reprising a line he used after his conviction in 2000. He said he would not seek political office again.

While answering reporters’ questions, Edwards vigorously defended the Democratic Party, helping the disenfranchised and government playing an active role in society.

He said he would wake up the next morning and move forward with his life. “It’s not the end of the world for me,” he said.

With no more questions to answer, Edwards made his way out of the meeting room, stopping over and over again to receive a farewell hug and pose for a photo. As he passed by the hotel bar, patrons there wanted photos, too.

Edwards, Trina and Eli finally reached the Renaissance’s elevators. A former bodyguard held open the door, and the former governor disappeared inside.

Tyler Bridges, a free-lance journalist based in New Orleans, is the author of The Rise of David Duke and Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards. For questions and comments, Tyler can be reached at tegbridges@gmail.com

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