That’s right! The Louisiana Lethario, the Riverboat Gambler, the Silver Fox, the Cajun Capon, is out of prison after serving over eight years of his ten year sentence for rigging riverboat gaming licenses (a little thing called bribery and extortion). The 83-year-old Edwards was released into a halfway house in Baton Rouge, but is likely to serve out his release conditions in Baton Rouge with his daughter, Anna Edwards.
Now, all you non-Louisianians are likely saying, “So what? Another politician caught with his hand in the cookie jar…glad he went to prison and he deserves the public shunning he’ll get for the rest of his life.” Ah, but this is Louisiana, people. And to understand the enormity of this news, you have to understand Louisiana politics and the maelstrom that is Edwin W. Edwards.
There are some monumental political figures in Louisiana’s history….Governor and Senator Huey P. Long, his nephew and renowned U. S. Senator Russell Long, Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Senator John Breaux, etc., but none are as renowned, celebrated and talked about as “Fast Eddie” Edwards.
You see, EWE hit the Louisiana scene when the state was going from a sleepy, backwater farm and seafood economy to the back room for the oil industry. In the late ’60s and through the ’70s, oil money was FLOWING, particularly in South Louisiana — home to one little cajun girl who shall remain nameless.
I have vivid memories of Edwin Edwards. He was the first Governor and yes, celebrity that I can recollect. Like many Louisiana towns, the small town that I grew up in had a fall festival every year that was part fund-raiser for worthwhile community causes and, in the Cajun way of life, a concentrated effort in celebration and party….you know, the joie de vivre. In Youngsville, that was the Festival of Beauties. We had a full carnival, complete with boardwalk, carney booths and amusement rides. My absolute favorite was the Tilt-A-Whirl, where centrifical force held you against the wall while the floor dropped out. I can still remember the thrill of the first time I mustered up the courage to ride “The Bullet”.
There was the Friday night Fais Do Do held outside at the old Elementary School that I attended and where my uncle was the principal — my Daddy’s best friend growing up was my 7th grade homeroom teacher. French music permeated the festive air where parents showed off their dance moves to mesmerized children waiting to ask for another two dollars worth of quarters for the rides. Then, on Saturday, the whole town (and then some) attended the beauty pageant to crown our queen. My Nanny (Godmother) usually played the accompniment on piano and many times I sat next to her, again mesmerized at her uncanny ability to playing everything by ear, simply hearing the song once.
Finally, on Sunday, the festival was capped off by a big parade, complete with various high school marching bands, floats and politicians pressing the flesh for votes in the next election. That’s where I was first exposed to the phenomenon that was Edwin Edwards. This particular year was an election year, so many politicians showed up to shore up their electorate. Edwards was running for Governor and need every Cajun voter to go out there and pull the lever for him. Of course, in my pre-adolscent mind, politics was a non-starter. This particular year, I was more concerned about my role as a junior maid for the festival and making sure that I got my “princess waive” down pat. (On the left…)
However, the irrepressible Edwin Edwards was not to be upstaged by a bunch of girls…young or old. He walked the length of the parade route (about 5 miles), basking in the adulation of his adoring Cajun public who dreamed of touching the cloak of their king. You see, in South Louisiana, there is no more adored thing than one of their own. Edwards was a product of Marksville — considered Yankee territory to most Cajuns –but his mother was a fluent, french-speaking Cajun Catholic. These two traits basically cannonized him in the hearts of the whole of South Louisiana. His savvy scrappiness and dedication endeared him to North Louisiana. So, one the whole, he was THE MAN for Louisiana.
To properly understand his magnetism among the Cajuns and Louisianians as a whole, you have to understand the vehement loyalty that this society has for one of their own. Many a foible is overlooked if you are deemed to be “one of us”. There have been few too many Cajun heros, but those attaining that status can do no wrong no matter what wrong they do. A few Cajun legends with this status: Ron “Louisiana Lightning” Guidry – Cy Young Award-winning New York Yankee; WWII Hero Claire Chennault; Kentucky Derby jockey, Calvin Borel; 1996 Miss America, Ali Landry; and, Cleveland Browns’ QB Jake Delhomme, not name a few. Those attaining this status are pure Cajun gold — never paying for a meal or a new car…heh.
Cajuns are, by nature, a pragmatic and forgiving people, so a little malfeasant is tolerated, if not expected. Edwin Edwards had a perfect understanding of this and simply took full advantage of his legend status with the people of Louisiana.
Even after the first round of twelve years as Governor and law-bending, Edwards came back to the populus to return him back to the glory spot. I was among those who reluctantly held my nose and pulled the lever for EWE in 1991 when he ran against one David Duke. The choice was between a known philanderer/crook vs. a known racist. A popular bumper sticker of the time? ” “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
To his credit, Edwards fully understood the public quandry and fully played it up. When asked about his chances of beating David Duke, he responded that the only way he could lose was “if he was caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy”. Now THAT, is cahonas.
I still remember the day that we saw the cop cars screaming down Highland Road toward the Country Club of Louisiana. It was 1996 and it was the day we were moving to Memphis. Come to find out, they were headed to Edwards’ house to arrest him. At that time, I was elated that the crook was finally caught. He had brought shame to the Cajun Nation and failed to live up to his promise as the Cajun Redeemer.
However, now — after 15 years of bad politics and representation across the nation — I have to wonder…was he really all that bad? After all, he did more for Louisiana and its’ government than any Governor before or since. Good, bad or indifferent, Edwin W. Edwards was a leader, albeit a greedy one…and, he will always be — a CAJUN. Therefore, I say, live and let live. Let the old man play out his days in peace and freedom…unless I start seeing Edwards 2011 bumper stickers.