During one of his three federal trials, a reporter yelled out to Edwin Edwards as he was entering the courthouse, “Did you do anything wrong, Governor?”
“Well yes,” Edwards quipped, “but nothing that I’m on trial for here.”
Having survived two trials with multiple charges, sooner or later a jury would sift through the list of complex accusations and assume that certainly he must have done something wrong and vote guilty. At his third trial, his luck ran out.
Edwards was part genius and part rogue who, no doubt, deserved to go to prison. But we agree with those (most notably Edwards’ rival former Gov. Dave Treen) who thought that the 10-year sentence meted out by Federal Judge Frank Polozola was excessively harsh. Even with a sentence half that long, Edwards had already seen much in his life diminished, including his place in history.
Except for occasional visits to a probation officer, Edwards is free now. A new wife, a new life, the joy of re-experiencing freedom and even the possibility of a reality television show will give him much to occupy his time. Those who predict, or fear, his return to politics need not worry. Politically, the state is a far different place than that which Edwards governed for four terms.
He was born in 1927, the year of the Great Flood and the year before Huey Long was elected on a populist platform fueled partially by the suffering created by the same flood. Edwards grew up in an era when big government was embraced as the cure for social maladies. As a politician, Edward’s Democrat electoral base of blacks and labor gave him a constituency that was populist in practice if not in name.
Now he returns to a state that has shifted dramatically to the right, one in which two of the last three governors have been Republicans, where all statewide elected officials are Republican, where a majority of the congressional delegation is Republican, where Republicans are a majority in the state legislature and where the governor, Bobby Jindal, is a potential national leader of the Republican party. Organized labor isn’t as strong as it used be and many of the old black political organizations have lost their structure and leadership. The Edwin Edwards whose first term began in 1972 would probably not be electable today, though we suspect the candidate would have adapted his politics to fit the times.
There was much about Edwards as governor that was good. New Orleans might have lost the Saints franchise were it not for Edwards. We wouldn’t have the Hornets without the Arena, which exists largely because of him. He pushed through the current state constitution and was known by legislators for keeping his word. During the aftermath of Katrina many people lamented Edwards’ not being in control, and he certainly would have been able to handle Ray Nagin.
Edwards had one of the best minds in politics. He had presidential potential, but that destructive mechanism that compelled him want to walk the tightrope between right and wrong made him more of a candidate for the pen than for Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now that he’s free again, we do hope that Edwards can at least restore some of the humor and wisdom that’s lost among present politicians. (Reformers just aren’t funny.) There is a little bit of a performer in all successful politicians. For Edwin Edwards, the stage is waiting.