The last time I had a conversation with former Gov. Edwin Edwards, it was apparent the man was well past his prime, that he had lost a step or two.
The wit was still there, the cavalier attitude, the confidence and self-assurance. But it was plain to see this old-timer sitting across the desk from me wasn’t the same dashing, charismatic, flamboyant figure who had loomed so large on the public scene through much of his life, the sly silver fox who made sport of mesmerizing voters while confounding his opponents for decades.
This conversation wasn’t held with an entourage looking on, armed goons guarding the door, young scantily dressed female aides running around or a pack of media hounds stumbling over themselves trying to squeeze in a question or two.
No, it was just us, sitting down in a quiet rented office space in suburban Baton Rouge, the one-on-one interview arranged as an opportunity for him to discuss his political comeback.
Having remembered TV images of the iconic EWE from his heyday back in the 1970s, I couldn’t help but notice the wrinkles and sags, the receding hairline, the age splotches dappled across his forehead, the weaker voice and slower cadence of his speech. What was left of his sleek, swept-back mane seemed more white than silver. He seemed to be just another old geezer. Just as cocky, but less suave and not as handsome as in his prime.
That was 24 years ago.
The year was 1990, and I was working as a journalist for a local publication in Baton Rouge. Buddy Roemer was midway through his first and only term as governor after unseating Edwards, the three-term incumbent. The north Louisiana native and one-time Edwards aide stormed into power as a reformer, a squeaky clean, Harvard educated technocrat who was going to launch a “Roemer Revolution,” clean up government, restore trust and honesty to the office, scrub the budget and bring a more ethical and practical approach to the state’s executive branch.
Halfway through his term, however, Roemer seemed to make so many enemies in the state legislature and stir up so much ill will that I decided it might be interesting to pose a simple question to lawmakers: “Who do you trust more, Buddy Roemer or Edwin Edwards?”
As you probably suspect, the response was that legislators overwhelmingly said they trusted Edwards more than Roemer. Pretty startling, but also pretty typical for Louisiana politics, I’d say. Those who added comments to their responses indicated they never knew where Roemer stood on an issue, or he’d tell them one thing and then do another. Dealing with Edwards, they always knew the score, up or down.
Naturally, Edwards would return to the limelight two years later and recapture his rightful seat in the governor’s office by beating a large field of candidates in the primary and winning the run-off against controversial white supremacist David Duke. Oh, you remember the “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important” campaign of 1991 don’t you? Good times.
At any rate, here we are in 2014 and those of us who reside in Louisiana’s 6th congressional district will see the Big Cajun’s name on the ballot next fall.
My response to watching this 86-year-old ex-con return to the campaign trail, shoot a reality show and traipse around with an infant in his arms and a third wife young enough to be his granddaughter has been about the same as everyone else’s: an odd blend of bewilderment, embarrassment, disbelief, disgust, alarm, pity, sadness, dyspepsia and, somehow, just a wee bit of envy.
I know if my 70-year-old mom divorced my step-father and brought home a buff 20-year-old stud muffin to take a seat at the Thanksgiving table, there’s no way I could keep my turkey and dressing down. Toss a baby into that scenario and, well, there’s a reason God places a limit on our powers of imagination.
But, for all the gut-churning aspects of these recent developments, I can’t honestly say I’ve ruled out voting for the man. The reason is simple: the more I hear him speak, the more sense he makes, especially in the context of the direction politics have gone since he began his extended stay in the federal clubhouse 12 years ago.
In his prime, love him or loathe him (probably more appropriately, love him AND loathe him), Edwards could get things done when he applied himself. Despite all his bodacious baggage, he was instrumental in helping the state’s electric cooperatives build two power plants in the 1970s. He re-wrote the state constitution, created more opportunities for women and blacks than his predecessors and supported civil rights.
But what I like best about Edwards is that he’s no slave to any political party or ideology, and eschews the partisanship that’s afflicted our government. He’s a registered Democrat but has no problem supporting Republican positions when they make practical sense.
In his current campaign, he’s pushing for a high speed rail system between Baton Rouge and New Orleans (blue), he favors building the Keystone pipeline (red), he wants to keep the parts of the Affordable Care Act that work and ditch the parts that don’t (red and blue).
I don’t see EWE cowering and caving in when the political operatives start pressuring him anytime he wavers from the party’s talking points. He’s confident enough, and old enough, at this stage in his life to tell the party hacks from both sides of the aisle to go take a hike.
In fact, the reason observers say he has little chance of winning is that the 6th district has been so effectively gerrymandered in favor of Republicans that the majority of voters would support a three-legged mangy cur dog as long as it bore the proper party label.
In my opinion, there’s too much red and too much blue causing too much dysfunction in our government. Maybe a shot of old, stale air is just what we need.