According to his biographer Leo Honeycutt, Edwards is an enigma…a puzzling political personality shaped by his background and a lifetime effort to climb to the top of the heap. Did he cross the imaginary line of political propriety in his public dealings? Honeycutt astutely argues that the line often moves with the times and can be bent and shaped by unscrupulous federal prosecutors.
Three reasons emerge as to why there continues to be so much interest in the enduring saga of the state’s longest serving governor. First of all, he is a likeable rogue. Even his ardent distracters over the years found him to be funny and highly entertaining. Few came close to mesmerizing a crowd like the Cajun from Crowley. He could have handled a late night talk show with much more pizzazz and humor than Conan O’Brien on any night of the week.
Secondly, some naysayers disregard the Edwards years as all negative with no progressive public accomplishments by his administration. There is no doubt Edwards became bogged down in his later terms as his legal problems with the federal government mounted. But a number of more neutral observers will stack up Edwards’ first two terms as the most productive and positive for Louisiana in the twentieth century.
I posed the question of Edwards’ accomplishments to a group of journalists who had covered the state capitol for many years, going back to the administration of Gov. Jimmy Davis in the 1960s. When asked to name the state’s shining period of progress, they all pointed to the 1970s during Edwards’ first two terms. A new constitution, tax reform, a new ethics code, the creation of an architects and engineers selection board taking these decisions away from politics that became the prototype throughout the country, the passage of the strongest public records and open meetings laws of any state, all done under an Edwards administration.
I was hosting a radio show a few years back discussing the Edwards years and opened up the phone lines for listener observations. Former Public Affairs Research Council Director and President of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Ed Steimel called in to comment. He said during the 1970s, Edwards both embraced and worked for passage of every one of PAR’s good government recommendations. Steimel also agreed the 70s were a “special, productive time” under Edwards’ leadership.
The third reason Edwards continues to command so much interest is the feeling by many observers that he did not get a fair shake in the federal trial that sent him to prison. Former Governor Dave Treen, recently deceased, summed up this prevailing view in the last public letter he wrote as an introduction to the Honeycutt book. “I believe the federal government….doubled his sentence from the prescribed five years purely out of vindictiveness. They didn’t like him. That’s not a good reason to double someone’s sentence and is, I believe, a misuse of power.” Even many of Edwards’ ardent distracters agree.
Yes, Edwin Edwards is an enigma. A complex mix of a Louisiana figure that, like Icarus, flew so high with abundant success, then fell for many reasons, including some of his own making.
Greek tragedy? Maybe. But the final verse of Edwin Edwards’ life is far from written. Honeycutt’s original version of Edwards’s life covered 1600 pages. Edwards insisted much be left out, at least for the time being.
Another book in the making? Look for Edwards himself to have a lot more to say in the years to come. In the meantime, the current Edwards’ biography fills the gap and paints a vivid portrait of the man who many feel is the most dominant Louisiana political figure in the past century.
“People say I’ve had brushes with the law. That’s not true. I’ve had brushes with overzealous prosecutors.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.
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