The Passing of Louisiana’s Longest Serving Governor!

Remembering Governor Edwin Edwards

People say a lot of things about me.  But if you’re not being criticized or having them jeer at you, you’re not doing something right.
Edwin Edwards

Edwin Edwards, Louisiana’s longest serving governor, passed away this week at the ripe old age of 93.  He lived a full and controversial life.

I first met Edwin Edwards on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.  A few months earlier, a mutual friend, Don Jones from Crowley, suggested that I visit with a fairly obscure southwest Louisiana congressman who was considering a race for governor.  A few days later, I received a letter from Edwards who suggested we meet personally in the near future.

A few months later, I traveled to Washington on behalf of a client who had a regulatory problem with the Department of Energy. After I took care of my business, I walked over to the main entrance of the U.S. Capitol like any other tourist coming to town. As I was walking up the Capitol steps, I was sure I recognized the short, silver-haired fellow walking towards me in a white suit.  “Congressman, I’m Jim Brown, an attorney from Ferriday,” I said.

“You’re Don Jones’s friend,” Edwards said, without a pause. It was the first of many times I was impressed with his quick reactions and his memory. Edwards suggested that we sit down the Capitol steps, and we spent well over an hour talking about Louisiana, his potential race for governor, and my interest in the legislature. We agreed to stay in touch, and I headed home impressed that the Congressman had taken so much time to visit with me.

Our paths would often cross on the campaign trail, but I felt Edwards still had an uphill fight with some stiff competition. Surprisingly, he ended up winning a resounding upset victory over future U.S. Senator Bennett Johnston.  As a newly elected state senator, I joined Edwards at the state capitol with the hopes of working with him to develop a number of reforms in state government.

Edwards went on to dominate the Louisiana political scene for the next twenty-five years.  He was successful as governor for several reasons. First, he was always a likable rogue.  Even his ardent detractors 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 talk show with much more pizzazz and humor than Steven Colbert on any night of the week.

Secondly, some naysayers disregard the Edwards’s 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 recognize 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 Governor Jimmy Davis in the 1960’s. When asked to name the state’s shining period of progress, they all pointed to the 1970’s, during Edwards’s 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, and the passage of the strongest public records and open meetings laws of any state were 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 1970’s, Edwards both embraced and worked for passage of every one of PAR’s good government recommendations. Steimel also agreed the 70’s were a “special, productive time” under Edwards’ leadership. 

Flying with EWE

  Edwin Edwards traveled Louisiana more than any other governor in the state’s history, and, having been a Navy pilot in World War II, he regularly flew the state plane himself. When I was a state senator and later as secretary of state, I would often check his schedule. If he was flying into my district or making an appearance at some location in the state I also wanted to visit, I would make a request to fly with him. He always was accommodating, and it was certainly an advantage for me to have a captive audience with the incumbent governor for several hours during the trip.

I have flown on private planes hundreds of times in my life. The most harrowing experiences I ever had were with Edwin Edwards at the wheel of the plane.

I once flew up to Newellton, Louisiana with the Governor to dedicate a new public hospital that was part of my senatorial district. Congressman Otto Passman joined us on the flight and brought along his executive assistant Jack Hill. On several previous occasions, I had heard Congressman Passman introduce Jack Hill as Jack Gates. Passman often got the names confused, as Jack Gates was his close friend who was the editor of theMonroe Morning World. The Congressman did it again in Newellton. When he was giving his remarks to the crowd, he turned to the chairs where the dignitaries were sitting and said: “I want to introduce my executive assistant, Jack Gates.”

The red-faced Hill leaned up on the edge of his chair and whispered to the congressman: “It’s Jack Hill, Otto.” Passman corrected himself and we all got a good laugh out of his mistake. When it was time to fly out of the Newellton airport, Edwin Edwards was at the controls. We took off and were about one thousand feet above the ground when the door of the plane actually fell open and flipped downward. It was hanging on by one hinge.

I was sitting by the door next to Jack Hill, who had forgotten to fasten his seat belt. It was frightening for a few seconds as Hill slid towards the door and almost fell out of the plane. Otto Passman shouted: “Somebody grab Jack Gates!” As Hill was being sucked out of the plane, he hollered back: “Otto, it’s Jack Hill!!!!!!”

We were able to pull the door upright, and I hung on by the chain until Edwards could get the plane back down on the ground.  A local crop duster was gracious enough to offer his plane to fly us all back to Baton Rouge. But Passman was insisting that the plane first take him and Jack Hill back to Monroe. It was something that none of us wanted to do.

I watched the Governor ease over to the pilot, and they talked in private for a few moments. Our new pilot then came over to where we had gathered and informed us that we must take off immediately because he did not fly after dark. It was six in the evening, and we probably had twenty or thirty more minutes of daylight. Upon hearing the pilot’s statement that he didn’t fly at night (which certainly wasn’t true), Passman stalked off towards the hanger with Jack Hill, and hired a local farmer with a truck to drive them back to Monroe. It would be an understatement to say that the rest of us laughed most of the way back to Baton Rouge.

Very little got past Edwin Edwards, and he had a memory like an elephant. In the late 1970s, I flew with the Governor to a joint speaking event in Shreveport. On the flight home, he asked me to put up a little money and join him in a game of bourre. Knowing the Governor could outplay me at any card game, I quoted one of my favorite authors, T. E. White, who commented when asked if he played cards, “I don’t pass time, I use my time.”  Edwards rolled his eyes, obviously not amused.

Some eighteen years later when I was flying with the Governor following a joint appearance we had made in Lake Charles, someone suggested a card game, and Edwards didn’t miss a beat.  He looked at me and said: “Don’t include Brown.  He doesn’t pass time, he uses his time.”  After all of those years, he still had not forgotten my dig.

When I ran against EWE in the 1987 governor’s race, we often showed up at the same event trying to take votes away from one another. I had made plans one Saturday morning in June to attend the Peach Festival in Ruston, and a private plane was to pick me up at the New Orleans Lake Front Airport, as I had attended a campaign event in the city the night before. When I arrived at the local flying service office, my pilot told me we had a single engine plane, and the weather wasn’t good enough for him to fly up to Ruston. I had given up on the thought of going to the Peach Festival when Edwards walked in the door.

He too was going to Ruston and had a twin-engine plane at his disposal with fully equipped radar. He graciously invited me to come along on his plane. I appreciated his offer, particularly considering that I was campaigning against him.

We made it halfway to Ruston when the weather got worse, and his pilot informed him that we had to return to New Orleans. Upon landing, the Governor told me we had several hours to kill before an afternoon campaign event.  To return his favor, I suggested he come along the short distance from the New Orleans Lake Front Airport to the home of my in-laws, Doris and Ted Solomon. I had called ahead, and my mother-in-law was fixing a big Lebanese breakfast. The Governor agreed to join us.

After breakfast, my wife’s aunt, Yvonne Thomas, and several other relatives showed up at the house for a game of bridge. Edwards jumped right in and joined the ladies to play cards for several hours during the morning. When my mother-in-law asked if I wanted to join them, I told all those in attendance including Edwards: “Look, I am trying to get elected governor. You all keep Governor Edwards busy at the card table, and I am going to get on the telephone and try to raise some money.”

In the final few weeks before the gubernatorial primary, I attended an evening fundraiser on my behalf in Shreveport.  It was imperative that I be back in Baton Rouge the next morning for a strategy breakfast with my key supporters. When I arrived at the Shreveport airport, I was informed that my plane had mechanical problems, and it would not be able to fly me to Baton Rouge. Needless to say, I was dreading the four-hour drive that would keep me up most of the night.

I knew there was an outside chance that a state plane might be in the area, and I had one of my staff members call the state police in Baton Rouge to see if any plane was in the Shreveport vicinity and heading back to the capital. The call came back, yes, there was a plane over in Ruston, and the pilot would be glad to divert to Shreveport and pick me up. I assumed that some state agency head had been dropped off in Ruston, and the plane was flying back empty.

When the plane taxied up the Shreveport runway, I jumped on board happy to be able to get back to Baton Rouge without the all-night drive. There sat the Governor.

The state police had informed him that I was stranded in Shreveport, and even though I was running against him, he still diverted his plane to pick me up. I certainly appreciated the ride home, but he really knew how to make me uncomfortable.

I witnessed the worst thunderstorm of my life flying in a small plane with the Governor at the controls. We had both attended a reception in my hometown of Ferriday for Representative Al Ater in the mid-1980’s when I served as secretary of state. There were rain clouds in the area when we took off, but the Governor indicated that we could comfortably fly around them.

Halfway to Baton Rouge, the plane started pitching violently, and the sky was bright with lightening. A thirty-minute flight from Ferriday ended up taking us two and a half hours.

When the plane set down, I quickly lost my supper as I got out, but the Governor showed little concern, and acted as if nothing had happened. The other pilot of the plane told me some weeks later that he had never been more scared in his life.

Edwards for President.

In 1978, Edwin Edwards was at the height of his popularity. He had been easily re-elected to a second term two years earlier. With the price of oil continuing to rise, the coffers of the state treasury were filled, and Governor Edwards faced little controversy. Candidates for office in the 1978 and 1979 elections eagerly sought his endorsement.  The two major challengers for the office of lieutenant governor each had the Governor cut TV spots in their behalf.

As his second term was winding down, he was obviously looking for new challenges. The Governor and I made a joint appearance in north Louisiana early in 1978, then flew back to Baton Rouge together in the state plane. I was reading a book my father had given me, Marathon, The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976, by Jules Witcover.

The book presented an account of the 1976 presidential election and went into great detail as to how Jimmy Carter rose from being a little-known Southern governor to getting elected President of the United States. The Governor noticed the book, and I gave him a brief description of the author’s explanation showing Carter’s effort in putting together a Georgia campaign team that was able to capture the Democratic nomination.

About a week later, I was at my home in Ferriday when the phone rang one evening just before midnight. It was the Governor. “Do you still have that book about Carter getting elected President?” Edwards asked. “Why?” I said. “Are you planning on doing the same thing and challenging him?”  Edwards laughed and told me he was interested in some bedtime reading. “If Jimmy Carter could pull it off, I would think that I certainly could,” he said.

I knew the President and EWE were not close. Edwards had supported the presidential candidacy of Governor Jerry Brown in 1976. Outside of Brown’s votes in California, the Louisiana delegation was the only other support he received at the Democratic Convention. The Governor’s wife, Elaine, publicly supported Gerald Ford for President in 1976.  President Carter’s popularity was at a low ebb in 1979 as Edwin Edwards considered his future plans.

About three weeks later, the book came back to me in the mail. It had been my intention for the Governor to keep it. There was no note attached, and he never mentioned the book or the presidency to me again.

Edwards and Duke- the Race from Hell

 Edwin Edwards was a participant in perhaps the most consequential and notorious election in the nation’s history when he and David Duke squared off in a runoff election for governor. There was worldwide interest in a showdown between a controversial former governor and the past head of the Ku Klux Klan in the deepest of the deep Southern states.

Incumbent Governor Buddy Roemer was squeezed out of the runoff, as Edwards outflanked him to the left and Duke overwhelmed Roemer among conservative voters. Louisiana is the only state in America that has a convoluted election system where all candidates run against each other the same time, irrespective of political affiliation. The “jungle primary” was the downfall of Roemer.

He tried to run as a centrist, and you just can’t do that under Louisiana’s current system. I know this from personal experience as a candidate for governor, as I was cut out in the same intricate system four years earlier. Roemer was left on the sidelines as the showdown pitted conservative white Louisianans against populist southern democratic voters, with moderates stuck in the middle trying to figure out just what was the least offensive vote to cast.

I had an up-close view of the race, as I was running statewide myself for insurance commissioner. My path would intersect with both candidates several times a week as we crisscrossed Louisiana in our efforts to garner votes. It was retail politics at its best as all the statewide candidates “pressed the flesh” at fairs, parades, festivals, and campaign rallies all over the state. Today, candidates try to influence votes by raising money and going on TV. It’s a sad commentary on the current political atmosphere that those who hope to get elected generally ignore the chance to get out and visit with voters.

I had a surreal moment a week before the election. My wife and I took a break from our own campaigning and drove over to a large crawfish restaurant in Breaux Bridge with some friends. I felt comfortable that I would win handily in my own race for insurance commissioner, and we just wanted to get away. Some of the locals recognized me, but our group mostly stayed to ourselves in one of the corners.

Just as our platters of crawfish arrived, Edwin Edwards walked in the door. He made a beeline for our table, took a seat, ordered a tray for himself, and, in typical Edwards fashion, began entertaining our group as well as surrounding tables with his Cajun humor. Not ten minutes later, in walked David Duke. Spotting our group, he too joined us as the whole restaurant focused on our table. The banter and joking went on for a good while between the two candidates. Then they each went to their own separate tables. In the next hour, patrons of the restaurant lined up at the table of their chosen candidate, either Edwards or Duke, often leaving a cash donation. Just another night on the campaign trail.

Edwards went on to soundly defeat Duke, receiving 61% of the vote, served out his fourth term as governor, went to jail, ran for Congress, had a new son at the age of eighty-six, and today, in his nineties, seems as lively and engaging as ever. His recent birthday party was a sell-out at the ballroom of a local hotel, and a new poll pegged him as the most popular living governor in Louisiana.

Duke also went to jail, ran for U.S. Senator in 2016, and continues to rant about white supremacy. He was a factor in the most recent presidential election after he endorsed Donald Trump, and Trump refused to disassociate himself from the former Klan leader.

Gubernatorial elections in Louisiana are never bland and boring. Remember Governor John Bel Edwards’s verbal attack on opponent Senator David Vitter in the 2015 governor’s race debate? “You are a liar, a cheater, and a stealer, and I don’t tolerate that.”

But it will be hard to top the Edwards-Duke knock-down-drag-out election of 1991, which will go down in history as “the race from hell.”

The Prodigal Son Comes Home

 After eight and a half years in a federal prison, Louisiana’s prodigal son finally came home.  The former Louisiana governor was greeted with the attraction generally reserved for a rock star. There was the kind of media coverage and public fascination usually reserved for a President or the Pope.  Even the Kingfish would have been envious. Edwin Edwards was back.

I played a minor role in the Edwards homecoming, being the publisher of the biography, Edwin Edwards-Governor of Louisiana. I had formed a publishing company called The Lisburn Press, using the name of my old plantation home in Ferriday. Written by my colleague, Leo Honeycutt, it became an immediate bestseller.   On the day of the Edwards book release, six Louisiana television stations came by my office for interviews.  The entire state seemed to be consumed by the frenzy of the return of the most controversial public figure in the state’s history.  Love him or hate him, only a few were not caught up in the fascination with the state’s longest serving governor.

I had been approached in 2008 by B.I. Moody, a friend and supporter of mine over many years, who built Moody Publications into the largest newspaper chain in the state.  B. I. and Edwards had shared office space when they first started out in business back in the early 1950’s, and they had remained the closest of friends over the years.  B.I. felt that a balanced legacy of Edwards had not been fully presented. 

“Anyone born after the late 1970’s would only know of the controversy surrounding him.  History so far has not highlighted his many accomplishments,” B.I. had told me. He had read my first book about my time in public life and asked if I might find an author to take on the task of writing a more balanced and fairer presentation of the Edwards story. 

I interviewed a number of local and national authors.  Leo Honeycutt lived in Baton Rouge and had been a television personality both locally and in Monroe for a number of years. As a newsman, he had covered and talked with Edwards extensively.  I read his novel Over the Edge, and knew that Leo had a descriptive writing style full of expression and understanding of the nuances of Louisiana.  After several interviews from a field of other well-qualified writers, I decided on Leo to collaborate with the former governor, who continued to captivate while sitting in a federal prison.

Leo spent weeks at a time in solitude immersed in the project in a cabin on Lake St. John up in Concordia Parish.  His first draft was 1,600 pages, with over 3,000 footnotes.  I sent him back to the drawing board for rewrite after rewrite.  I also spent a great deal of time reviewing some of the legal ramifications of many of the charges made by both Leo and EWE. It took the better part of the year to get the book in final form. Designing a cover and selecting photos from the thousands available that reflected Edwards’s time in public life took more months.  Our hopes for a one-year project extended four-fold.

Finally, we had to decide how many copies of the first edition to print. Edwards had not been governor for sixteen years and had been in prison going on eight years.  Was there really all that much interest left in the “Silver Fox?”  Or was he a has-been, and would all this effort be just for the history books?  We considered starting with 5,000 copies, but knowing that he would soon be out of prison and there would be some spike of interest, maybe we could sell 10,000 copies. We decided to go with 10,000 books, since we did have a warehouse large enough to store the entire inventory.

A truckload of the Edwards biographies arrived in bookstores less than two weeks before Christmas. The first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in two days.  A quick call was made to the printer in Canada requesting another 10,000 copies.  We paid overtime for the printer to work the weekend around the clock, and another truckload arrived a few days before Christmas.  That run sold out in two weeks.

With approximately 120,000 copies sold, the Edwards biography is well on its way to being the largest selling Louisiana book in the state’s history. 

The colorful Cajun has been roundly roasted by some editorial writers for years as the cause of Louisiana’s sad state of affairs.  Louisiana is close to the bottom on many quality of life lists.  He has not been in public office for more than 25 years, and four other governors have followed in his path.  Yet, according to some, it’s all his fault. Fifty years from now, there will be those who still point to Edwin Edwards’s influence as the state’s major problem.

But could it be that this charismatic character represented the pulse of Louisiana?  Is it possible that most public officials in the Bayou State are no better and no worse than the voters who put them in office? 

Yes, Edwin Edwards was 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. Leo Honeycutt’s original version of Edwards’s life covered 1600 pages.  Edwards insisted much be left out, at least for the time being. Perhaps there will be another book in the making.

In the meantime in the months and years to come, there will certainly be a host of discussion and commentary of the man who many feel is the most dominant Louisiana political figure in past century.

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

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

 

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