There may be no Southern politician who was more colorful, controversial and consequential than Edwin Edwards, who dominated Louisiana politics for more than three decades.
Everything about Edwards, who died this week at 93, was larger than life: his unforgettable one liners — saying the “only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy”; his flaws — he spent eight years in the slammer; and his progressive politics, rising above the race card when it dominated politics in the region. He won four terms as governor after serving four terms in Congress.
Edwards grew up maybe ten miles from where James’s mother, Nippy Carville, did in Avoyelles Parish, around the northernmost tip of Cajun country. The unique thing about Gov. Edwards is the scope of his political career; it spanned five decades and brought him through the trenches of local and state government from the Crowley City Council to the governor's mansion.
His career was not only remarkable regarding its success and longevity but because he never once stooped to using racist rhetoric or ran against the interests of the city of New Orleans, both of which have been commonplace in Louisiana politics.
New Orleans political analyst and student of the area's political history Clancy DuBos told us Edwards “was by far the most talented — and controversial — governor in modern Louisiana history.”
DuBos wrote: “Not since Huey Long has anyone dominated Louisiana's landscape the way Edwin Washington Edwards did. The Bayou state's only four-term governor, Edwards's rapier wit, roguish charm and unmatched political skills defined Louisiana for more than a generation — as did his conviction and imprisonment on federal racketeering charges.”
Many of the stories about Edwards this week focused on his style, fondness for gambling and women, and penchant for cutting legal and ethical corners.
More enduring may be his legacy of racial tolerance and focusing on poor people.
Edwards appointed more Blacks and women to state posts than any previous governor. Spending soared for healthcare, vocational training and higher education.
He ran circles around Republican opponents in gubernatorial races. He said 1983 opponent David Treen was “so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 minutes.” When Treen accused Edwards of talking out of both sides of his mouth, Edwards explained it was “so people like you with only half a brain can understand me.”
In 1991 against David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Edwards said “the only thing we have in common is we both have been wizards under the sheets.”
Edwards reveled in his free-wheeling, high-life style, “Laissez le bon temps rouler.” After he was acquitted in one trial, there was a report the sequestered jury had stolen towels from the lodging. "A man is entitled to be judged by a jury of his peers," Edwards was said to have quipped.
He once said of trashy tabloids paying for scandals about politicians: “If they want to come after me, we can break those rags.”
Other than Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE, Edwards was the best off-the-cuff politician we’ve ever encountered.
In 1980, a Baton Rouge oil magnate, C.B. "Doc" Pennington gave LSU $125 million for biomedical research. One of his grandchildren was busted for drug possession. Pennington had given $5,000 to the Edwards campaign, and the governor was asked if he planned to refund the donation: "When LSU gives the $125million back."
Edward wrote his own epitaph: “I have lived a good life, had better breaks than most, had some bad breaks too, but that's all part of it.”
James Carville is a Democratic strategist who helped engineer Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View.