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Help me out: is Edwards biography worth buying?

When its publication was announced, despite my obvious interest in Louisiana politics, I hesitated to buy veteran TV journalist’s Leo Honeycutt’s authorized biography of Prisoner #03128-095, known before his conviction on corruption charges as former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. After hearing more about it, my reluctance remains.

Initially, my main reason was because in doing so it would line the pockets of Prisoner #03312-095, known before his conviction as former statewide elected official Jim Brown. This is because Brown, convicted of lying to investigators (involving a case where Edwards also was indicted, but acquitted), has been singularly unrepentant in insisting on his innocence despite exhaustive appeals where impartial courts continually reaffirmed his conviction. Besides producing his own self-authored book out attempting this argument, Brown published Honeycutt’s.

I don’t wish to reward his inability to admit fault with a transfer of my money to Brown, but a pretty good argument could be made that Edwards was the second-most influential figure in the conduct of state government in the 20th century, behind only former Gov. Huey P. Long and jockeying with the likes of former Govs. Earl K. Long and John M. Parker. Therefore, this biography could be of great value and something to own.

Then last week I was able to catch an interview of Honeycutt by Moon Griffon on his program. This constituted good fortune for me since I rarely get a chance to hear more than a few minutes of the show and it just so happened I was on the road (to participate in a project; look for it on screen within the next few months) so I could listen to its entirety and especially because it could help resolve my dilemma: would the tome’s contents sound so fascinating that it would override my sense of rewarding those only when integrity was present in them?

Thus it is with a feeling of uncertainty that I have to report the interview did not get me to make up my mind either way. My continued ambivalence doesn’t stem from the information that seems present in it, but, rather, from qualms I now have about the author’s approach, taken from my more than two decades of being a researcher in academia and my modest career in journalism.

Warning sign #1: Honeycutt said he tried to lay out a case than neither glorified nor vilified Edwards, but the impression the vast majority of Moon’s callers got was that Honeycutt was defending a politician (in terms of an overall assessment of his value to the state, not his crimes) that (given the majority of Moon’s audience) they brooked no love for. As a result, Honeycutt started to become defensive and essentially began telling callers they didn’t know what they were talking about, saying he dealt in “facts,” he had 1,700+ footnotes to back him up, and he had spent years doing this so, the impression he conveyed was, he knew a lot more than any caller might about this and therefore he was above criticism on the matter.

In academia, when somebody does not feel entirely confident in their work, they will make appeals to external authority like this, rattling off large numbers of sources and citations. That’s all well and good, but the proof of an argument rests not just on source material or even its comprehensiveness, but how convincingly it is woven into an narrative the validity of which we can test using not just a selection of the data, but all of it. Since I haven’t read the work I can offer no judgment on that, but it’s not a good sign in terms of the quality of the argument in my experience when this kind of defense of it is used.

Warning sign #2: One caller mentioned about how Edwards contributed to the perception of Louisiana as a “laughingstock,” to which Honeycutt took exception. He argued that, on a per capita basis regarding convictions for crimes of political corruption, in recent years according to different sources Louisiana ranked only fifth or sixth and therefore, since it was not first, it was not a “laughingstock.”

But this view obviously begs the question, can only the worst state be a “laughingstock?” Are the other 49 exonerated no matter how much political corruption exists in them? I would argue that, even if Louisiana doesn’t lead the pack, the continuing high incidence of corrupt behavior in the state (look at this guy) does continue to make us a “laughingstock.” And if somebody is going to take the line of reasoning on this that Honeycutt sounded like he was doing on the air, then I have to question the analytical power he brings to his subject and whether there’s much of value in a book like that.

Warning sign #3: Another caller related that he had been a state policeman who had been assigned around Edwards many times and that the ex-governor had a very arrogant attitude towards the troopers. Honeycutt agreed there was an air of arrogance about him but expressed surprise at this particular expression of it and said he really hadn’t talked to anybody in the course of doing research with that view. Griffon then related a similar story from someone he had known who also had served in the state police and gave some context as to perhaps why. That two people within a span of a few minutes would relay some information about an aspect of his subject that apparently had eluded the author does not encourage the casual listener to think the job done was very thorough or complete if we are to understand fully the man and his motivations for policy.

Therefore, I remain in limbo on its potential purchase for my voluminous Louisiana politics library. The subject is fascinating but my confidence in the quality of the work, without having read it, was shaken by this interview. Granted, these are little things gotten off a radio show, but evidence is evidence and it's not in the right direction.

Honeycutt has said he wished to have the work avoid being influenced by Edwards’ charm and charisma, but the last caller to the broadcast said she thought exactly that had happened to his effort. If this ended up as hagiography rather than biography, it’s not something I would want. But I welcome any comments about it readers wish to leave who have read it – maybe you all can help me finally decide.


Anonymous said...

Go ahead and say it. You are to cheap to pay for the book and will wait to borrow from someone who did.

Jeff Sadow said...

Everybody's a commodium.

Actually, at LSUS we are given a small amount of money to spend on things related to our teaching and research. This book would qualify. So in reality I am wondering whether the taxpayer should line Honeycutt's and 03312-095's pockets.

Anonymous said...

Do you always limit your reading choices to only those that will confirm your pre-conceived notions?

Rather odd for an academic.

Jeff Sadow said...

>Rather odd for an academic.

Maybe you didn't read or process the post well. I'll reiterate. I have two concerns about buying this book. One, it would financially benefit somebody not penitent for his crime. Two, evidence is that the quality of this work is questionable. The first concern may be overcome if the second is alleviated in my mind. Otherwise, I don't want to waste my money or the taxpayers'. Got it now?

And, I am an "academician."

Anonymous said...

Got it just fine the first time.

Still say it is rather odd that you'd let someone else inform you about the quality of the work, rather than make your own evaluation.

The first objection is laughable coming from someone who is an open apologist for pretty much any "sinner" who shares your political views, unrepentant or not. Do you always run a check on the background of the investors in any company from which you purchase books to see if they are all "clean" and repentant?