Two years ago, Louisiana had five ex-governors out and about; today, just one. The one of the quartet who stayed with us the longest, Prisoner #03128-095, went out in a way not inconsistently with his political career: with a wink and a nod. Last week, he entered hospice care, with him and his family saying it was for better care and that he looked forward to future birthdays. Days later ….
Known outside the big house as Democrat former Gov. Edwin Edwards, it’s perhaps difficult for many who follow Louisiana politics to understand the shadow he cast over state politics for a quarter-century starting in 1972. Obviously the center of attention when in office, he wasn’t too far away from that even when out of it during the 1980-84 and 1987-92 periods (he actually vacated the office after conceding defeat a couple of months prior to the official end of his third term in 1988). He probably really liked it that way.
I met Edwards the first time, briefly, when he attended the dedication of my employer’s new library in 1992. But where I actually had a few minutes to chat with him, the chastened version after prison, was almost a decade ago at the Louisiana Political Science Association annual meeting. From that second meeting I draw some of the impressions below.
Edwards, more than anyone not named Long, maintained fidelity to the liberal populist policy legacy of Democrat former Gov. Huey Long in its broadest sense. He believed the economic system rigged in the favor of some to the disadvantage of others, and for redress government had to intervene. This required bigger and more centralized state government than ever, after effects of which still hold Louisiana back to this day, compounded by elites such as current Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards stubbornly pursuing the same course as other states further distance themselves from it by offering their citizens greater opportunity and autonomy.
His agenda and roguish style proved divisive, but at the same time the polarization he fomented can cause an overly-jaundiced view of his time in office. Often forgotten is many considered him a reformer when he took office, and he did oversee a needed constitutional revision. And much as he liked growing government, in his first two terms while spending increased in state and local government 163 percent from 1971 to 1979, it actually fell in per capita terms relative to other states, from 23rd to 28th. The problem was income, sales, and excise taxes collected were the ninth highest per capita at the beginning of this period, and the eighth highest at its end.
His tax-and-spend sympathies make him unremarkable among today’s Democrats, but in many other ways he would be profoundly alienated from the 2021 party. He certainly didn’t think in the woke terms now unchallenged among Democrat elites, and his foreign policy views had more in common with today’s Republicans.
And, unlike those elites as well as the current Edwards, he never tried to hide his beliefs that he knew didn’t resonate among a large swath of the population, although these tended to matters of lifestyle and electioneering rather than political preferences that today’s leftists publicly eschew while privately pursue. (Reading his one-time bodyguard Clyde Vidrine’s accounts, which don’t seem manufactured or far-fetched, present a colorful personal life and corrupt political dealings.)
Letting the good times roll from a lovable rogue was enough for enough people for a number of years to forgive him his weaknesses. But by 1987 his profligate policies decisively had come home to roost, and his fluke 1991 comeback succeeded only because of improbable circumstances, not because of any groundswell for his agenda. Then came the trip to jail – ironically for activities when out of office (and featuring a pair of current state senators, one never tried, the other not convicted).
A 2014 half-serious attempt at Congress was more for the ego than anything else, even if it showed that if liberal populism had any legs left (at least enough to push the current Edwards into office), it had to avoid front men with checkered reputations. Louisiana was worse off for his 16 years at the helm, but at least not bored by him.
Edwards once publicly mocked the Resurrection, adding he didn’t believe in it and doubted the existence of a heavenly afterlife. God doesn’t harbor the same doubts about the salvation of Edwards’ soul and hopefully gives him a nice surprise.