Edwin Edwards’s spicy jambalaya of scandal, swagger, braggadocious charm and made-for-TV stunts was just what Louisiana voters ordered…again and again and again.
November 1991 – Sunk comfortably into a plush burgundy chair beneath white-hot spotlights at NBC studios in New York sits Democrat Edwin Edwards, Louisiana’s fiftieth governor. A gambling aficionado, who has returned to politics against all odds, Edwards is meticulous, both in dress and in speech, as sharp as a marquise diamond. His good looks and coiffed hair have earned him the nickname “the Silver Fox.” Rumors that the Marksville, Louisiana, native once slept with six women in one evening have also earned him the more lecherous nickname “the Silver Zipper.” He and another rather colorful politician – Republican David Duke of Metairie, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard – have fended off ten other candidates to make it to the state’s 1991 gubernatorial runoff in what has been dubbed “the Race from Hell.” The two foes sit next to each other for this national broadcast of “Meet the Press.”
Host Garrick Utley holds up a copy of The New York Times, its front page depicting Duke in 1969 wearing a Nazi armband and carrying an inflammatory racist sign. Duke is made to answer for the past that somehow has yet to catch up to his rosy polling numbers. “I would just like to say that intolerance is not my own preserve,” Duke answers slowly. “Other people have been intolerant in their lives, and I think we have a double standard.” Duke lists off an array of political leaders before zeroing in on Edwards. “We all grow up in our lives, and Governor Edwards, he said things in his last governorship I think he’d take back.”
Utley now hits Edwards hard, asking him to address his history of womanizing, gambling and racketeering indictments that prompted the “Anyone But Edwards” movement in the previous gubernatorial election. (During that 1987 race, Democrat Buddy Roemer was at the forefront of the Edwards bashing, gleefully exposing Edwards’s dubious kickbacks, curious ties and outlandish stunts, including one instance in which Edwards looked to settle campaign debts by culling supporters to donate money and accompany him on a trip to Paris.)
“I – I could gamble everyday,” Edwards briefly stammers, clearly thrown off his game. But he quickly recovers. “I’m 64 years old now,” he says, “and I want this opportunity to do something for myself and for my state and I’m not going to blow it.”
Many Louisianans watching in their living rooms own cars affixed with one of two bumper stickers, reading either This is Duke Country or Vote for the crook. It’s important. According to the New Republic, the latter phrase was actually contrived by a Roemer supporter, and Edwards himself has pasted the bumper sticker on his own car.
From a distance, Edwards’s rise in Louisiana seems just as unlikely as that of his Klan-affiliated opponent, who would later re-enter politics to run for the Senate once more in 2016. Born to sharecroppers in Avoyelles Parish, Edwards once considered becoming a minister before heading off for law school and then setting his sights on politics. Slimy yet forthright, he always offered a “tell it like it is” attitude, earning him admiration across the state. He was initially elected to city council one hundred miles from his hometown in Crowley, Louisiana. He soon made the jump to the Louisiana State Senate before joining the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972.
After that came his first term as governor, in which he ambitiously overhauled the state’s unwieldy constitution, a document that hadn’t been altered since 1921. His second term piggybacked off of an increase in state revenue due to oil severance taxes. The business of being governor was certainly one Edwards excelled at, almost as much as lip service. A populist at heart, fans of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints can thank Edwards for keeping the team in Louisiana, turning the state’s now- richest man Tom Benson into a political ally by helping to convince him to buy the football team. Edwards also appointed more minorities and women to key positions than any previous governor. This included his wife of forty years, Elaine Schwartzenburg Edwards. She served as an interim senator for three months following the death of Allen J. Ellender.
Forty-one years ago, Edwards ended his first term as governor riding high, shockingly unscathed after a series of investigations. The first involved Edwards allegedly attempting to sell jobs in exchange for campaign contributions, mitigated by his admission to being unwilling to keep those promises and returning all of the $130,000 in donations he’d received. The next involved the Family Health Foundation, which allegedly floated some of the governor’s travel expenses and provided kickbacks to relatives as well as to contractors.
“The reaction from Louisiana voters to the FHF revelations unfortunately reflected the fact that we’ve long since become accustomed to such activities in this state,” says Dr. Jerry Sanson, chair of the history and political science department at LSU Alexandria. “We have a history of questionable, at best, activities by individuals dating back to the French colonial period. Those who had a low opinion of the governor had another reason to feel the way they did, and those who liked him overlooked it.”
Voters continued to shrug off Edwards’s missteps as his name came up in the national scandal known as “Koreagate,” when South Korean businessmen wined and dined politicians in the name of covering up human rights violations and advancing the country’s agenda. Then, a federal grand jury investigated Edwards for shady stock options that could have funneled cash straight to his pockets, ultimately resulting in no indictments.
If anything, Edwards’s brazenness only further endeared him to supporters, handily helping him win a second term in 1975. The one-liners and jokes were biting, his bravado at its peak when he returned to politics for the 1983 gubernatorial election after a stint out of the spotlight and a four-year governorship by Republican David Treen.
“By the time reelection came around in 1983, Treen was exhausted, while Edwards was rested up and funded up with a war chest,” says Louisiana journalist and authorized Edwards biographer Leo Honeycutt. “This made me dislike Edwards even more because he was so cocksure arrogant.”
Looking good in the polls the day before the election, Edwards uttered the now famous phrase: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or live boy.”
Honeycutt nonetheless has fond memories of joining Edwards on the campaign trail that year, recalling the politician’s incessant need to brusquely wipe off the tops of Coca-Cola cans for fear of rat and mouse urine touching his lips. It’s a practice Honeycutt has adhered to ever since.
More than anything, tragedy was what provoked a response from Louisiana voters. In the thick of his motorhome campaigning across Louisiana, Edwards’ brother, Nolan, was shot and killed in his Crowley law office by an angry client. Mike Stagg, who covered Edwards’ campaign that year as news director of Eunice, Louisiana’s KJJB FM, says the tragedy humanized Edwards in the eyes of voters. “He was clearly deeply affected by his brother’s murder and, for many people, seeing his grief changed their perception of Edwards,” Stagg says. “I think it actually contributed significantly to his landslide win against Treen.”
Edwards won with 62.3 percent of the vote, dodging indictments and finishing a successful second term in office. His luck ran out when he sought the governor’s office once more in 1987. Fellow Democrat Buddy Roemer’s “Anyone But Edwards” campaign gained momentum as Edwards vied for reelection while facing allegations of bribery, mail fraud and obstruction of justice. All told, Edwards faced fifty charges; also charged were his brother, Marion, nephew, Charles David Isbell, and five others. The brood allegedly conspired to illegally sell hospital permits to friends for a total of $10 million, in addition to allegedly holding stock in those companies. U.S. Attorney John Volz implied that Edwards was to use the funds to pay off gambling debts. Records were called upon from casinos as far off as Las Vegas and Reno, further sullying Edwards’ reputation. The trial began September 17, 1985.
After so many investigations yielding so few consequences, Edwards wasn’t sweating this one. The courtroom served as the perfect venue for his signature charm offensive as he taunted the system that had yet to bring him down. At one point, he commuted from a French Quarter hotel to the courthouse by mule-drawn carriage, claiming he “was looking for some mode of transportation that was indicative of the pace of the trial.” The embroiled politician even played guest bartender at Molly’s at the Market, a legendary French Quarter bar whose infamous Thursday media night had also included Volz as a guest bartender over the course of the trial.
A crowd of people stretched out from inside the bar onto Decatur Street, some eyeing the masses inside from an open service window next to its iconic shutter doors. Wooden tables jutted out from the left like the tongues wagging from patrons angling to get a glimpse of Edwards, a notorious teetotaler who simply couldn’t say no to a good time. TV crews packed the spaces in between, hoping the libations of the lubricated wouldn’t ruin their gear.
Edwards’s lawyer James Neal continued pouring beers as the former governor seized his moment in the spotlight to make a toast to Volz. Swilling a glass of ice water and raising it to the sky, Edwards let out a rhyme:
When I’m in a happy mood, I eat and sing and drink,
When I’m in a sober mood, I worry, work and think,
When my moods are over, and my time has come to pass,
I hope they bury me upside down, so Volz can kiss my ass.
The crowd cheered and drank, unknowingly toasting to an eventual mistrial. Some days later, Isbell and two business associates would have their charges dropped. It took the jury seven days of deliberation before arriving at the conclusion that they could not unanimously consider Edwards guilty and, thus, motioned for a mistrial.
Edwards was off the hook again, but the festivities and federal investigation was enough to dash his gubernatorial hopes for the 1987 election; he came in second to Roemer in the open primary, qualifying him to advance to a runoff. But, polling far behind and not one to accept a clear political loss, Edwards chose to concede rather than lose in the runoff. “He was making sure that he did not have a losing campaign on his record,” confirms Sanson. Were Edwards to lose at the polls, it would’ve been his first loss – and no gambling man wants bad luck on their record.
Around that time, the marriage to his high school sweetheart was coming to an end. Edwards and Elaine divorced in 1989. Five years later, he married Candy Picou, a 26-year-old real estate agent he’d courted with poetry. They wed in 1994 at the Governor’s Mansion, during Edwards’ fourth term, after he’d annihilated David Duke with 61 percent of the vote.
Edwards, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, felt untouchable and firmly locked into his governor persona. He worked to rig the riverboat casino game, extorting hopeful businesses out of as much as $2 million. What brought him down was one high-profile business owner by the name of Edward DeBartolo, Jr., then-owner of the San Francisco 49ers.
DeBartolo came to Edwards seeking a riverboat gambling license for a proposed operation in Bossier City. Licenses were hard to come by, but Edwards said he had the right contacts to get DeBartolo the last one available. The first catch? Edwards’s son would get in on the action. The second? DeBartolo must pay up “or there is going to be a serious problem with your license,” Edwards reportedly stated after passing DeBartolo a slip of paper with the exact dollar amount: $400,000.
Edwards’s law office was tapped and a suitcase purported to be from DeBartolo containing $400,000 in extortion money confiscated. DeBartolo faced his own legal troubles and lost ownership of the 49ers.
Edwards was indicted around the same time in 1998 and brought to trial in 2000. He was convicted in 2001 on seventeen of 28 counts, with charges ranging from racketeering and extortion to fraud and conspiracy. For all his poetics, his missives weren’t enough to save his marriage to Picou. The two divorced while Edwards was behind bars.
He served ten years in prison, time that allowed him the necessary breathing room to finally reckon with himself as a person and a politician. It’s then that he called up Honeycutt, the biographer, and the two went through the arduous process of Edwards finally coming clean.
Edwards’s honesty in his biography is ultimately what drew 32-year-old LSU student Trina Grimes Scott to the embattled politician. After giving the book a read, the two struck up a correspondence and Edwards got to put his signature turn of phrase to romantic uses. In 2011, six months after he’d left prison, the two wed. The arrangement inspired a short-lived reality show titled “The Governor’s Wife,” which aired for less than a month in 2013.
Shortly before Edwards and Scott became romantically linked, Honeycutt was doing his own courting, working relentlessly to get to Edwards’s core. It took a full year of making the 113-mile drive to Oakdale Prison and interviewing Edwards every other Saturday for three-hour intervals before Honeycutt was able to crack his politically polished exterior.
“About a year into this,” Honeycutt says, “I finally realized that he wasn’t being uncooperative, it’s just that he had played the role of Governor Edwin Edwards for so long, he couldn’t separate that from the person. He couldn’t remember being anyone but the governor.” Photos of Edwards’s children helped rouse his memory and return him to those halcyon years of being more than a Louisiana figurehead.
For all the times Edwards had been caught red-handed and seen his scandals flare up, he had yet to face any consequences. There was simply no incentive to stop the polarizing tactics that alienated him from his own party and put him at odds with so many, effectively changing the way Louisiana engages in politics through the passage of the 123-page state constitution while putting the state on the map for all the wrong reasons thanks to his own nepotism and corruption, negative attributes that had long dogged Louisiana and that he vowed to abolish when first taking office way back in 1972.
“It took most of four years but he finally came around, maybe out of exasperation because he saw I was unmovable on the point,” Honeycutt said. “He finally said, ‘I guess you’re right. I’m too far from the womb and too close to the tomb for it to make any difference now.’”
Three years after leaving prison, Edwards once again threw his hat in the political ring. In 2014, he ran for Congress, besting his Democratic opponents but ultimately losing badly to Republican Garret Graves in the runoff election. It was a different time and Louisiana was a far different state than Edwards had left it. So too was Edwards. He lost with dignity, admitted this would be his last chance at returning to politics, and quipped to reporters the night of that he was going to get some sleep.
As for his future plans? Edwards didn’t miss a beat: “Well, I’ll wake up and have breakfast.”