Special to Louisiana State Newspapers
Will reign over 75th Rice Festival Grand Parade
CROWLEY – Under the bright, cloudless sky of October 16, 1959, Rice Festival President and former Crowley City Councilman Edwin Washington Edwards stood above a sea of people and watched. Three feet away, he watched as the young, dynamic speaker in a dark tailored suit, auburn red hair in the sunlight, his right hand with folded fingers punctuating each sentence, rallied the hopes and dreams of 135,000 Louisianans with whom he had so little in common. The lanky man’s accent pealed between the buildings along Parkerson Avenue in a Boston Irish lilt, “We can no longer allow the pahhty of communism to encroach at ouhr backdoohr, which may happen in Cuber (Cuba) in their curhrent revolution.”
Edwin Edwards grinned subtly at the man’s mispronunciation and cadence, realizing Cajuns weren’t the only ones with thick accents. He looked across to the wife of United States Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was smiling, too, as she stood holding two dozen roses, dutifully looking with adoration at her young, rich, handsome, confident husband. Only minutes before, he had twisted her arm to address the crowd. She reluctantly did so, all in French, relating her childhood fascination with Louisiana after her father told her the faraway southland was “a small corner of France.”
“She blew the top off the town with that story in French!” excitedly remembers Judge Edmund Reggie, so that when Jack Kennedy took the microphone, the crowd had already fallen in love with Jackie.
Edwin Edwards noted how this golden couple in their private plane captivated the rank and file of Louisiana, Cajuns, rice farmers, swamp dwellers, some so poor and illiterate they could ill afford to be there let alone contribute. From an arm’s length, Edwards watched their faces as an absolutely down-to-earth millionaire Kennedy shook every hand and listened to every story.
While Edwards, a true son of sharecropper poverty, was a little jealous of the clean-cut Kennedy, he could not help but admire the man’s sheer lack of pretention. Kennedy really did care about people. And so did Edwards, but Edwards had first-hand experience of what it meant to be poor. He had the advantage of that experience.
Fast forward a tumultuous, divisive, strident half century after America lost that young president and some would say Edwin Edwards, too, was assassinated, just that the slow-motion bullet took awhile to hit. There’s some speculation, too, as to who pulled the trigger? Was it populist Edwards with his arrogant gambling and blatant womanizing or was it an ever-investigating federal government who didn’t like Edwards any more than they had liked Huey Long? What was America about anyway? Making it on your own or helping the less fortunate to the point of codependency?
In the spirit of full disclosure, the writer of this article is the writer of Edwin Edwards, Governor of Louisiana, An Authorized Biography by Leo Honeycutt, the only fact-based work to my knowledge that ever tried to unravel the complex, ambitious, workaholic Edwards within the context of a complex and exotic state. His is the stuff of dreams, and nightmares. His is a life we would never dream to live but have watched from the sidelines as he stood up to unseen powers fighting to remain the Status Quo. On many fronts, he succeeded and on many others, he did not.
Now the Cajun Prince, fresh out of prison, has been promoted to King, or at least Grand Marshal of the Grand Parade, by this year’s committee of Louisiana’s historic Crowley International Rice Festival.
“He’s done his time and we wanted to honor a man who’s done so much for the rice industry in this state,” explains Glynn Manard, president of the committee. “Done so much” is putting it mildly. Most people vaguely remember the public corruption case of South Korean businessman Tongsun Park but the forgotten backstory is that Edwards and 5th District Louisiana Congressman Otto Passman, both implicated in the FBI’s 1970s investigation, never authored or initiated legislation to help South Korea. Instead, the two Louisianans teamed up to pressure Park to buy $40 million of Louisiana rice for his country. Theirs became the largest single rice sale in history, kept untold numbers of Louisiana farmers from going bankrupt and created an agricultural boom in Louisiana throughout that decade.
Combined with Edwards’ keen political aptitude as a fiscal conservative, the 1970s were Louisiana’s last golden age. First to see the coming OPEC juggernaut, Edwards strategically fought to raise Louisiana’s paltry 25-cents a barrel oil severance to 12.5% of value. Sure enough, when oil skyrocketed after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, money poured into Louisiana’s coffers at breakneck speed. At the same time, oil and gas companies were employing anyone who breathed. “The Embarrassment of Riches,” headlined the end of Edwards’ second term because, unbelievably, even politicians couldn’t find enough programs to stash the cash. All this while New York City brushed with bankruptcy.
So astute he was at fiscal health, so demanding he was of Legislatures to balance the budget before a session’s midnight deadline, that as Jimmy Carter’s presidency was imploding, Senator Ted Kennedy quietly asked through Edmund Reggie if Edwards could work his magic as vice president on the federal budget? A Kennedy-Edwards ticket? We will never know but the 1979 Louisiana Legislature drafted a “Favorite Son” bill urging Edwards himself to run for the highest office. Thus, Edwards went out with the distinction of becoming Louisiana’s first governor to finish his terms more popular than when he was elected in 1972.
His legacy then was stellar with the 1974 Constitution; the promotion of more blacks and women to key positions in government than all his predecessors combined; the building of roads, bridges, college buildings, stadiums and hospitals to rival that of Huey Long; finishing and keeping open the critically underfunded Superdome; thrice keeping the Saints from leaving; bailing out Workman’s Comp to the tune of $800 million; consistently raising pay for teachers and state workers; and the list goes on.
But what goes up, must come down. That’s the direction oil took in the 1980s, taking Governor Treen and Edwards’ third term with it. When Edwards conceded the race to Buddy Roemer in 1987, he was dead politically, most thought, for all time.
Enter ex-KKK grand wizard and Hitler worshiper David Duke, and we had the race that shamed Louisiana. “The swastika will never replace the pelican on Louisiana’s flag,” Edwards said early in the race. Late in the race, a reporter asked if liberal Edwards had any common ground whatsoever with ultra-ultra conservative Duke? “Yes, I do,” Edwards shot back. “We are both wizards under the sheets.”
Despite such great one-liners, there’s been little to laugh about since. With the budget never having recovered from the 1980s bust, Louisiana joined other states in opening the Pandora’s Box of gambling. All but the New Orleans casino passed under Governor Roemer’s administration. The fifteen riverboat licenses, limited that way to be one-time cash cows for the state, proved to be Edwin Edwards’ undoing. After a nearly five month long trial that can only be described as dubious for its bartered testimony, lack of solid evidence, and ousting of jurors, the Cajun Prince came tumbling down.
“The Chinese have a saying,” Edwards told reporters philosophically after his conviction on seventeen out of 26 counts, “that if you sit by the river long enough, the body of your dead enemy will come floating by. Well, here comes my body.”
Three millionaires walked away that day scott-free of incarceration, their huge fortunes untouched. Nearly right up until trial, they all insisted no conspiracy or coercion had ever happened. Indeed, not a single decision maker on any of Louisiana’s gaming boards –which issued the licenses— was ever so much as a “person of interest.” Edwards succinctly asked reporters, “What did I do? Corrupt myself?”
Still, he fell. In today’s vernacular, “It is what it is.” The trouble is, no one will ever be sure what “it is.” Was he corrupt? Did the three businessmen turn on him when the heat was applied by a U.S. attorney with unlimited resources? Was he the Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor? Did he tweak the noses one too many times of those who like the power of laws to judge and control others by their own definitions?
“I was guilty of one thing and one thing only,” insists Edwin Edwards. “Arrogance. Nothing more, nothing less. The federal government has no sense of humor.” With a smile he adds, “And some would say, no sense at all.”
And so it is that in October, the Cajun Prince will come home to reign once again in hometown Crowley. Somewhat like a beaten up and shredded prodigal son, he waits to see if he will be embraced by those who knew him when. That seminal event will bring his life full circle, inspired long ago by a grinning Jack Kennedy and ending in the exact same place 52 years later, worse for the wear but with a lasting admiration, he hopes, from those who mean the most.