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Letter From New Orleans

The National Championship Game, Louisiana politics, and Edwin Edwards' last campaign

One of the many pleasures of New Orleans is waking up, pouring a cup of strong, rich coffee, and opening the morning paper. As befits a city that exists outside the usual laws of time and physics, it still has a great paper. Not what it once was in the glory days of ink, no, but the Times-Picayune manages to reflect the community.

It’s full of stories of political corruption, police shenanigans, high school, college, and pro football, and just the right amount of whimsy. There will be an award-winning investigation next to a tongue-in-cheek crime story about a would-be robber who got his ass kicked by an ex-Marine Lucky Dog vendor. You know you’re in New Orleans when you pick it up.

So my first morning in town for this much-hyped game, I quickly arrived on A-2. There, in one short story, was the alpha and omega of this strange place, complete with the Ed Anderson byline, the old-school statehouse reporter who’s dealt with more liars and crooks than Mike Slive. The story was a Louisiana triple threat, thick with politics, football, and partying. Plus it had the secret ingredient to classic New Orleans political journalism, long absent and no longer taken for granted: former governor and convicted felon Edwin Edwards, who had been locked away in the federal pen for racketeering. He’s been missed. “State politics has been a lot duller and lacking in the flash and panache since the rogue governor has been on his sabbatical,” Anderson told me.

His story reported that Governor Bobby Jindal is being inaugurated Monday, which is, of course, today, competing for attention with the national championship game. Predictably, in this LSU-mad state, nobody cares much about the occasion. This story goes on to say that Jindal is shrinking the celebration and, near the end, a paragraph explains that Edwards, out of the slammer in July after eight years, will not attend. It’s not that he wasn’t invited. As Ed wrote: “… he has plans to be in New Orleans for the game.”

This is a classic Louisiana story, and the political cartoonists are losing their damn minds. One drew Jindal, distraught over his sudden irrelevance, talking to an aide, who suggests inviting Edwin.

“He always attracts a crowd,” Cartoon Aide says.

Cartoon Aide makes a call, then reports the sad news.

“He’s too busy.”

Edwin is everywhere. He is out there like a politician, appearing at events, grand marshaling parades. Shaking hands and kissing babies. When he arrives, he’s greeted as governor. He is beloved. “It’s the only state where a felon could achieve that level of affection,” Louisiana politico James Carville says.

The tour looks a lot like a campaign. Edwin is clearly running for something, though he can’t hold elected office. It’s the oddest thing, and on the day of this game and his much-discussed attendance, it demands a question:

What exactly is Edwin Edwards up to?

The governor lives in a subdivision of cookie-cutter McMansions, surrounding a pasture of a golf course, southeast of Baton Rouge in a town named Gonzales. I drove there in October, before the first LSU-Alabama game; I’d set up a meeting with Edwards to talk about Les Miles. And, to be honest, I wanted to meet him. His daughter greeted me at the door and immediately put me to work. In one of the weirder moments of my life, I found myself carrying an enormous oil painting of Edwards from an SUV into his house, leaning it up against the wall, his rise and fall brought into immediate relief. As I walked back to the kitchen, I heard them talking about money issues. This is not the life he left. Earlier this year, via Facebook, he looked around for LSU tickets. Two decades ago, he would have tossed the pregame coin.

Edwards graduated from LSU, and helped it grow while governor. He loves the Tigers, and has followed every twist and turn this season, from the preseason parking lot fights to the SEC championship. “One could not describe the enthusiasm of this team and Les Miles,” he says. “When he won the championship, people were saying, ‘That’s Saban’s team. He picked ‘em. He recruited ‘em. He deserves the credit.’ There’s some merit in that. But they can’t say that now. It’s his team.”

Edwin stood in his kitchen, with copies of his new memoir nearby, talking in his Cajun drawl. The word “mother,” for example, is pronounced, “mutha.” He’s 84 years old — some worried he’d die in prison — and has one act left. He’s making the most of it.

“The thing that I remind myself in politics and in sporting events,” he says, “there are valleys and mountains. Sometimes things are going well, as they are now, and sometimes you have a high mountain to climb.”

My favorite novel is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. In the book, Louisiana governor Willie Stark is a fictional rendering of Huey P. Long, the corrupt, benevolent populist governor of Louisiana. The best line in the book is Stark talking about the broken nature of humanity, and how the most dishonest people in politics are those who pretend that anyone can outrun their worst impulses: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

This quote lives at the heart of Louisiana politics. When I began reciting it to Carville last week, he finished it with me. The state has always elected folk heroes who did naughty things: hookers, affairs with Bourbon Street strippers, freezers of money, and an endless rap sheet of boring felony charges. The two biggest folk heroes are Long and Edwards.

E.W.E. (as he’s known both to people who adore and fear him) did a lot of good as governor. He put $549 million of a $600 million oil-revenue settlement into an education fund, which has now more than doubled. He also, according to the jury that convicted him, extorted money from casino operators. Before that conviction, the feds had tried and failed to get him. The system itself was corrupt, and Edwin knew how to make the system work, for supporters and for himself. Edwards, like Long and Stark, appeared bulletproof, in a way that some people in Louisiana found endearing, and that even more found at least refreshingly transparent.

People heard the stories: about gambling, about the women, and about how his demeanor suggested he didn’t consider himself governor so much as king. The heir to the Kingfish himself. He seemed roguish in a wonderfully Louisiana way. During his famous campaign against former Klansman David Duke (who also later went to prison), he hopped around the state in a private plane, surrounded by his advisors. Everywhere they went, said a magazine reporter who spent time on the plane, a briefcase followed. Finally, the writer told me, she got a glimpse inside: guns, a bulky cell phone, breath mints, dental floss, and a bunch of college football point spread sheets. The crew made a ton of bets and later, riding in a campaign parade, the advisors updated the governor on scores, so that the narration went something like this:

(To waving supporters): How’s your mama and dem?

(Under his breath to the crouched advisors reporting bad news in the game): Goddamn! Son of a bitch!

He might have been shady, but he was fun. Famously, when he beat Duke, one of his bumper stickers said, “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important.” He also authored the two greatest quotes in the history of American politics:

1. (On an opponent) “The only way I’m losing is if I get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”

2. (On David Duke) “We’re both wizards in the sheets.”

Even when he walked out of the courtroom after being found guilty, he smiled and offered a one-liner to reporters. “The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river,” he said. “I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough, and here comes my body.”

Then he crossed Main Street in Baton Rouge. Traffic came to a halt. Horns blared. And one woman leaned out the window and yelled in support, “You go, Governor!”

Floating around the kitchen as Edwin and I talk LSU football is his new wife.

“I’m Trina Edwards,” she says with a smile.

I’m gonna be as respectful as I can here. She’s a 32-year-old bombshell. She’s hot. Not hot for someone married to an old guy. Not trashy hot, or country hot. Just plain hot. She wrote him a letter in prison after reading his book, and they began visiting. He likes to joke about the other inmates jockeying at the window to see her walk across the parking lot. Since this is Edwin, he’s got a killer line for their courtship, too, which he’s trotted out for New Orleans reporters: “I thought she was coming to visit me, but I think she thought she was entertaining the troops.”

They got married in New Orleans, and when the pictures ran in the paper, old friends and foes alike nudged each other, as if to say: Ol’ boy’s still got it. In that picture, and a lot of them since, he looks giddy.

“He’s out of jail,” Carville says. “He’s got a young wife, and he’s having fun.”

Trina’s Facebook status updates about the circus of their daily life, from RV trips to Edwin watching Chris Rock, are a captivating read. Much better than a reality television show, which this seems destined to be.1 What’s astonishing, though, are the comments people leave. Friends ask if he can get pardoned so he can run against Jindal. There are “Edwin for President” T-shirts for sale. Just out of prison, he’s functioning as if it never happened. There is this deep reservoir of love and nostalgia, even from people whose politics differ from Edwards. They miss having a character as governor.

“Huey Long populism never died,” says Anderson, the Times-Picayune political reporter, “it found a late 20th-century hero in E.W.E. … He has a hard-core following, and based on the cuts the state has undergone in recent years, Jindal’s ideologue approach to conservative values, and Blanco getting killed by the inept response following the 2005 hurricanes, a lot of folks look at E.W.E. as emblematic of ‘the good ol’ days.'”

Even some Louisiana Republicans pushed for Bush to pardon Edwards before leaving office, and there is a sense here that he was too harshly punished. “The school of thought is that he probably spent three years too long in prison,” Carville says.

The economy in the state remains rough, and the partisan divide grows worse. Jindal seems to have national aspirations in a way that Edwin never did. Edwards’ dream was to be governor of Louisiana. He loved his job and now, traveling around the state, seeing old friends, making new ones, he is loving that embrace. There’s nothing to fear from him anymore, so even his enemies seem ready to let the past fade away. He’s doing this to make money, yes, but he’s also doing it because he likes it.

“He might be older,” Anderson says, “but his ego is still the same.”

There are no more elections for Edwin Edwards, but there is a final campaign, and he seems to be running for the thing every politician craves: the way a crowd makes you feel, how it can polish achievements and push failures into the shadows. Many get into the game for that feeling, and then they convince themselves — and everyone around them, if they’re good — that there are other reasons to want such power.

That’s what’s wonderful about watching this journey. There’s no artifice, no hollow stump speeches and hot orations about people’s pain. There is only the naked, earnest search for love, and that makes this the most honest campaign ever run in the state of Louisiana.

There was another cartoon in the Times-Picayune recently. It showed Edwin and Trina, and the governor had two fingers raised on his hand.

“V for Victory?” one character asked.

“Viagra,” another replied.

Edwin saw the cartoon and laughed. Trina laughed, too, and Edwin said, “I don’t need Viagra …Viagra needs me. Doesn’t the Times-Picayune know they use my blood to make that stuff?”

He is an 84-year-old felon, a former congressman, and four-time governor of Louisiana. He is a new husband, and he has a book to hawk. He’s done time and managed to put more than a billion dollars in the bank for Louisiana’s children. In this final act, there is joy in the house of Edwards, and he feels it everywhere he goes, from small-town parades to the BCS National Championship Game, where his Tigers will play and where he, no longer inmate 03128-095, will get to see it live. Listen to the crowd if E.W.E. finds his way onto the Superdome Jumbotron. Look at the expression on his face when he hears it.

In his kitchen, Edwards and I finished our conversation about football and I began my good-byes. I mentioned that I’d be in touch with Trina. Edwin wheeled around, and I’m almost certain he was kidding.

“I don’t want you talking to my wife by phone, by smoke signal, or by Facebook,” he said in that Cajun drawl. “Get out.”

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.


Previously from Wright Thompson:
The Best Pizza in the South
On Whiskey and Grease: A Yoknapatawpha Wake
Four Nights at Elaine’s: The Last Will and Testament of a Great Saloon
The hunchback and the lost art of the Birmingham dog

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Filed Under: General topics, Politics

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