You can wear out your heart on the thin roads of southwest Louisiana amid the palmetto groves and the silvered shacks and the empty poverty of all the dying little towns.
I used to live in one of those towns not far from a place called Crowley that lies in the sweltering flatlands beneath I-10, a fading city of low two- and three-story brick buildings that lead down Parkerson Avenue to the square built around the old WPA courthouse. When I was last there, nearly 40 years ago, the jail was in the basement.
I had to go down there one summer day to get the names of two kids who had climbed a water tower just across the parish line from where I worked. They sprayed political- sounding graffiti and announced their intention to jump into martyrdom for the People's Liberation Cadre or some such nonsense.
As it turned out, there wasn't much of a story in those boys. They were bored, had a few beers, and decided to liven up their little corner of the world. Their slick lawyer cut a deal that called for the charges against them to be dropped after they agreed to paint over their handiwork and pick up some trash.
The lawyer, Nolan Edwards, was a small, tidy man with silver hair and a soft Cajun accent that seemed both tamed and affected. Exuding a dandified flash and crazy confidence in his storefront office, he nearly mesmerized me; something one degree removed from greatness hummed in his genes. I felt the same way when I met his brother, the governor of Louisiana.
Crowley was where Edwin Edwards got his start, a place between one-horse Marksville where he was born and Baton Rouge, where he established his fiefdom. It was in Crowley where Edwin Edwards started his law practice, where he first won election (to the city council) and where in 1959 he showed the senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, around town.
In 1964, Edwards was elected to the state Senate, and in 1965, following the death of the incumbent, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
He was elected governor in 1971 and 1975; state law prevented him from serving three consecutive terms. In 1983, Edwards made his famous pronouncement that unless he was caught in bed with "a dead girl or a live boy," the office was his again. He won in a landslide, but the 1983 campaign was costly to Edwards; it took some of the sauce out of him.
I voted for him in that election, not because I thought he was a better man than the incumbent, the good gray Republican Dave Treen. During the height of the campaign, Nolan Edwards was murdered by a former client, a convicted drug dealer. After shooting Nolan, he turned his pistol on himself. The irony was that the gunman had been released from prison only after receiving a pardon from Edwin in 1979. The career went on, but the hayride stopped.
I have always been subject to sentimentality when it comes to Edwin Edwards.
He was intelligent and funny, and best of all, "colorful." He was a crook and a philanderer and a convicted felon. He could have been a better governor. Now he belongs to the ages.
We went back a ways, the governor and me. I suspected a girl I briefly dated in college of going out with him. She wouldn't confirm or deny the rumors; the roses came unsigned. Years later I asked him point-blank. He didn't blink: "Oh, I remember her, how's she's getting on?"
Even if you believe every naughty story you've ever heard about Bill Clinton, there's no question that Edwards--the old Silver Zipper--had him outclassed as a womanizer. Another friend spent some time with him, but purely in a professional capacity. She smiled when she called him "incorrigible."
Somehow I seem to remember a night in Lake Charles, in the company of Edwards and a U.S. senator whose name I will redact and some other reporters. We were all off duty in some little bar that had a video game machine called Sex Trivia. Edwards and the senator were playing that game and Edwards was winning handily; partly because, we all believed, the senator was missing all the questions that had to do with gay and lesbian sex on purpose.
"How am I supposed to know about that?" he'd say, throwing up his hands.
"You're not fooling anybody, [Redacted]," Edwards said. "You're only drawing attention to your own embarrassment."
Edwin Edwards was always beyond embarrassment. You could not shame him into behaving conventionally. He likely believed he was more honest than most of us, that he simply saw the board better than most players, and that he had neither the time nor the taste for observing conventional hypocrises. The point of holding office was to obtain power so you could do good for the people--and for yourself and your friends.
Edwards was a spoils man; he never pretended otherwise. It wasn't illegal for him to receive those campaign contributions, it was illegal for them to give them. Wink.
This attitude got him in trouble, and Edwards handled trouble with style. I remember going to New Orleans while he was on trial to soak up the circus throb and sit with The New York Times' Dudley Clendinen while Edwards' former bodyguard and co-defendant Clyde Vidrine tended bar. These were my days off. I wasn't covering the trial. I was entertaining myself.
Rascal, rogue, scoundrel--these are the kinds of words columnists resorted to when they wrote about Edwards. This old-timey language felt accurate, and tended to mitigate, by dint of its cute archaism, the gravity of Edward's misconduct.
It was as though Edwards was a particularly precious endangered species whose quaint behaviors ought to be tolerated in the name of science. We were all suckers for his charm, his bon mot affability, the way he affected the unearned intimacy of the confidence man. He was always more dashing than his plodding federal pursuers--always smarter.
Well, not always. Good gamblers can sense their luck leaching away. They know when to fold their hands, push back from the table and say, "Boys, it's getting late."
Edwards pushed his luck, and went to prison. He should have. He was a real criminal, not a lovable scamp. He betrayed his gifts, squandered his chance for genuine greatness.
But he was good copy. And so he will be missed.
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