When Edwin Washington Edwards, the soon-to-be-87-year-old four-time governor of Louisiana (1972–80, 1984–88, and 1992–96) was sent to federal prison in 2002 following his conviction on a variety of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, and fraud charges including accepting $400,000 from the then-owner of the San Francisco 49ers to secure a riverboat gambling license, it seemed as if one of the most outrageous political careers in a state known for outrageous politicians had come to an end. Edwards, a.k.a. EWE, the Cajun Prince, the Silver Fox (for his gleaming locks), the Silver Zipper (for his roving eye), the Lizard, and several other a.k.a.’s, was already 75 years old and rumored to be not in the best of health. It was even money that the Zipper, who for years ran a weekly high-stakes poker game at the governor’s mansion, would draw his last breath behind bars.
“Many thought I would be dead, more thought I should be dead,” Edwards said in his featherlight, unhurried Cajun inflection as we sat in a Ford pickup truck heading for Zachary, north of Baton Rouge. Far from deceased, Edwards, born in the iconic flood year of 1927, when the Mississippi River swelled to 100 miles wide, looked as if he’d just stepped off a private charter from Vegas. His eight-and-a-half-year sabbatical in the slammer appeared to have turned back the clock. He seemed a subtropical Dorian Gray, slimmer and trimmer, still sharp as a tack, never once sweating through his green Ralph Lauren Polo shirt in the 95-degree heat.
The kicker came a few months ago: Proclaiming “I know my Creator is not done with me yet,” Edwards announced his intention to seek the congressional seat in Louisiana’s Sixth District, a mule-collar-shaped realm that runs from the Baton Rouge suburbs in the south to the coonass (the preferred self-identifier of some Cajuns) precincts of Terrebonne Parish. There was a symmetry to the plan, since if Edwards won, he’d return to Congress exactly 50 years after first being elected to the House in 1965.
Truth be told, though, Edwards would have rather been running for governor. Even as he quietly toiled as the Oakdale-prison librarian, he was plotting ways to beat Bobby Jindal, the parsimonious Punjabi-descended ardent Christian temporarily occupying the spectacular 34-story Art Deco statehouse built in 1932 by Huey P. Long, the Kingfish, the most famous of all Louisiana politicians. Even while feeding slops to his father’s pigs near the small town of Marksville in Avoyelles Parish, Edwards was completely convinced he’d become governor. “I never had any doubt about it. I just felt it,” Edwards told me.
But a fifth term was not in the cards. In Louisiana, a felon cannot seek statewide office within 15 years of his release, which barred EWE until age 99, a reach, even for him. Edwards had never quite fit in Washington his first time around, often showing up to staid functions in a sharkskin suit, but with an open seat in the Sixth, Congress was the right, and only, play.
With me, the people know the butter might be rancid, but it’s going to be spread on their side of the bread,” said Edwards, explaining why he’d be good for the job. It was comments like this, which EWE rips off every 40 seconds or so, that proved that the Silver Fox, thinning hair and all, was back. That’s because down here, where politics often has been known to compete in hysteria with LSU Tigers football, winning requires a little “lagniappe,” which means “something extra.” On this account, Edwards might not recall Huey Long’s flawed Shakespearean soar or possess the bonkers flair for melodrama of Long’s brother Earl, committed to the loony bin by his wife after carrying on with stripper Blaze Starr. EWE won’t even sing “You Are My Sunshine” at his 100th-birthday party like the song’s credited composer, Governor Jimmie Davis, did. However, no Louisiana pol has ever matched Edwards for the roguish, self-deprecating brag, the quick aside, the highly calibrated verbal thud to the pit of the stomach.
Everyone has a favorite Edwards one-liner. In the 1983 governor’s race, EWE warmed up by saying his opponent, Dave Treen, was “so slow” that it took him “an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.” Then he launched the all-time haymaker, declaring that “the only way I could lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” Personally, I am partial to the statement made during the cataclysmic 1991 race, which pitted the much-indicted Edwards against former neo-Nazi and Klan leader David Duke, running nominally as a Republican. In what was billed as a struggle for the state’s soul (the famous bumper sticker VOTE FOR THE CROOK—IT’S IMPORTANT summed up the issues), the Silver Zipper came through. “Mr. Duke and I do not agree on many issues,” Edwards said. “But we do have one thing in common: We’re both wizards under the sheets.”