Former Louisiana governor (and congressman) Buddy Roemer has died at the age of 77, making him the third Pelican State ex-governor (including Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco) who has died in the past two years. Foster was 90 and Blanco was 76, so aside from the fact that every death is tragic and untimely in its own way, these passages weren’t that unusual. But it does leave Louisiana with an interesting duo of surviving ex-governors, representing both major parties and a wide range of human experience.
Edwin Edwards, 93, served an impressive four nonconsecutive terms as the state’s chief executive (1972–1980, 1984–1988, and 1992–1996), along with seven years in the U.S. House, ten years on the Crowley, Louisiana, city council, a year in the state Senate, and a hot minute (actually eight months) on the State Supreme Court. (He served an additional two years in a federal penitentiary to round out his tenure in public facilities, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
A classic Cajun, a liberal by southern standards, a shrewd purveyor of pork, and an all-around rascal, Edwards was pursued by scandal, personal and financial, his entire career, which is not necessarily a major handicap in Louisiana politics. In many respects, he courted the appearance of impropriety, saying in the midst of one campaign: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” He certainly never apologized for bringing home the bacon or building a political machine, as this episode indicates:
In his first year in office, Edwards appointed his wife Elaine Edwards, also a native of Avoyelles Parish, to complete the Senate term of the deceased Allen J. Ellender. Mrs. Edwards served from August–November 1972, and during that time, the small town of Crowley boasted the governor, a U.S. Senator, and a U.S. Representative (former Edwards aide John Breaux), who all lived within a few blocks of each other.
Breaux, of course, was a sort of junior rascal, who went on to serve three terms in the U.S. Senate, where he was a famed wheeler-dealer.
The most famous of Edwards’s many campaigns occurred in 1991, when he defeated former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard David Duke in a gubernatorial runoff, after what was widely called “the race from Hell.” The threat Duke posed to the state’s image was nicely summed up by a popular pro-Edwards bumper sticker: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important!” At another point in the campaign, Edwards said of his opponent: “The only thing we have in common is we’re both wizards under the sheets.” He won by a near-landslide after a close, tense race that attracted global attention.
Eventually Edwards’s flirtation with scandal caught up with him, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune recorded later:
Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, the most influential Louisiana politician of the second half of the 20th century – and one of the most colorful – was found guilty on May 9, 2000, of extorting nearly $3 million from companies that applied for casino licenses during his last term in office. He was convicted on 17 counts of racketeering, mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering. Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison and served eight, followed by six months in home detention and three years of probation.
For a while there, both Edwards and Duke were incarcerated at the same time, but at different penitentiaries (Duke was popped for tax and mail fraud). Edwards ran for office — Congress, in fact — one more time after doing his time, but lost in a 2014 runoff.
The other living Louisiana ex-governor is a very, very different animal. Piyush “Bobby” Jindal is a second-generation Indian-American who was an all-around wonder boy, until his first unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2003. He was a Rhodes scholar, a congressional staffer, and a McKinsey & Company consultant known as a health-care wonk, which led to his appointment by Louisiana governor Mike Foster to run the state Medicaid program at the age of 24. He followed that up by becoming president of the University of Louisiana system (comprising campuses with 80,000 students) at 28. Jindal accepted a sub-Cabinet post at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush in 2001, and went back home to run for governor, losing to Democrat Kathleen Blanco.
After this setback at the ripe old age of 32, Jindal ran successfully for Congress, and was a rising star in the House, until it was time to vindicate his gubernatorial loss in 2007. He was reelected easily in 2011, but by most accounts, he ruined his second term by turning Louisiana into an experiment station for right-wing fiscal and social policies as he prepared for a 2016 presidential bid. His approval ratings were terrible as he left office (20 percent, according to one leading poll), and then it all proved for naught as the wonder boy’s presidential campaign was a rolling disaster that ended ten weeks before the first vote was cast. Jindal managed to turn defeat into political suicide by launching a savage and completely ineffectual attack on eventual GOP nominee Donald Trump, calling the soon-to-be Maximum Leader of his party an “egomaniacal madman” and, worse, “insecure and weak.” The smartest guy in every room he had ever entered outsmarted himself decisively, and disqualified himself from any Trump administration role. He’s still in political limbo at best, probably most remembered nationally for a woofer of a 2009 State of the Union response, in which he characteristically talked down to his audience and came across as having zero authenticity.
The amazing thing about Bobby Jindal is that this veteran has-been is still only 49 years old. That makes him 44 years younger than his fellow living ex-governor, the ex-con Edwin Edwards. Together they governed their state for 24 years, with an additional decade in Congress.
Edwards and Jindal are a fine matched set of Louisiana pols as native as a big pot of nutria stew. The place jocularly known per the unique local accent as the Gret Stet of Loosiana may be poor in many respects, but it is rich in political eccentricity.