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Edwin Edwards Will Live Forever

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Edwards began to talk about Bobby Jindal. Jindal was all over, in New Hampshire and Iowa, “everywhere but Louisiana,” in hopes of landing on the ass end of the 2016 Republican national ticket, Edwards declared.

“Everyone thinks I’m running for Congress because I’m vain or addicted to the action. That might be true. I am addicted to the action. People say, ‘Relax. You don’t need this.’ I tell them I do. I do. But I’m also running because I don’t like the way things are going. This divisiveness really could tear the country apart.”

Edwards explained that pols like Jindal sell themselves as “good government” in that they’re the favorites of the rich and well-brought-up. They are supposed to be above corruption. But was that really true? Declaring himself an advocate of “pretty good government,” Edwards said, “I’m the shady politician, right? But what happens when Jindal turns down billions of federal money for Medicaid­ to help people in need, a program that could mean as much as 17,000 jobs!—just because he doesn’t want to be seen as taking anything from Obama which is going to hurt him with the right-wingers? Who’s the self-serving one then? Is that good government?

“I’m shocked by the level of hardheartedness I see now,” Edwards continued. “I grew up with Depression conditions. I remember the day the man in the government truck pulled up and brought electricity to our area. My father was a sharecropper. My mother was a midwife; she delivered babies by gas lamp. Now she had electricity. It changed our lives. That’s what brought me to public service, because I saw what government could do for people. The government is there to give people a leg up, to pay for the schools of the dispossessed, to get you through the dark nights.”

This was Huey talk, the echo of old-time populism, one more still-roiling ghost of the Louisiana past. How many Occupy Wall Streeters knew they were channeling Huey Long’s share-the-wealth rhetoric—right down to the 99 percent—as they hunkered down in Zuccotti Park? The Zipper, the self-declared “last of the great populists,” may have been an imperfect vessel to deliver this message, but it was nonetheless a tonic to hear it.

Did Edwards really plan on talking about wealth inequality in the campaign and making a big deal out of Jindal’s recent attempt to scuttle a lawsuit aimed at making the oil companies pay for damage to the Louisiana wetlands?

“Why not?” he shot back. “That’s what I believe in.” That was the worst thing about Katrina for him, EWE said, “being unfairly locked up, watching people drowning, not being able to do anything about it. I would have been out there in a boat, trying to save someone, no matter what the Bush people said.” He added, “I feel I can bring a bit of that helping spirit.” He even sounded sincere about it.

The morning after Eric Cantor lost, I suggested to EWE, never a Bible Belt favorite, that he should convert to Judaism. His favorite comics were Shecky Greene and Don Rickles, yet still he had an alarmingly large cache of Jewish jokes. ­If he won and converted, this would keep the number of Jews in Congress steady. “Could take you up on that,” Edwards said breezily. “But it is hard to replace someone like Eric Cantor. I could never be that big an asshole.”

Accompanied by Trina and Eli, Edwards had driven into New Orleans to appear on WBOK-AM, a black-oriented station with a powerful signal. African-Americans made up about 22 percent of the vote in the Sixth; Edwards was going to need it all.

Back to his Congress days, when he was one of only a very few southern members to vote for extending the Voting Rights Act, Edwards always ran strongly with ­African- Americans, a crucial state voting block. As governor, he often appointed blacks to high positions. The David Duke victory really put him over the top. With Duke carrying the majority of the white vote, Edwards said, “Tonight Louisiana has won, but if the next merchant of bigotry is free of the apparent vulgar signs of the KKK and the swastika, will the people simply reject it as we have done? Or will our nation accept again the stereotype of the welfare queen? Does Willie Horton live on?”

At WBOK, Edwards sat with the Reverend W.L.T. Littleton, pastor of the Greater Morning Star Baptist Church in Algiers, who in honor of the occasion was wearing a tie EWE had given him 20 years earlier. The switchboard lit up, calls came in. This wasn’t a forum where Edwards was going to take any heat about being behind bars. Louisiana incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than any other state in the union, a wildly disproportionate number of them African-American. Caller after caller phoned in to thank Edwards for all he’d done for “us.”


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