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Edwin Edwards Will Live Forever


The Reverend Littleton might have gotten a little carried away when he compared Edwards to Nelson Mandela owing to how “clear-eyed” he’d come out of prison ready to help “the people,” but the pastor had booked a table for lunch at the faux-18th-century Le Pavillon Hotel on Poydras Street, so we drove over in Edwards’s Escalade. As Trina held Eli in the backseat, Edwards spoke about his major campaign proposal, the construction of a high-speed-rail link between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It was one of those giant old-school high-patronage public-works projects not unlike the Superdome, which we happened to be passing at that moment. Edwards’s predecessor Big John ­McKeithen (1964–72) came up with the plan, budgeting it at a ridiculously low $35 million. When the place finally opened in 1975, after three years on EWE’s watch, the cost was an equally ridiculous $163 million. Certainly the rail link would be expensive, Edwards said, but it was the only way to solve Louisiana’s energy crisis and reduce traffic.

“I don’t expect to see it finished in my lifetime. But my wife and son will,” he said, pausing to look back at Eli asleep on Trina’s shoulder. It is hard to know what Edwards and Trina thought they were getting into when they decided to marry. Wags suggest a transactional relation: Edwards would be in the Trina-starring reality show if she stood beside him looking good during the campaign. This could be, but you often see them staring helplessly into each other’s eyes.

This whole campaign was about the future, EWE declared, making the world a slightly better place. Again he mentioned his days as a boy preacher back in Avoyelles, when at age 14 he left the nominal Catholicism of his mother to become an Evangelist traveling the countryside to tent revivals. It didn’t last long, and Edwards soon returned to the Church. Nonetheless, the experience had a large effect on his thinking. “It was difficult for me to talk about Jesus as this perfect being. Everyone I knew, myself included, was so lacking in perfection. We were just people. That’s when I knew my real calling: to deal with the real, not the ideal.” If it was easy to believe in Heaven and Hell at 14, now Edwards couldn’t be sure. “I don’t know what will happen to me. I’ve been fortunate, but I’ve also had a lot of undeserved bad luck. I went to jail. My son went to jail. I had a brother murdered.”

In 1983, EWE’s younger brother Nolan, a lawyer in Acadia Parish, was shot dead in his office by a disgruntled client, a man Edwards had pardoned only a few years earlier. He also spoke of how, during the riverboat casino trial, the Feds offered to drop the charges against his son Stephen, if EWE would plead guilty.

Edwards recounted: “Stephen said, ‘If you do that, I’ll put a gun to my head.’ So we both went to jail.”

These were wrenching events, but Edwards spoke of them in a clinical manner. “I know my reputation,” he said. “But I am a very stoic person. Prison was like that line from the ‘Ancient Mariner’: ‘a painted ship upon a painted ocean.’ A lot of silence. The ability to remain calm no matter the hand I’m dealt. That’s how I’ve succeeded.”

This reminded me of a conversation I’d had the day before with Gus Weill. Now 82, Weill is the recognized dean of Louisiana consultants, teacher of people like Carville, campaign manager for Jimmie Davis, John McKeithen, and EWE himself. “There is an uncanniness to Edwards. These things he’s done, even being in jail, he acts like they never happened. So we think, If prison hasn’t broken him, if God hasn’t made him frail, then who are we to judge him? ” There was political brilliance to it, Weill said. Asked if it could also be interpreted as a sign of mass reciprocal sociopathy between candidate and electorate, Weill said, “You pick.”

I brought this up with Edwards. “Sociopathy?” he said. “If I’m deluded, I’m deluded. That’s me. I’m comfortable with it.”

After a pleasant lunch at Le Pavillon, it was time to get Eli back home, Trina said. And so they strode along Le Pavillon’s thickly carpeted hallway, past a towering pair of bronze cherubs: Trina, fab in a black top and snug jeans, EWE bouncing Eli in his arms, giving his son a bottle. Several diners in the nearby bar turned to wave. The women smiled, and the men looked longingly. The Cajun Prince nodded and kept walking. The scene could have taken place at Versailles, in the Hall of Mirrors, 300 years ago. Or sometime in the not so distant future, with New Orleans under 20 feet of water. EWE would still be smiling to the crowd, persuading someone, a school of dolphins perhaps, to vote for him.


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