With an invitation to the big White House state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron and some flattering national profiles to his credit, there’s no question that Gov. John Bel Edwards is making a name for himself out there in the larger political world.
Just in case all that has gone to his head, he got a recent reminder back home that he’s not the only Gov. Edwards — and in fact, in some settings, he isn’t even the most sought-after one.
One of those venues was last week’s roast of John Bel Edwards as part of a fundraiser for Delgado Community College in New Orleans. The current governor was the nominal star of the show, but with Edwin Edwards as one of the designated roasters, the 90-year-old repeatedly elected, thrice-married and once imprisoned former governor was the main draw.
Chalk it up to Edwin Edwards’ colorful life, his even more colorful humor and a lot of Louisianans’ remarkable lingering affection for a man who was repeatedly accused and finally convicted of corruption. New Orleanians may avoid talking about former Mayor Ray Nagin, who is still serving his own prison term, but Edwin Edwards has settled into a strange place as an embarrassing-yet-beloved remnant of the days when Louisianans were far more willing to look the other way. Just how is an earnest straight-arrow military man still married to his childhood sweetheart supposed to compete?
Indeed, throughout the event Friday night at Harrah’s Casino, it was sometimes hard to remember which Edwards was supposed to be on the hot seat.
Some jokes did double duty. House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III said that both governors pursued criminal justice reform, adding that “one decided to work from the outside, the other decided to work from the inside.”
But in many cases, Edwin Edwards just provided better raw material.
Take 40-year-old former state Rep. Helena Moreno’s reassurance to the former governor’s third wife: “I know you all see him looking at me. Don’t worry Trina, I’m too old for him.”
And take the decidedly politically incorrect payoff when it was Edwin Edwards’ turn to speak: “Miss Helena, you are too old for me. I’m not too old for you.”
The licks John Bel Edwards took were pretty mild by comparison. There were repeated quips about the chicken coop the Amite native installed on the Governor’s Mansion grounds, which was one sign in a long list from longtime Clerk of Civil District Court and even longer time New Orleanian Dale Atkins that “you must be a redneck.”
There were multiple references to the Democratic governor’s struggles to get the Republican-majority Legislature to approve his more progressive ideas. John Bel Edwards’ fitting response: “They make fun of me not being able to get my bills passed, but these are my damn floor leaders.”
Leger, whose loss in the election for House Speaker despite John Bel Edwards’ backing marked the first sign of the relationship to come, came in for particular ribbing.
“Speaking of Walt. No, not Speaker Walt,” the governor said. The man who won the speaker race, mild-mannered Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, escaped ridicule, which was mostly aimed at Edwards’ more active antagonists, Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry and Republican Caucus Chair Lance Harris.
Actually, in the tradition of the other Gov. Edwards, John Bel Edwards gave as well as he got.
He started his response by riffing on his habitual boosterism. “I just want to start by saying how optimistic I am about Louisiana,” he began, before interrupting himself by pretending to realize he was reading the wrong speech. “It’s true,” he couldn’t help but add.
He ribbed Moreno for leaving the House for a seat on the New Orleans City Council but quipped that he’s having his executive counsel look into whether he can call the City Council into special session.
His best material too aimed squarely at Edwin Edwards. He said the young servers at the event had asked the older Gov. Edwards for help mixing drinks, because they’d heard he’d spent time “behind bars.” He waxed about taking part in New Orleans tricentennial, adding that “Edwin calls it middle age.”
Edwin Edwards, meanwhile, mockingly criticized the organizers for making him the evening’s big finish. “When you’re fooling with a 90-year-old,” he said, “You put him first, not last.”