As Edwin Edwards prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday at a big blowout Saturday, he will have plenty of might-have-beens to contemplate.

Imagine, for instance, that he had remained a member of Congress for a few decades. He could then have joined the stampede to K Street and made a fortune peddling influence.

Instead, he returned to Louisiana in 1971 and got elected governor four times before setting himself up to make a fortune peddling influence in Baton Rouge.

The path neglected would have put him at the pinnacle of respectable society as an elder statesman enjoying his just deserts. The path taken put him in the federal pen. Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to equate selling favors with legal lobbying, but, shoot, it's Edwards's birthday, so let us allow that the moral difference is not that great.

Tickets at $250-a-head for Saturday's soiree sold out rapidly, but the Mrs. Grundys are shaking their heads.

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Not this newspaper columnist. Like everyone else who has dealt with Edwin Edwards over the years — save those he ripped off — I find him a most engaging fellow, but don't worry. I am not going to repeat any of those wisecracks you have heard quoted a hundred times. Happy birthday, Governor, is all you'll hear from me.

Certainly, the rest of the country will look askance if it appears that we not only tolerate political corruption but celebrate it. On the other hand, Edwin Edwards will be the cynosure Saturday night not because of his conviction, but in spite of it.

He was the dominant force in Louisiana for many more years than he spent in prison, and takes credit for a host of reforms. He ushered in a new state constitution, for instance, brought black people into government in unprecedented numbers, expanded and updated the Charity hospital system and significantly raised royalties from oil and gas.

Now that he is washed up politically, it is hard to see how throwing a party for him at the twilight of his life could be regarded as anything but recognition for a spectacular career.

He has, it is true, never been remorseful or apologetic about his crimes, and he sure isn't going to start now. Indeed, he appears by no means convinced that he did anything to be ashamed of, and has been at pains to point out that he was not found guilty of robbing the public purse.

His victims were all criminal themselves.

They were happy to bribe him on the understanding that he would pull strings and win them licenses to operate riverboat casinos. Eddie DeBartolo, then owner of the San Francisco 49ers, for instance, was relieved of $400,000 only to relinquish his license when the FBI moved in. It is unlikely that many tears were shed for DeBartolo as he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.

Edwards, however, retained plenty of well-wishers when he had done his time. According to one of the event sponsors, the Louisiana political historian par excellence, Jack McGuire, “many people admire and respect the way in which he accepted the sentence as well as the admirable and useful way that he served it, by assisting inmates to get their GEDs and other matters.”

But nobody is paying $250 to dine with a model prisoner. Neither will anyone be looking to buy his way into government's good graces, as would be the case were this a fundraiser. This occasion seems to be all about fun, and all present are likely to get their money's worth.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.

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