Long Shot

"Long Shot: A Soldier, A Senator, A Serious Sin, An Epic Louisiana Election" by Tyler Bridges and Jeremy Alford, Lisburn Press, $26.95

With the Democratic Party at is lowest ebb in Louisiana and the nation for almost a century, the contrarian tale of long-shot Democratic winner John Bel Edwards is irresistible for the party faithful, but it’s a good read for anyone seeking an insightful look into how the game is played in the most idiosyncratic state of the union.

Two of the state’s best political writers — Jeremy Alford, editor of LaPolitics.com, and Tyler Bridges, who covers politics for The Advocate and others — engagingly profile the small-town lawyer who came from nowhere to seize the Governor’s Mansion from the Republicans in 2015.

The State Capitol, despite external trappings of democracy, is still ruled more as the Governor’s Versailles than anything else. This book is required reading for understanding Louisiana politics during this term and what looks like a donnybrook in 2019 when Edwards seeks re-election.

The governor comes from a political family of Tangipahoa Parish, but, even after two terms in the state House, he was a governor relatively little known to the political crowd compared with his predecessors. This book tells a lot about how Edwards thinks, where he comes from and how he inspires loyalty among his own but also considerable personal regard even among those critical of some of his policies.

If Edwards is the protagonist, and the authors had ready access to him and his staff — winners are always glad to demonstrate their brilliance — his antagonist, David Vitter, is also central to the subtitle, “A Soldier, A Senator, A Serious Sin, An Epic Louisiana Election.”

In each case, the stories behind the phrases illustrate how the senator’s sin — he never confessed to seeing prostitutes, but his phone number was in the infamous “D.C. Madam” list — played poorly against Edwards’ image combining Andy Griffith and Atticus Finch, with a dash of Sergeant York thrown in with his Army Ranger credentials.

None of this should have mattered in deeply Republican Louisiana, but it somehow did, and the cast of characters lives up to James Carville’s comment: “Every state has its share of political shenanigans, crooks and liars, but ours have elevated hijinks to an art form.”

Vitter’s aides spoke freely to the authors, but the senator, now stepping down from elected office, did not do so. In the book, his unraveling is an interesting story, for Edwards was a relatively minor officeholder and Vitter was architect of the new GOP order over the past decade, intensely focused, having never lost a race.

It will be an enduring mystery why voters in 2010 absolved Vitter of his serious sin but turned on him in 2015 in part for that very reason. Edwards read the race as about character and assumed that a senator goes off to Washington while a governor is more vital to voters’ lives. “As long as we make character the issue, we will win,” Edwards pollster Jim Kitchens told his candidate.

How it worked out is a political who-dun-it, or more correctly who-dun-it-to-whom, as Vitter's attacks on fellow Republicans — a violation of Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment against party fratricide — helped in his undoing.

Along the way, the authors do not neglect the sometimes hilarious characters that swim upstream to Louisiana elections to spawn stories that you won't find in those 49 bland states. There's even an Edwin W. Edwards story about a coed in the old days that I hadn't heard.

Part of the interest for the general reader is that the authors' close description of the politicos, whether in private or public, is not possible for reasons of space and timeliness in the daily journalism both practice in their day jobs.