Matching wits with Edwin W. Edwards was like gambling against the house. I always lost.
During one of his endless press conferences promoting gambling in Louisiana, Edwards had latched on to jai alai, the South Florida gambling sport. As the Louisiana Constitution says that the Legislature shall define and suppress gambling, I cheekily asked Edwards what would be left to suppress.
“Freedom of the press,” he acidly replied.
Restrictions of space prohibit the many other examples of Edwards’ wit, often at my expense, and oft-remembered at his death at 93. What is forgotten is that EWE was not always the merry minstrel of political journalism. Meanness and raised voices against reporters were also features of the Edwin meetings with the press corps, whom he perceived as his enemies.
As, in various years, a reporter and an activist for good-government Republican candidates against Edwards, maybe he had a point with me. But his life was always a lesson in pragmatism: He lightly put aside old hatreds in favor of periodic alliances.
As editor of a Shreveport magazine, competing with the dominant and anti-Edwards Shreveport Times, I found Edwards plopped beside me at an event, to ask about a reported editorial shake-up at the Times. The newspaper gossip delighted him.
The enemy of his enemy was his friend, often.
Edwards was a cold man but he turned on the charm with a facility that Donald J. Trump cannot exceed. His antagonisms were not less than those of the former president, but he more shrewdly did not allow them to consume him.
Edwards played the rogue with dash, but he was a thorough rogue: Profoundly self-interested, at his center was his own power and success, in proportions even exceeding ordinary politicians.
In that way, in a parallel that the last living ex-governor will not appreciate, he was like Bobby Jindal.
Not in the way of personal dishonesty, nor in obsession with national politics.
In the former case, dishonesty was something that Edwards honed to a fine art. The image from Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary of Richard M. Nixon comes to mind, that he was so crooked he should be screwed into the ground.
And EWE was burned in national politics, mocked as a Cajun sharpster in the national press when there was talk in the 1970s of him as a potential vice president on a Democratic ticket.
Jindal was obsessed with national politics — former aides diplomatically put it as “lost focus” in the Republican’s second term — and its distortions of his role in Louisiana ultimately hurt him in his home state, as well as dogging him during a failed bid for the 2016 GOP nomination.
Edwards’ self-interest also took away from governance, as did Jindal's. Jindal was the opposite of EWE in so many ways, including the former’s Ivy League education, but they had in common a penetrating intelligence. They could dispatch so much business in so little time that their attentions diverted elsewhere would often not be noticed.
For Edwards, sheer ability was a Godsend. With rare exceptions — the late Camille F. Gravel was one — the EWE administrations tended to be filled with technicians, second-raters and yes-men. If the Boss had the bandwidth for the business of the administration, he did not need bright — or independent — people around him. Certainly not overly ethical ones.
His aides carried out instructions, “Just Takin’ Orders,” as the late Clyde Vidrine entitled his malicious tell-all book about his former boss.
The politicians respected his acumen. Those who lunched or phoned with him during Edwards’ retirement included current Gov. John Bel Edwards and a GOP opponent, Garret Graves, who holds the distinction of beating EWE in his last campaign, for Congress in 2014.
The current governor is no family relation but a political one: His late father, sheriff in Tangipahoa Parish, was an Edwards ally. For many governors, keeping Edwin at a safe distance might have seemed an easy decision. John Bel Edwards did the opposite, giving the older man a public stage and appearing with him.
But if the hagiography of the Edwards years marks his departure from this world’s den of thieves, will there be a lavish public funeral and too much association of the new Edwards with the old? Might be risky, governor.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.