Former Gov. Dave Treen, Louisiana’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction and one of the few true gentlemen in Louisiana politics, has died at the age of 81.
- Treen was an ardent, lifelong conservative who nonetheless appointed more African-Americans to state offices than any other governor in history during his single term as Louisiana’s chief executive (1980-84). He often ranked that among his proudest moments as governor.
- In his younger days, Treen was a member of the States Rights Party, which fought racial integration in the 1950s and early 1960s. He ran for Congress several times as a Republican against the late Hale Boggs in the mid-to-late 1960s, and once very nearly unseated the iconic southern liberal. Later, in 1972, he won election to Congress from Louisiana’s Third District, becoming the first Republican congressman from Louisiana since Reconstruction. He served in Congress until his election as governor.
- Treen defeated a handful of Democrats in the statewide election of 1979 — the first under Louisiana’s then-new “open primary” electoral system. Ironically, that system was devised by Treen’s longtime political nemesis, Edwin W. Edwards. Four years after Treen was elected governor, EWE came back for a third term as governor, routing Treen by a vote of 62 percent to Treen’s 36 percent in the 1983 primary. Minor candidates got 2 percent of the vote.
- It was during that 1983 campaign that Edwards uttered some of his most memorable quotes, almost all of them as taunts aimed at the quieter, professorial Treen. Among the most oft quoted was EWE’s jab at Treen’s reputation for taking a long time to make decisions, saying that the GOP incumbent was so slow that “it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.” Another was The Silver Zipper’s boast that the only way he could lose to Treen was if he were caught in bed “with a dead woman or a live boy.”
- I remember another of EWE's taunts that is less often quoted. At his announcement in the spring of 1983, Edwards blistered Treen for the economic woes that had befallen the state in the early 1980s (which were the result of the worldwide drop in oil prices, not because of anything Treen had done). Noting that Treen’s campaign would make an issue of EWE’s alleged dishonesty (which, of course, time and the feds have validated), Edwards quipped: “He keeps talking about me as if I’m going to steal something. … If we don’t get him outta there soon, there won’t be anything left to steal!” Edwards’ words proved to be more prophetic than he ever imagined.
- Treen clearly had a change of heart about racial issues after his early days in the States Rights Party. His record of appointing blacks to major state offices bears witness to that. His policies as governor and his actions after serving as governor likewise paint a picture of Treen as an honest, gentle soul who believed in the Christian ethic of forgiveness. The obvious example of the latter was Treen’s tireless efforts to get EWE released from jail early via a presidential pardon. Friends often asked why he would work so hard to free a man who had caused him so much pain. He told one of them, “Because every night I say the Lord’s Prayer, and when I say the words, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ I would feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t forgive Edwin.”
- Dave Treen may have lost his biggest political campaign to Edwin Edwards, but in the race that really counts, he was much the better man.