By Joe Darby
He was elected governor of our fair state four times, more than any other person in Louisiana history.
I only voted for him one of those times, when he ran against David Duke in 1991. Faced with the choice, as we said at the time, of voting for the “crook” or the Nazi, I of course opted for the “crook.”
I was never a great fan of the governor, although many thousands of Louisianians loved him, feeling instinctively that, in spite of whatever behind-the-scenes peccadillos he may or may not have been guilty of, he was a friend of the regular folks, the everyday guy and gal.
After several failures, the federal government finally convicted him of racketeering charges in 2001 and he was sent to federal prison for 10 years. He was released slightly early and is now the state’s most famous elder statesman.
Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards visited the Northwestern State University campus Monday afternoon, April 24, to lecture to a business class, which was opened to the public. Edwards will be 90 years old in August, but is still mentally sharp as a tack. He looks good, too, with his appearance belying the fact that he is almost a nonagenarian. He was interrupted a few times with a troubling cough, but appeared remarkably healthy otherwise. He has battled pneumonia in recent years.
Addressing the college students as well as visiting older adults, the former chief executive expressed his opinions on subjects ranging from global warming to the state of national and Louisiana politics today.
Early on, he revealed what I think many political buffs like myself were not aware of. In the runoff in his first gubernatorial race in 1971, he faced a tough challenger, State Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Shreveport. Edwards said Natchitoches was instrumental in the turning point of the campaign.
Both Edwards and Johnston took part in that year’s Christmas Parade. “While he rode in an open car, waving to the crowd, I walked the entire three miles of the parade, shaking hands with everyone,” he told the class.
As a French Catholic from South Louisiana, many had told him he had no chance in North Louisiana, he said, but his person-to-person contacts made in Natchitoches may have turned the race up here around.
In a question and answer session, I asked him if his most enjoyable race was the one against Duke, a former American Nazi and a state Ku Klux Klan leader.
He responded by repeating one of everybody’s favorite Edwin Edwards stories. He said he was in a vicious televised debate with Duke when a reporter asked him if there were any similarities at all between the two men. “I said, well, we’re both wizards under sheets,” creating loud guffaws of laughter among the audience. The governor never did try to hide his attraction to the ladies, nor theirs for him.
Edwards also made some self-deprecating jokes about his age and his time spent in federal prison, but he had his serious moments as well.
He called upon the students in the audience to appreciate their education and to use it wisely. “Remember the first names of every (student) in this room,” he advised, “because you are going to be the leaders of this state before too much longer.”
He expressed concern about North Korea’s unpredictable threats, global warming and the partisanship of national as well as state politics. While he expressed doubts about some of President Donald Trump’s policies, Edwards said he is glad that the President has approved the Keystone Oil Pipeline and will deregulate offshore oil drilling. Both actions should help the Louisiana economy, he said.
He said that he is proud that while in prison, he helped several inmates to obtain their GED’s, which should help them to a better life when they were released.
The best thing that came out of his confinement time, he said, was his new family. An attractive woman 51 years his junior, Trina Scott, began writing him and visiting him in prison and after his release they were married. Out of that union, he said, came his 3-year-old son, Eli. He said Eli may be running for governor in 2044 and he asked those who will still be alive then, to give consideration for voting for his son.
He said he didn’t want to burden Eli with his father’s name, but he wanted the lad to have the same initials. “So we named him Ely Wallace Edwards, EWE.”
The former governor also said people often ask him if he is related to Gov. John Bel Edwards. “We’re not related,” he said, “but I told the governor that if someone who doesn’t like me asks him about it, tell them we’re not related. If someone who likes me asks you, tell them we’re first cousins.”
At the end, the former governor received a standing ovation from the audience, having once again shown the fabled Edwards charm. After all, a 2011 poll showed that almost one in three Louisianians considered him the best governor since 1980. Not too bad, huh?