I remember the first time I met Edwin Edwards. He was the governor of Louisiana, and I was a young reporter at a newspaper in the central region of the state.
His eyes were as blue as I had heard they were, and his manner was as charming as I had heard it was. Coming out of an auditorium where he had just spoken to a group, Edwards listened closely as I asked a question about whatever controversy he was embroiled in at the moment. (This was sometime in 1977.)
As he answered my question, I took quick and careful notes, and silently congratulated myself for having caught him as he was leaving. But when I got back to the newsroom and sat down to write my story, I realized what other reporters before me already knew and what reporters who came after me would eventually realize: One of Edwards’ many well-honed political skills was his ability to answer journalists’ questions without actually saying anything significant.
The 93-year-old former governor died July 12 of respiratory failure. Married three times, he was the father of five children, the youngest of whom was 7 when Edwards passed. He accomplished many significant things while in office, including hiring historic numbers of women and minorities, enacting constitutional reform and changing the way the state taxed the oil and gas industry.
His accomplishments were overshadowed by his unrepentant womanizing, extravagant spending, gambling junkets and corruption; and yet somehow, some way, despite 10 years in federal prison for accepting bribes, he remained a mesmerizing political figure until the day he died.
It is a testament to several things, none of which reflects particularly well on human nature. In the same way some Americans will remain in former President Donald Trump’s thrall until the day he too crosses the bar, many Louisianians were captivated by Edwards’ charm, by the way he thumbed his nose at investigators and prosecutors, by his refusal to apologize for anything and by his ability to convince ordinary voters that he represented “the little guy.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Edwards exploited — and Trump exploits — people’s gullibility and their willingness to be distracted and amused by politicians’ exploits and calculatedly outrageous utterances.
Edwards’ famous zingers include “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy” (he won) and, regarding his opponent in the governor’s race, “David Treen is so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch ’60 Minutes.’” (He won that election, too).
In the same vein, Donald Trump may be most famous — or infamous — for his brash declaration that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” With no experience or track record in politics, he was elected president of the world’s most powerful country 10 months later.
This is nothing new. Over the years, voters routinely have let themselves be smitten by politicians who were more intent on serving themselves than the people who put them in office. About 60 years ago in Alabama, as James “Big Jim” Folsom was running for governor again, in a campaign appearance he brushed aside allegations of corruption by saying, “I plead guilty to stealing. That crowd I got it from, you had to steal it to get it. … I stole for you, and you, and you.”
Folsom lost that election, but it was less because of that assertion and more because of a TV appearance in which he appeared to be very drunk. Otherwise, “I stole for you, and you, and you” might well have taken him back to the governor’s mansion.
Voters can be that gullible and that willingly, unashamedly blind.
More than 30 years ago, an Edwards biographer told the story of attending a religious revival where Edwards was greeted with cheers and clapping.
According to the New York Times, author John Maginnis asked the preacher afterward, “How can pious people support a man who is known to gamble, chase women and constantly face investigation for corruption?”
And the preacher replied, “Well, he don’t drink or smoke.”
In the same story, the Times also quoted a woman who had this to say about Edwards after he was released from federal prison in 2011: “We all knew he was going to steal. But he told us he was going to do it.”
Now I realize what I should have asked Edwin Edwards that long-ago day when I snagged a quick interview with him: “So, stealing is OK and so are gambling, womanizing, corruption and putting one’s self ahead of what’s best for the people you’re supposed to serve, as long as you do it all with great panache?”
And with his blue eyes twinkling, he would have smiled his charming smile and answered my question in a way that appeared to make sense, while not actually saying anything even remotely significant.
Frances Coleman is a former editorial page editor of the Mobile Press-Register. Email her at email@example.com, “like” her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/prfrances and subscribe to her podcast, “The Reasonable Southerner,” at https://shows.acast.com/the-reasonable-southerner.
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