WASHINGTON -- In the nation's gallery of political rogues, none has dodged the law longer and more entertainingly than former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, until now. The 72-year-old Cajun-speaking, high-stakes-gambling and onetime-womanizing Mr. Edwards has finally been convicted of 17 counts of fraud and racketeering for taking payoffs from casino license applicants and related offenses.
If , as expected, he is sentenced to jail for most of the rest of his life, his incarceration will end a saga of fancy living at the public trough unmatched in his state and most others that for at least three decades amused and titillated the citizenry as much as outraged it.
A dapper man of moderate stature with slick silver hair and the wardrobe of the inveterate gambler he was, Edwards defied all conventions with the openness of his gambling trips to Las Vegas and the audacity of his lifestyle. In thinly veiled efforts to mask his identity at the gambling mecca's hotels and gaming tables, he registered under such aliases as "E. Nuff" and others not fit for mention in family newspapers.
After election to his third term as governor in 1983, he was reported to have chartered two jetliners and packed them with lobbyists and big campaign contributors for a gambling junket to Paris and Monaco, at $10,000 a seat. He regularly held poker games at the governor's mansion with stakes as high as $10,000 and often was seen in public with one or another flashy young female on his arm.
In 1991, when Edwards was elected to his fourth (nonconsecutive) term, he settled in with a particular blonde much his junior named Candy Picou, who moved into the mansion and played hostess to a number of special events, including the 10th reunion of her high school class. They eventually were married and she stuck with him through the four-month trial just concluded, looking much more depressed at the conclusion than the seemingly imperturbable former governor.
Earlier, when his young second wife expressed an interest in having a child, Edwards submitted to a reverse vasectomy, inspiring New Orleans seafood merchants and restaurateurs to dispatch large quantities of oysters to the mansion.
In two previous trials involving alleged payoffs, one resulted in a hung jury and the other in acquittal. Through all his legal tribulations, Edwards openly flaunted his lifestyle to a public audience that seemed largely to enjoy his antics and not take his money troubles seriously, in part because, according to one Louisiana observer, most of the characters he was accused of fleecing were unsavory themselves.
It was his custom to hold press conferences before and after his court sessions and regale reporters with stories of his antics. He famously liked to say he would always be electable in his native state unless somebody found him "in bed with a dead woman or a live boy." A bumper sticker sighted prominently in Edwards' 1991 race against David Duke, the notorious local white supremacist, said simply: : "Vote for the Crook. It's Important." Most Louisianans followed the advice.
Edwards was not big in the fraternity of governors, often ducking their boring conferences devoted to dry state issues. When he showed up at one and a reporter expressed surprise at seeing him there, Edwards explained the only reason he had come was that he was "under indictment" and had to act the part of a working governor. When it came his time to host a governors' conference, however, he pulled out all the stops for a lavish and swinging few nights in New Orleans' French Quarter.
To qualify as a certified political rogue, one must not only be a rascal but also a highly amusing one, in the tradition of two of Edwards' Louisiana forebears, Huey and Earl Long, and such others as George Wallace and Willie Brown. Edwin Edwards earned his membership in the club many times over and now, alas, he will be paying his dues.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.