Did Edwin Edwards Learn Anything in Jail?

After serving time for corruption, the 86-year-old former Louisiana governor is running for Congress. But his political style hasn't changed a bit.
Travis Spradling/AP

Thirteen green-and-yellow Harley-Davidsons and a single black Cadillac Escalade roared down the old Airline Highway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, passing the ruins of an abandoned sugar factory and the plumes of still-operating oil refineries. The bikers—scruffy middle-aged guys representing the Shriners Masonic charity organization—paid traffic rules no mind; they took up both lanes, weaved in and out of each other's paths, and ushered the Escalade through red lights at 60 mph, sirens blaring.

Whenever the motorcade blew through a light, an elderly man in the Escalade's front passenger seat—dressed in a blue-and-white-striped Ralph Lauren button-down and gray slacks—would bend down, hiding beneath his window like a boy playing peek-a-boo. He was 86-year-old Edwin Washington Edwards: ex-governor of Louisiana, former Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate No. 03128-095, father of a 10-month-old son, and recently announced candidate for U.S. Congress.

"Look at the governor!" exclaimed Darren Labat, Edwards's neighbor and driver.

"You don't want anyone to see you?" teased Edwards's wife, Trina, 51 years his junior, from the back seat. "You scaaaaaared?"

"When I was governor, I wouldn't let them do that," Edwards said with a shake of his head. "I had a police escort, but I wouldn't let them block traffic."

Edwards was on his way to the St. Charles Parish Crawfish Cook-Off Festival, a benefit for the Shriners where he would serve as a celebrity judge along with heavyweight boxing great Evander Holyfield and New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, among others. First, however, the former governor would have to contend with the law. As his motorcade continued south through the town of LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish, Labat spotted a white Ford police interceptor whipping around from the northbound lanes. After the motorcade ran some more red lights, the police car maneuvered its way through the motorcycles, and soon it was flanking the Escalade, lights flashing. "Get over!" the deputy inside mouthed.

It turned out that the Shriners had neglected to notify local law enforcement of their procession, and two more squad cars soon arrived on the scene. But the Shriners managed to plead their case. Most of them were deputized by their local sheriff's office, and, after all, they represented a charity. No one would be cited. Edwards bounced up and down in his seat as the conversation between the Shriners and the cops seemed to lapse from official business into small talk. "OK, fella, don't be talking to him. All you gotta be saying is good-bye," he said looking into the rearview mirror.

Just as the motorcade was finally ready to depart, a bald African-American deputy slowly sidled up to the Escalade, approaching from the passenger's side. Edwards rolled down the window.

"Hey, I just wanted to let you know, my man."

"Yes?" Edwards said, a little unsure.

"I sure wish it was you still here. I haven't seen it ran any better since you left."

The former governor smiled. "Well, I appreciate you saying that."

"I'm serious, all right?" the deputy continued. "I haven't seen one better since. I haven't seen one better, baby. I haven't."

Edwards smiled. "I'll tell the sheriff you're a nice fella," he said.

Edwin Edwards is loosely a New Deal Democrat, but he doesn't believe so much in any grand vision of America; he believes in doing favors. His version of politics is much more personal than ideological. Edwards is running for Congress in a district that Mitt Romney won by 34 percentage points—enemy territory for a Democrat—but he believes he can prevail by peeling off Republicans one by one, with a promise that he'll do right by each and every one of them. Sure, Edwards is competing in an era of micro-targeting and ideological purity, when retail political skills are much less central to congressional elections than they once were. But so what, his thinking seems to go. Who can resist the sly smile, the Cajun lilt, and the mischievous wink of the man they call the Silver Fox?

"It's more than a passing of the guard; it's a passing of a way of campaigning," former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer told me. "I grew up on a cotton farm, and I remember Earl Long coming by to ask my father for his vote. I think of Edwards that same way—stopping by the farm."

Beginning in 1954, with a bid for City Council in Crowley, Louisiana, Edwards won his first 22 races, and between 1972 and 1996, he served four terms as governor. He was powerful, effective, and pretty much always in some kind of trouble. By his own count, Edwards was the subject of more than two dozen criminal investigations during his career, and in all but one of those instances, he managed to successfully parry the accusations, often going on the counterattack with humor. In the 1970s, he said of allegations that he had gotten unlawful campaign contributions: "It was illegal for them to give, but not for me to receive." On the eve of his 1983 election, he told a young New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter named Dean Baquet: "The only way I could lose the election is if I'm caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy." In 1991, he pointed out his only similarity with his gubernatorial opponent, former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke: "We are both wizards under the sheets."

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Eric Benson is a journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Grantland, and the Oxford American. 

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