By Robert Mann
Pity the poor Louisiana Democrat starved for effective and visionary leadership. He’ll do almost anything, support almost anyone, who can provide him even the slightest bit of nourishment for his starved political soul.
Who could blame him?
He’s like the desperate hungry who lined up on Chicago’s streets in the early 1930s to dine at Al Capone’s soup kitchens. Those hungry masses didn’t much care about the reputation or character of the individual who paid for their meal. Their stomachs were aching, and Capone offered them a little bread and some soup.
Capone, however, didn’t really care about the poor; he merely used them to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation.
According to one account of Capone’s enterprise:
An army of ragged, starving men assembled three times a day beside a storefront at 935 South State Street, feasting on the largesse of Al Capone. Toasting his health. Telling the newspapers that Capone was doing more for the poor than the entire US government. He was even offering some of them jobs. Capone milked his good works for all the favorable publicity they were worth. He came down and walked among the men, the wretched of the earth, offering a handshake, a hearty smile, and words of encouragement from the great Al Capone. During November and December, Al Capone’s coup kitchen kept regular hours, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thanksgiving Day 1930 was a particular public relations triumph for Capone. On that day he could boast that he fed more than 5,000 hungry men, women, and children with a hearty beef stew.
Capone’s public relations stunt helped him among the people, but it didn’t keep him out of prison. Federal prosecutors indicted him for tax evasion in 1931. By May of 1932, he was living in a federal prison in Atlanta.
In the same way that Chicago’s hungry were willing to overlook Capone’s reputation for criminality as they filled their growling stomachs with his food, so do some desperate Louisiana Democrats overlook the high crimes and misdemeanors of former U.S. Bureau of Prisons convict #03128-095 — also known as former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
It’s been so long since these Democrats experienced the joy of a charismatic leader, they are rushing to his political soup kitchen to eagerly stuff themselves with the warmed-over gruel that he plops onto their plate.
Too late, however, will they discover that what Edwards serves them is neither nutritious nor satisfying. In fact, it is rotten food, tainted with corruption and laced with cynicism and defeat.
In my lifetime, Louisiana has had no political leader with the political skills and instincts of Edwin Edwards. He was a master politician, skilled in the art of seduction.
Although he earned a well-deserved reputation for seducing women, the kind of seduction I mean is that quality which most successful politicians have. Lyndon Johnson had it. Theodore Roosevelt had it. Bill Clinton had it. Edwin Edwards had it and, to some extent, still does.
Although his forbidding demeanor doesn’t always show it, Edwards truly cares what people think about him. He wants you to like him. He wants you to love him. And to win your affection or your vote, he will court you assiduously until he seduces you.
As a young political writer for the Shreveport Journal in the early 1980s, I was seduced by Edwards.
I was covering his third race for governor in 1983 (he was challenging then-Gov. Dave Treen) and found myself crisscrossing the state with Edwards and a few aides for almost two months. Many days, it was just Edwards, his driver and me in a car driving around the state.
As the political reporter for a north Louisiana newspaper that had endorsed him over Treen, I quickly became one of Edwards’ favorite journalists. He gave me extraordinary access to him and his family members, including his wife and his aged mother. He returned my phone calls almost immediately. He welcomed me into his home. He flattered me, courted me, and praised my stories.
He seduced me. And I blinded myself to the Shakespearean proportions of his corruption and his profound moral failings. I was young and overwhelmed by the power of a former and future governor who granted me access and showered me with attention.
And although I still voted for Treen, his attention undoubtedly influenced what I wrote about him.
So, when I comment on the fact that Edwards is again in the process of seducing Louisiana voters — as a candidate for Congress from Louisiana’s 6th congressional district — believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I don’t claim to know the man as well as some, but I know him well.
And now, at 55, and with the more-jaded outlook of someone who spent 20-plus years working in the political world, I am much less beguiled by Edwards and his ilk. I hope I’m much more alert to the deceptive shallowness, the empty promises and the cynical appeals directed at people for whom politicians like Edwards have not the slightest concern or compassion.
Since I’ve published a couple of tough columns about Edwards in the past week, I’ve heard from some friends and acquaintances who have upbraided me for my unyielding stance against Edwards’ return to politics.
The criticism falls largely into these categories:
1. The embarrassment that Edwards’ candidacy brings Louisiana is no worse than the way that Gov. Bobby Jindal is humiliating the state on the national stage.
2. The damage that Edwards has done to Louisiana is no worse than what Jindal has done to Louisiana over the past six years.
3. Unlike Jindal, Edwards actually cares about the poor and has done much good for them.
4. Electing a Democrat like Edwards would help Louisiana by denying the Republicans another seat in Congress.
5. Louisiana’s reputation is already thoroughly sullied. Edwards’ candidacy can’t do any more harm to us.
None of these arguments persuades me.
First, say what you want about Jindal (and I have written much of it), he has not been convicted and has not spent eight years in a federal prison. You may regard Jindal as an unethical politician who has wrecked Louisiana, and I would say that you are correct. But until Jindal goes off to prison, it’s not serious to say that Jindal and Edwards are the same.
To those who suggest that Edwards cares about the poor more than Jindal, I would ask you this: after his 16 years as governor — more than any person in the state’s history — how are the poor doing? Did our poverty rate plummet during Edwards’ tenure? Did business flock to the state to offer our citizens jobs?
Sure, Edwards had his accomplishments. He supported rewriting the state’s constitution. He supported teachers, increased their pay and appointed many African-Americans to government positions. In other words, he governed like any sensible Democrat would (except during his last term, when he was in Baton Rouge about as much as Jindal is these days).
But his was not a golden era. His accomplishments are mitigated by the way he blatantly sold state jobs to contributors (yes, I know, Jindal does the same) and enriched his friends. He brought much more shame and derision to us than commendation and envy. On balance, Edwin Edwards left the state in worse shape than he found it.
As for his concern for the poor, I do not know that he really cares. He has said that he cares about the poor and he supported some programs that helped them, but it’s clear that he did not fundamentally alter their condition. He was, like many before him, a populist Democrat who relied on the votes of the poor to stay in office. Combine that with his famous courtship of the African-American vote and you have this legend of Edwards as a cross between Robin Hood and William Jennings Bryan.
My belief is that, like most politicians, if he could have found more votes elsewhere, he’d have done so. My proof? During his speech to the Baton Rouge Press Club last Monday, Edwards signaled that he will be courting the votes of Republicans opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Recall that while he declared support for expanding Medicaid, he also said he would have voted against Obamacare. Some champion of the poor! He’s already in the process of abandoning them in pursuit of votes from the right.
Then, there’s the argument that Edwards’ election would deny the Republicans a much-needed vote to maintain their majority. That, of course, assumes you believe Edwards can win. The respected Cook Political Report considers Louisiana’s 6th the 24th most conservative congressional district in the country (out of 435). Even an attractive Democrat without a criminal record is not likely be viable in this district, which is why no other prominent Democrat chose to run for the seat.
So, the best Edwards can do is make the runoff, draw considerable national and international media attention, and then lose in December. The worst he can do, besides further embarrassing the state, is ensure that a more-moderate Democrat won’t win.
Recall that in the recent 5th district congressional race, the more-moderate Vance McAllister beat state Sen. Neil Riser by winning the votes of Democrats. What chance would someone like McAllister have with someone like Edwards in the race? The most likely outcome, then, is a runoff with the most-conservative Republican facing Edwards. In that runoff, the conservative is almost certain to defeat Edwards.
Finally, for those who say that Edwards’ candidacy can do no more harm to our reputation than Jindal and Sen. David Vitter, I say this: Louisiana’s reputation is horrible. We are in a very deep hole that Edwards and other corrupt leaders helped dig for us (although, it should be noted that we elected them all).
But I happen to subscribe to The Political Theory of Holes: when you are in one, stop digging.
The bottom line is this: I’d love to see a Democrat capture this seat. But Edwin Edwards isn’t the one to do it. All he can do in the process of losing is embarrass us, as he has been doing since the early 1970s.
I’m tired of shuffling through his crummy soup kitchen and eating his rotten, corrupt food.
If that’s what it takes to be a Democrat in Louisiana’s 6th congressional district these days, then I’ll change parties.