ANALYSIS: Edwin Edwards’ legacy? It’s complicated
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — That Edwin Edwards’ fame might have diminished a bit while he was imprisoned became clear on the day of his third wedding in July 2011 — months after his release and just days shy of his 84th birthday — to a 32-year-old woman.
After a private ceremony at a French Quarter hotel, the wedding party walked around the block for lunch at Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street.
“Who is she?” an onlooker asked, thinking reporters and photographers were swarming because of the young woman with the cascading blonde hair and shimmery dress — bride Trina Grimes Scott — not the man who, 15 years earlier, had finished his fourth term as Louisiana’s governor.
Edwards, a Democrat, who died a week ago at 93, is the fourth ex-governor Louisiana has lost in less than two years. He was heralded for bringing African Americans into state government in the 1970s, for an overhaul of oil taxes that enriched state government, for a keen mind, sharp wit, showmanship and deft political skills. And, for a scandal-tinged career that eventually landed him in prison for eight years, convicted of taking payoffs to help steer riverboat casino licenses to his cronies.
Now comes the wait to see if time will burnish his legacy the way it has those of the three who recently preceded him in death.
Mike Foster, a Republican elected governor after Edwards’ final term, took some divisive positions, banning affirmative action in state contracts. And he paid a fine for failing to disclose his 1995 campaign purchase of mailing lists from ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. But Foster, who died last year, was widely praised for working with Democrats, launching major education reforms and getting Louisiana on sound financial footing.
Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat in office from 2004-08, shouldered much of the blame for a plodding response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But by the time Louisiana’s first female governor died in August 2019, having faced cancer with courage and grace, people were talking of her barrier-breaking career, a corruption-free administration and her focus on education spending.
Buddy Roemer seemed the picture of abject political failure when he was tossed out after one term in 1991, having finished third behind the scandal-tainted Edwards and Duke. In death - he died in May - the Democrat-turned-Republican is remembered more for his success in pushing campaign and budget reforms while clearing a huge fiscal hole he inherited, from Edwards, in 1988.
Edwards, although remarkably popular to the end, never again enjoyed the widespread adulation arising from his first two terms as governor from 1972-1980, when the new constitution was adopted and oil riches grew.
Even his third term, bedeviled by falling oil prices and two long federal trials over the awarding of health care facility permits, had its successes. He persuaded legislators to help salvage the 1984 World’s Fair and backed a deal to keep the Saints in New Orleans. In his fourth term in the 1990s, he overcame skepticism in the Legislature to win funding for the New Orleans arena, which helped draw an NBA franchise.
When he emerged from prison at 83, he was healthy, making wisecracks and about to marry his young prison pen pal. But his legacy has taken a beating.
That 1974 constitution is showing its age, having been amended more than 200 times. Louisiana’s dependence on oil revenue proved to be a mixed blessing.
His cavalier attitude about his reputation for womanizing doesn’t wear as well in the post-“me too” era. Some of the famed one-liners are downright cringeworthy. “You’re only as young as the women you feel,” for example.
And there is the ever-present question among his detractors: How great a governor might he have been had he been less interested in enriching himself and his friends?
Maybe history will be as forgiving as former Gov. Dave Treen, who died in 2009. The Republican was defeated for re-election by Edwards in 1983 and was often the butt of his jokes. But, as Edwards steadfastly maintained his innocence after his 2000 trial, he found an unlikely ally in Treen, who came to call the trial “dubious” and the sentence “vindictive.”
“He and I still don’t agree on some things but we completely agree that giving our lives in service to the state was all worth it,” Treen wrote in a forward to author Leo Honeycutt’s 2009 biography of Edwards. “Both of us love Louisiana.”
EDITORS NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans; AP reporter Melinda Deslatte, who covers the state Capitol, contributed to this analysis.