“FAST EDDIE” POURED TOMATO JUICE into cut-glass goblets. One was for me, the other was for him. We talked in his dining room. Over lunch, he invited me to travel with him.
I was writing a magazine piece about the moon-dog opalescence of Louisiana politics, and covering an Edwin Edwards gubernatorial campaign would turn out to be more fun than any reporter should be allowed to have.
He was a rogue, a rake and a rascal, in the mold of Huey Long, “the Kingfish,” and his brother, Earl. I grew to like “Fast Eddie,” and when word came this summer that he had died, at age 93, I refused to believe it. The world would be far smaller and far less fortunate without him.
When he was governor, Edwards had socked it to oil companies to fill state coffers and improve social services, health care, schools and highways. He streamlined government and appointed record numbers of women, Blacks and other minorities to office. He supported the Superdome and pushed for an NBA team in New Orleans.
He never turned his back on anyone, especially the downtrodden. His charm was legendary, especially with ladies. So was his wit.
It was irrepressible.
When his amorous adventures became too much, Edwards and his wife were divorced. Now he hoisted his goblet in a toast and told me he had a new lady. As if on cue, she walked downstairs: blond hair tied in a white bow; light green eyes; a blue, white and pink blouse; white shorts; and long, tan legs. Her name was Candace Picou, and she was a student nurse at Louisiana State University. She was 26 years old.
He leaned close to me. “I’m 64 years old. Some people say that at 64, a man should be looking for a nurse. Others say that he ought to be looking for the best-looking young lady he can find.”
He paused. “I’ve combined the two.”
IT WAS 1991. THIS CAMPAIGN was for the third of his four terms as governor.
He was running against Buddy Roemer, an angry reformer. Roemer opposed Edwards and Louisiana’s live-and-let-live politics with such intensity that he tumbled into a midlife crisis. His wife left him, along with their 10-year-old son. Roemer was taking advice from a guru who showed him how to wear a rubber band on his wrist and pop it to cancel negative thoughts. “Cancel! Cancel!”
Edwards also was running against David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Research by a coalition against racism showed that Duke had worn a Nazi uniform and picketed against a civil rights activist, calling him “a communist Jew.”
The research, which Duke variously minimized or conceded, also showed that, until recently, he had celebrated Hitler’s birthday every year; sold racist books at his legislative office; written a book to trick Black militants; and posed as a woman to help write another book — for women about dating and sex.
IN THE MIDST OF THIS FRAY, Edwards and I drove to Crowley, the parish seat of Acadia Parish, in the heart of Cajun country, where he had gotten his political start at 27 as a city councilman. People gathered to greet him.
“Comment ca va?”
Somebody asked: “Did I tell you the joke I heard about you the other day? You died and went to heaven.”
“That’s a joke?” Edwards replied. Everyone laughed.
“No. Here’s the joke. So you get up there, and St. Peter says, ‘Well, Edwin, you made it. Go to your pillow over yonder and enjoy yourself.’ And you come back about an hour later and say, ‘St. Peter, I need some companionship. Where’s all the women?’
“He says, ‘I’ll send somebody over.’
“It’s Phyllis Diller. You run back to St. Peter and say, ‘Phyllis Diller! Come on! I did a lot better than that when I was on Earth.’
“St. Peter says, ‘Well, Edwin, you just barely made it in here. You can’t expect too much.’
“Buddy Roemer walks past, and you look at him, and you say, ‘There goes Buddy Roemer with Michelle Pfeiffer! How in the hell did he get a beauty like Michelle Pfeiffer?’
“St. Peter says, ‘Well, Edwin, you just don’t understand. Michelle just barely made it in here.’”
FROM CROWLEY, WE WENT TO Shreveport. Edwards was scheduled to speak at the Louisiana Baptist Convention. As a teenager, he had drifted into the fundamentalist Nazarene church. He returned to the Catholic fold, but he could still preach with the best from the brush arbor.
He pledged aid for the struggling and the poor.
“Not everybody can raise himself by his bootstraps,” he shouted.
“Amen!” came the reply.
“Not everybody can make it on his own.” “Amen!”
I recalled a story told by John Maginnis, one of Louisiana’s most respected political reporters. On the 4th of July, Maginnis had gone with Edwards to a campground at the United Pentecostal Church tabernacle not far from Tioga.
Edwards brought 10,000 believers to their feet. Maginnis sought an explanation.
“How,” he asked the Rev. Clarence Bates, who had come to his vocation after serving as a bodyguard for Earl Long, “can any church intent on holiness and morality support a man like Edwin Edwards, who is known to gamble, chase women … and constantly be under investigation for corruption?”
Bates looked at Maginnis for a moment. “Well,” he said, “he doesn’t drink or smoke.”
AS WE LEFT SHREVEPORT, Edwards suggested I read Maginnis’ book, The Last Hayride. The book told about his successful 1983 campaign. He had run against Gov. David Treen.
The campaign was famous for two things, Edwards said. One was his caravan that crossed the state. He spoke 109 times in seven days and reached hundreds of thousands of voters.
The other was his remark that Treen was “so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.”
Maginnis wrote “a very interesting book,” Edwards said. “But it’s unfair in that it depicts Treen as a total dummy and me as a total crook, which is just partly true.”
Which part? I asked.
“Well, he’s dumber than I’m a crook.”
BY 1991, EDWARDS HAD BEEN tried twice on charges of fraud and racketeering. The jury deadlocked. Then he was acquitted. He was a scoundrel, but Louisianans loved him for it. They gave him the name “Fast Eddie,” and they winked at his womanizing.
He defeated Roemer in the primary, then used his reputation to campaign against Duke in a runoff.
“I’m the wizard under the sheets,” he said.
His bumper stickers urged: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
He defeated Duke in a landslide.
EDWARDS MARRIED CANDY PICOU. After his fourth term, he was convicted in a scheme involving riverboat casino licenses and was sentenced to federal prison for 10 years. They were divorced. She has “suffered enough,” he said.
In prison, a visitor, Trina Grimes Scott, became his pen-pal. He served eight of his 10 years, was released into halfway-house supervision and married her. He was 83. She was blond, striking and 32. Given his age, he said, they had sent him to prison for life. “But I came back with a wife.”
Some politicians scare me. Others anger me. Many put me to sleep. But not Edwin Washington Edwards. He made me laugh.
It was a gift.