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Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. (American Press Archives)

Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. (American Press Archives)

Beam: Edwards keeps up with times

Last Modified: Friday, December 06, 2013 9:36 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards came to town last week and had some kind words to say about journalists. Maybe it’s because a number of them were in the audience, but I got the sense it was his understanding that newsmen and women are necessary players in any successful democratic political system.

Edwards was the keynote speaker at the 4th annual Hector San Miguel Awards Luncheon that honors a member of the media for outstanding service. San Miguel, an investigative reporter at the American Press, died in 2009. This year’s award went to the late Bill Leger of Kinder, a reporter and anchor at KFDM-TV in Beaumont.

“As a public figure who has been in politics for 40 years, I can tell you the thing that most keeps us honest — except our own personal commitment to values we endure — are the members of the press,” Edwards said.

“They keep us informed. Every day in our lives in our complex society, something is happening we need to know about.”

Edwards said he had been criticized more than any governor in Louisiana history, and some of it he deserved and some he didn’t. He told the crowd I had written hundreds of articles about him and got one right.

In that regard, I’m much like Huey Long, who said he didn’t care what newspaper people said about him as long as they spelled his name right.

I congratulated Edwards on his speech afterwards, and he had a quick response.

“You’re only saying that because I mentioned your name,” he said.

What surprised me most about the former governor’s comments was his grasp of recent events. He quoted Cicero, the Roman politician and statesman who predicted the fall of the Roman empire. Cicero believed the empire would fall because of the corrupt moral values of Rome, a faulty education system and the loss of its traditional political values. Edwards was obviously referring to the current social and political climate in this country.

The former governor took President Obama to task for failing to approve the Keystone Pipeline that would transport synthetic crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Over 20,000 jobs would be created, he said, and that crude oil would go to China if the pipeline doesn’t become a reality.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t going to change that part of the world, Edwards said, and it’s time to bring American troops home. He talked about a military that is stretched too thinly in many parts of the world when it needs to be strengthening this country to protect its own interests.

Edwards talked about his unprecedented four terms. He did appoint blacks and women to his cabinet, pushed an improved method of taxing oil, gas and minerals taken from the ground that brought millions more into the state treasury, respected the legislative branch and supported creation of an education trust fund that has grown to $1.2 billion. State Treasurer John Kennedy talked about that success story the day Edwards spoke.

Unfortunately, there is also the dark side of the Edwards story. The former governor has openly talked about his 10-year federal prison term. He was convicted on fraud and extortion charges related to the awarding of riverboat gaming licenses. He was acquitted at two trials and freed from a third because of a hung jury. Edwards blames his eventual conviction on overzealous prosecutors and a federal judge determined to get him.

Edwards bragged throughout his political career about being investigated over a dozen times. However, he never seemed to understand that fact demonstrated he was constantly flirting on the edge of right and wrong. It’s true his friends turned on him to save their own skins, but the jury believed them. And wiretapped conversations showed a plotting and scheming side of Edwards people hadn’t seen before.

Critics of the former governor say his real legacy is the long list of things he could have done and didn’t. I wrote about that in a 2001 column headlined, “Close books on Edwin Edwards.”

“The man possessed the personal skills and political ability to move mountains, but he misdirected those talents for most of his public life,” the column said. “The Edwards legacy most people will remember — and rightly so — was his continuing effort to govern for the benefit of his friends and supporters.”

The irony is that some of those friends proved to be his undoing.

Despite our political differences, there has never been any personal bitterness on my part — and maybe not on his. As he said, I wasn’t always right but it wasn’t because of any animosity or desire to get him at any cost.

Actually, I owe Edwards a lot. No one else has given me so much to write about over the last half-century.

Give the man his due. At 86 and looking fit, the former governor still has the charisma that has charmed so many Louisianians through those early and turbulent years. He spoke without notes, told a few jokes and never missed a beat.

Edwards talks about running for governor again, but that isn’t likely at this stage in his life. Maybe it’s his way of trying to keep the good, old days alive. And that isn’t unusual for men our age.

• • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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