Beam: Edwards keeps up with times

By 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.

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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