BATON ROUGE – One of the first things Edwin Edwards did as the interviewer walked on stage and sat behind the desk was take off his coat and reveal a pair of suspenders. After all, the man asking the questions was Larry King, who had just taken off his coat to reveal his trademark pair as well.
“I knew if it were Edwin Edwards, he’d do something to top me,” the famous broadcaster said, to great applause from the crowd at the LSU Union Theater.
It was the start of a brisk hour of quips, questions and answers Sunday afternoon from the four-time Louisiana governor, convicted felon and political icon, who shared the stage with his authorized biographer, Leo Honeycutt.
King, 79, who now hosts an online interview show on Hulu, was on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge to interview both men before a live audience. Edwards, who turned 86 last month, but looks decades younger, was there with his wife Trina, and their five-week old son, Eli. King asked about the baby’s name.
“We wanted him to have the same initials as me – EWE,” answered Edwards, explaining his son’s middle name is Wallace, and adding that the couple had already gotten clothes for the boy marked “EWE for Governor 2056.” A man in the crowd could be heard saying in a Cajun accent, “We’ll vote for him too!”
Clearly this was a sympathetic crowd, who gave Edwards a standing ovation at the beginning and ending of the event, and applauded and laughed throughout, as he recounted the start of his political career, his conviction and time in federal prison, life after prison and even his thoughts on current events and politics.
King, who admitted that he had only read about half of Honeycutt’s 2009 biography but has known and followed Edwards in the headlines for many years, started the evening off by asking Edwards what makes Louisiana politics so different. Among the answers came the first quotable line of the afternoon: “Because people like Edwin Edwards have been around ever since we’ve been a state,” the former governor said.
Edwards said his political career, which began in Crowley as a city councilman and included terms in the state legislature and in Congress, in addition to serving as governor, was motivated by a desire to help people. The lifelong Democrat called himself the “last great populist” governor, saying Huey P. Long was the first. He explained his political philosophy as "serve the needy, not the greedy."
While focusing a bit on political history, not long into the freewheeling interview, King, who is known for his straightforward and simple questions and everyman approach, asked the ex-convict “What happened to you?,” referring to his conviction and prison sentence. He asked both Edwards and his biographer to expound on whether the former governor was wrongly tried and convicted in 2001 for extortion, money laundering and other crimes.
Honeycutt said one of the goals of his book was to get to the truth, and said first that his years of research showed Edwards “was the best administrator Louisiana has ever had, short of Huey Long.” Later, Edwards answered King more directly. “You ask if I was railroaded? You’re on the right track.”
As he does in Honeycutt’s book, Edwards maintains that there were irregularities in the investigation preceding his indictment and conviction, and unfair treatment from the judge who presided over the trial, Judge Frank Polozola, who has since died. Edwards said he felt Polozola had it out for him from the start.
“I knew we were in trouble because of his attitude,” Edwards said. He also had choice words for two of the high-profile government witnesses who testified against him, former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and former Treasure Chest Casino owner Bobby Guidry, both of whom he once considered friends but watched testify against him. Edwards’ son Stephen, looking grayer, six years after he was released from prison after serving time for the same case, was also in the audience Sunday evening.
As for his time in prison, Edwards showed emotion when King asked what it was like to lose everything and be sent to the federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
“As eloquent as people think I am, it’s difficult to explain,” Edwards said. He said the prison guards were “very courteous and very friendly to me,” adding that he spent his time doing what he could to help his fellow inmates. He said he helped six get their GEDs and became the chief librarian at Oakdale, the federal facility in Louisiana to which he was later transferred.
“The cooks were much better there too, so the food was better than in Fort Worth,” Edwards said.
There was something else good to come out of the experience, Edwards said.
"They sent me to prison for life and I came out with a good-looking wife."
Edwards met his then-32-year-old wife there, after she read his book and started writing him letters, then visiting him. Trina Edwards is a lifelong Republican, Edwards said, but that’s taught him “there is something good to use Republicans for – sleep with them.”
“But you couldn’t consummate the relationship in prison?” King asked. “You’re not supposed to,” Edwards answered, to laughs.
As for his newborn son, King asked Edwards whether he felt it was fair to the child to father him at 86, knowing that the father will likely never see his son enter his teen years or graduate high school or college.
“The first thing I’d say is this boy doesn’t need a college education – he was smart leaving the womb,” Edwards joked, before getting more serious. “Life is very uncertain. It may be unfair to bring a child into the world at my age, but is that worse that not bringing him into the world at all?”
Edwards said that his son, speaking engagements and book signings keep him busy in post-prison life.
“I am so busy now that I sometimes feel like going back to prison to get some rest,” he quipped.
It was clear that even as a senior citizen out of office for 17 years and who spent more than eight years in prison, his grasp of politics and current events is as strong as ever.
King asked whether he supports the President’s health care reforms, or Obamacare. “Oh, absolutely,” he said, saying that, at 86, he remembers when Social Security was first introduced, with cries that it would bankrupt the country and ruin society. Repeating the populist theme echoed several times Sunday, Edwards said it was the poor, the young and the elderly who are most in need of government’s help, which he said the health care reforms would do.
He is clearly no fan of current Gov. Bobby Jindal and criticized him for rejecting the Medicaid expansion that Edwards said would help thousands of poor Louisiana residents without health insurance. When King asked whether Jindal’s decision was motivated by a desire for higher political office, Edwards revealed that he has never met or spoken to Jindal, whom he called a “different sort of person,” before adding he wishes Jindal well.
What about military action against Syria? King said that it appeared a majority of Americans do not want to see another war. “I’m one of them,” Edwards responded.
King and Edwards both closed the interview session with jokes – Edwards with a Cajun joke, of course. But before that, King, who called Edwards an “extraordinary American,” steered the discussion to the former governor’s legacy. Honeycutt admitted that people are inclined to remember a political figure more for the bad they may have done than the good.
King asked Edwards about the reality that the first line of his obituary, no matter how much good he may have done for the state, will include the fact that he was convicted and served time in prison.
“Probably so and that’s par for the course,” Edwards said. “But I will say that all the elections I ran in over the years, in all but one I was at the top of the ballot, so I must have done something right.”
Honeycutt added that “Everywhere we go, people say ‘Would you please run again?’” although Edwards said he has no desire to seek public office.
“I’ve had my time in the sun and it’s time for me to enjoy the benefits of the shade.”