William J. Guste Jr., the state's longest-serving attorney general, whose 20 years in office put him at the forefront of legal and social debates that shaped Louisiana through the 1970s and 1980s, died Wednesday. He was 91.
His son, Bernard 'Randy' Guste, said his father, best known as 'Billy,' had been ill for some months and in nursing care at Chateau de Notre Dame.
Guste was a longtime lawyer and former state senator who was first elected attorney general in 1972. He served until 1992. He also waged an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1969, in the election cycle which eventually put Moon Landrieu into City Hall.
Guste was also a former proprietor of Antoine's Restaurant, the historic French Quarter restaurant opened by his great-grandfather Antoine Alciatore in 1840. Guste and his brother Roy Guste Sr. were fourth generation proprietors who ran the restaurant in the 1970s and 1980s before turning it over to other relatives.
But it was his career in politics and public service which earned him the greatest notoriety.
'He really was a natural born leader,' Randy Guste said Thursday morning. 'People loved him, the people who worked for him loved him. They still called him 'General,' which was a sign of the respect they had for him even after he left office.'
As attorney general, Guste, a longtime Democrat, found himself at the center of debates over abortion, creationism, casino gambling, the environment and consumer fraud which rose to the forefront during the 1970s and 1980s.
He took on more visibility than his predecessors, including in the late 1980s, when he famously tussled with then-Gov. Buddy Roemer over his legal authority to represent the state in a higher education desegregation case.
'He's been a higher-profile attorney general than those before him,' said Ed Renwick, the retired New Orleans pollster and former Loyola University political science professor and WWL-TV political analyst, in a 1991 Times-Picayune article marking Guste's retirement.
'Before him, attorneys general were more likely to let the governor lead. Before, people got that job through governors, whereas Guste got the job on his own. He was his own person.'
Guste was credited with revamping the role of the attorney general, a position which had been tarnished under his predecessor, the scandal-plagued Jack P.F. Gremillion.
Guste made headlines for his long, expensive defense of the state's creation science law, passed by lawmakers and requiring teachers at the time to give equal weight to the belief that the universe was created by a supreme being as to the theory of evolution. Guste explained that if the legislature passed the law, he was legally required to defend it as constitutional.
He was also an opponent of abortion, which put him at odds with others within his own party.
His son Randy said Guste was proud of legal victories which earned the state royalty payments from oil companies.
'He saved a copy of that check,' Randy Guste said.
In a statement, current attorney general Buddy Caldwell called Guste a courageous, dutiful and honest attorney general.
'A champion of many great legal causes, he tackled everything from environmental issues to consumer fraud. Billy was a fierce protector of our constitution and fought many battles on the state's behalf,'said Caldwell, who first met Guste when Caldwell was elected district attorney in Tallulah, La.
'It was clear that he dedicated his life to improving Louisiana and those around him. He will be sorely missed,' Caldwell said.
Guste was a Jesuit HighSchool and Loyola University law school graduate.
Guste is survived by his wife of more than 65 years, Dorothy, as well as 9 children and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.