Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards' by Tyler Bridges

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 27, 2001

Even by the standards of Louisiana, which has the most bizarre and Byzantine politics of any state in the union -- "colorful" is the euphemism often resorted to by the press -- Edwin W. Edwards was a piece of work.

The only man elected to the state's governorship four times, he had, as Tyler Bridges writes, a deep belief "that government was a vehicle to improve the lives of its citizens" and "incredible gifts" for the art of politics:

"He could charm a society matron one moment and an oil-rig worker the next; he could fashion a compromise that would bring peace to two warring camps; he could throw off prying reporters with a well-timed quip; he could divine the solution to a political mess when others saw only confusion."

Given all of these skills, Edwards could have been the best governor in Louisiana's history -- not that the competition is much -- but the unhappy truth was that he was its worst.

His story, as Bridges correctly says, is a "tragedy," because his immense promise was done in by the tragic flaw of hubris. He believed that he was above the law and, "like too many politicians in Louisiana . . . he believed it was right to use his public office for private gain, for himself and for his closest friends and political allies."

In May 2000, four years after the end of his final term as governor, Edwards was found guilty on 17 counts, including extortion, money-laundering and "engaging in a criminal enterprise."

Now in his early seventies, he is in federal prison and may well spend the rest of his life there. How this came to pass is told by Bridges in Bad Bet on the Bayou.

Formerly on staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and now with the Miami Herald, Bridges is a formidable reporter and a competent writer, albeit with an unfortunate predilection for clichés.

The first two-thirds of his book, in which he describes in astonishing detail the corrupt process by which legalized gambling came to Louisiana, surely will be of interest mainly to connoisseurs of such matters or to residents of that state who have not yet had their fill of the story.

The real meat of the book is in its final hundred pages, wherein Bridges recounts the FBI's pursuit of Edwards and the former governor's eventual downfall. However improbable it may seem, given Louisiana's well-earned reputation for corruption, for "outrageous stories and colorful characters," the state got onto the gambling bandwagon rather late.

It had long winked at illegal gambling, but in the early 1990s, after the state's oil industry suffered various setbacks, Louisiana was in desperate need of new revenue sources for the state's treasury.

Edwards, who despite repeatedly raising suspicions about his probity had been returned to the governorship in 1992 (defeating the quondam Ku Klux Klan wizard, David Duke), pounced on gambling as a likely source of income. It took precious little time for him to show not merely that he was as shady as ever but that the chance to preside over the bestowal of gambling licenses would bring out the absolute worst in him.

As noted previously, the details of how he did this, though certainly sobering and occasionally amusing, will not be of as much interest to as many readers as Bridges apparently believes.

It is a long, complicated tale of deal-making, influence-peddling and bribery in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, of developers and casino operators maneuvering for prime real estate and operating licenses, of such opposition as existed -- mainly the Times-Picayune's editorialists, who wrote boldly, eloquently and wittily in a losing cause -- swamped by sheer numbers.

The Mafia makes its obligatory appearance, along with Harrah's and Bally and Caesar's World and other gambling enterprises -- "gaming" is the preferred euphemism -- that thought they saw a gold mine in high-living Louisiana.

Most visible among the developers was Christopher Hemmeter, who wanted to tear up much of New Orleans's historic center and replace it with "the world's largest casino, the Grand Palais," a gamblers' theme park of breathtaking vulgarity. The thing never got built, though not for lack of trying or political connections, and the gambling that took place in New Orleans proved a spectacular bust.

The Harrah's that did open there fell far short of expectations, primarily because tourists simply were not interested, and it quickly went bankrupt. The high rollers didn't understand the place they had hoped to milk.

As one New Orleanian put it: "The unique thing about New Orleans is the French Quarter, our food and our people. You don't see any of those in a casino. For tourists to come to New Orleans to gamble would be like a New Orleanian going to San Francisco to eat Cajun food."

But by the time Harrah's went belly up in 1995, Edwin Edwards was well on his way to the comfortable retirement he began to enjoy the following year. At age 69, living in "a million-dollar home in the gated Country Club of Louisiana on the outskirts of Baton Rouge" with his 31-year-old wife, Candy, he had it made, or so at least it seemed.

But just as he was settling into the life of ease, an attorney was talking to the FBI about "a crooked deal to build a juvenile prison in the central Louisiana town of Jena," a deal in which bribes of about $1 million had been paid, and, the attorney said, "the money went to the most powerful politician in Louisiana, the former governor, Edwin Edwards.

"With that, Geoffrey Santini, "a New Orleans-based undercover FBI agent,"set out on what became a four-year effort to bring Edwards down.

This part of his tale Bridges tells with brio and in delicious detail. But with Edwin Edwards as the central character, only the most pedestrian of writers could make it dull.

To be sure, one can't help longing to have the late A.J. Liebling at the controls -- his portrait of an earlier Louisiana governor, Earl Long, the Earl of Louisiana, is and doubtless always will be the last word on the state's politics -- but Edwards pretty much takes over the story on his own.

This, after all, is the philanderer who once told a group of campaign workers that "a man is as old as the women he feels" and who said of his campaign against the Kluxer David Duke, "We're both wizards under the sheets."

Throughout the FBI inquiry of the late 1990s, he kept his poise and his humor. Two FBI agents who interviewed him in 1997 were "astounded" by his "friendliness and composure":"As Fleming and Nelson stood up to leave, Edwards said, 'You know, I'm used to having the FBI knock on my door.' Edwards then listed how many times FBI agents had interviewed him over the years, and how many times he had appeared before grand juries.

He went on to say, 'I've learned that when one FBI agent knocks on your door, that's one thing. But when two knock on your door, that's trouble.' " 'Governor,' Fleming responded, 'this is trouble.' "

Indeed it was. Yet even when the full weight of it descended on Edwards, he was composed and witty. "I regret that it has ended this way," he said outside the courthouse, "but that is the system. I lived seventy-two years of my life within the system. I'll spend the rest of my life within the system. Whatever consequences flow from this, I'm prepared to face. . . . The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river. . . . I suppose the Feds sat by the river long enough, so here comes my body."

It is a measure of the man that although he and Bridges "had tangled during his final term as governor," Edwards cooperated with Bridges as he researched this book. He "graciously consented to . . . face-to-face interviews and answered questions during more than a dozen additional phone calls."

Small wonder that Bridges says, "I doubt that I will ever cover another politician as interesting, and beguiling, as Edwin Edwards."

Small wonder, too, that if Edwards ran once more for the governorship, with his prison cell as his home base, the people of Louisiana might well elect him one more time.

* Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com .
© 2001 The Washington Post Company

 
 
 
 
© Copyright 2001 Tyler Bridges