Bad Bet on the
Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor
Edwin Edwards' by Tyler Bridges
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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
that Bridges says, "I doubt that I will ever cover another politician
as interesting, and beguiling, as Edwin Edwards."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
© 2001 The Washington Post Company