The Times of Acadiana 5/16/01


No safe bets


By James Buckley


Reporter's account of the coming of casinos reads like a novel. A good novel.


Over the centuries, Louisiana has acquired a reputation for having the most corrupt politicians money can buy. The conviction records of various officials over the last few decades have done little to tarnish that reputation.


However, for those who think they've seen it all when it comes to political perfidy, after reading Tyler Bridges' Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards, I can only quote the otherwise unquotable Bachman-Turner Overdrive: You ain't seen nothin' yet.


Bridges charts a course through Louisiana's murky political waters that is both entertaining and disturbing, and does so with style to burn. In fact, this is just the sort of thing Tom Wolfe envisioned when he spoke of the New Journalism: nonfiction that incorporates techniques commonly employed in fiction in order to present an engrossing tale.


Bad Bet examines how the commingling of two events in the 1990s led to the downfall of one of Louisiana's most beloved politicians since the Long brothers.


One was the rise of the gambling industry. Concurrent with this was the 1992 re-election of Edwards to his fourth term. The book then relates how an industry ripe for corruption ran headlong into a man who was quite possibly Louisiana's most corrupt politician. The resultant fireworks are breathtaking, culminating in Edwards' conviction in 2000.


As a reporter for The Times-Picayune throughout most of the '90s, Bridges was in an ideal position to observe these events. He is thus able to make readers privy to the backroom shenanigans that paved the way for gambling in Louisiana.


These shenanigans are awe-inspiringly audacious. In order to sidestep a constitutional provision requiring the suppression of gambling, legislators use the word "gaming" instead. A pro-gambling politician shuts down a vote-counting machine after receiving enough votes to pass a key bill, almost causing a fistfight on the House floor. And this is just in the first few chapters.


Along the way, Bridges introduces characters so colorfully corrupt that they could have stepped directly from a James Ellroy novel. There are millionaire developers unprepared for Louisiana politics; shady businessmen with Mob connections; and good-ol'-boy legislators to whom dirty politics is business as usual.


Overshadowing everyone is Edwards himself, a silver-tongued Cajun who lurks at the heart of a web of favoritism, nepotism and greed. Edwards manipulates businessmen and civil servants with equal aplomb, forcing State Police investigators to grant video poker licenses to his friends and forging alliances between disparate factions in hopes of making the land-based casino in New Orleans a reality.


It would have been easy for Bridges to depict Edwards as a stereotypical corrupt Louisiana politician. To his credit, however, he instead illustrates the dichotomy that is Edwards, a man whose base instincts were alternately at odds with and complementary to his political ability. As portrayed by Bridges, the former governor emerges as someone worthy both of our distrust and our sympathy.


Bad Bet on the Bayou can be enjoyed by almost anyone. For gambling opponents, the book is a towering neon sign proclaiming "We told you so." For political junkies, it provides a behind-the-scenes look at the maneuvering that allowed the gambling industry to gain such a strong foothold in Louisiana. Ultimately, it is that rarest of rarities: a work of serious journalism that can be enjoyed by scholars and casual readers alike.


This is attributable both to Bridges' ability as a reporter and as a writer. Without the latter, the vast amount of information assembled here would be overwhelming. And when Bridges is firing on all cylinders, the book is incredibly entertaining. A chapter in which the state casino board awards licenses for riverboat casinos contains more suspense than you'll find in an entire John Grisham novel.


Bad Bet also emerges as a multi-layered tragedy. On one level, it's an epitaph for the consummate Louisiana politician, a gifted politician whose flaws led to a Shakespearean downfall. But on a higher level, it serves as a tragic warning. People such as Edwards and his cronies don't magically appear in public office overnight. We put them there. And until we start demanding more from our elected representatives, the past will repeat itself in a Moebius Loop of corruption and wasted opportunities. Which may provide ample material for a talented writer such as Bridges, but it definitely doesn't bode well for us.


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