He grew up poor in a small Southern town, but his intelligence, perseverance, and ambition got him to law school and then to the governor's office. He adored pretty women and had trouble being faithful to his wife. He was a seductive politician who often got himself, and those connected with him, into skirmishes with the law. He accused Republicans of doing everything they could to get him ousted from office. When he finally left, his legacy was tainted.
This isn't the story of Bill Clinton, but of Edwin Washington Edwards, also known as the "Cajun King." Until his recent conviction on racketeering and extortion charges, Edwards served four terms as governor of Louisiana, the last of which proved to be his downfall.
"Bad Bet on the Bayou" is Tyler Bridges's often entertaining account of Edwards's corruption-ridden reign. (This was a man reelected to office despite exit polls showing that 6 out of 10 voters thought he was a crook.)
Now a reporter for The Miami Herald, Bridges covered the Bayou State's many scandals as a reporter for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans in the early 1990s.
"There are said to be several truths in Louisiana politics," the author writes. "One is that an honest politician is one who stays bought. Another is that politics is theater, and there is always demand for an encore." The state's unofficial motto is, "Let the Good Times Roll."
In the early 1990s, Louisiana found itself mired in fiscal ruin. Governor Edwards, a lifelong lover of gambling, proclaimed that legalizing it again would lead the state back to financial security. By creating a state lottery and luring casino businesses to Louisiana, he said, its economy would be revitalized, thousands of new jobs would be created, crime would drop, and all would be well.
Under Edwards's watch, plans were made to erect a gambling empire. Applications for casino bids flooded the governor's office, and there was little Edwards wouldn't do, the FBI later learned, to ensure that his friends and political supporters got their licenses approved. He hosted a weekly poker game where the pot would often reach thousands of dollars. His cronies understood that losing large sums of money to their powerful friend was a good way of securing favors.
By the mid-1990s, the gambling business had become both hugely damaging and hugely influential. A newspaper report revealed that the industry had become the most generous of all contributors to political campaigns. Yet Edwards emerged unscathed from more than two dozen legal investigations into his financial dealings, and retired in 1996 at the end of his term.
Two years later, after an FBI raid on his home and office and a lengthy investigation, Edwards could no longer outsmart the law. A federal grand jury indicted him on 26 counts of racketeering and extortion.
Eighteen weeks and 66 prosecution witnesses later, he was found guilty on 17 of the counts. (Don't count him out just yet: Edwards, now 73, has appealed the conviction, and is free on bail pending a new trial.)
Today, the gambling industry still has a firm grip on Louisiana; the public school system is a mess; and there is widespread poverty and racial tensions. The author concludes that the Edwards story is tragic on many levels: "He used only a fraction of his awesome talents to better the lives of Louisiana's 4.5 million residents."
"Bad Bet on the Bayou" is a lively and fascinating morality tale. The larger-than-life, appalling, charming figure at its center is as unforgettable as the protagonist out of any great novel. Don't be surprised if he appears in a sequel.
Carmela Ciuraru is editor of the anthology 'First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them' (Scribner).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor