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New scandal for Louisiana's Edwin Edwards: Reality TV

Take heart, Bob Filner. You've been dumped as San Diego mayor and had to admit, in court, that you’re a serial assailant. But there is life after public humiliation.

Sometimes, however, it’s just a different kind of public humiliation.

Edwin Edwards, the former four-term governor of Louisiana, a legend who used suitcases of cash to pay off his gambling debts and was known as “the Silver Zipper” for his womanizing, is treading yet another path to redemption. Out of federal prison, where the Democrat served more than eight years for fraud, racketeering and extortion, he’s married to a former pen-pal five decades younger who just gave birth to their son.

And he’s about to hit reality TV.

The third Mrs. Edwards will, on the night of Oct. 27, become “The Governor’s Wife,” to the uncertain benefit of A&E viewers. Depending on the perspective, it could be just deserts for a felon, a painful come-down for a man who used to run a state, or simply another “laissez les bons temps rouler” chapter in the 86-year wild ride that is Edwards’ life.

“Unwatchable and unmissable,” John Maginnis, a longtime chronicler of Louisiana politics, cracked about the show, though he could have been talking about Edwards’ long political saga as well.

As karmic payback for Edwards’ real or imagined sins, it’s a doozy. The video preview shows Edwards in prison garb and, separately, being spoon-fed by his wife, Trina. Promotional materials say the show will chronicle Trina’s efforts to “rehabilitate her gold-digger reputation.... Trina is wildly in love with Edwin and constantly turns to him for advice on everything from raising her teenage sons to devising her next harebrained scheme.”

And then there are Edwards’ grown daughters, almost twice Trina’s age, one of whom, Victoria, is described as “a seen-it-all former performer who is never far from her electronic cigarette.”

Not that Edwards, who could not be reached for an interview, has ever shied from out-there behavior. He is a throwback to old Louisiana, replete with characters who eschewed the buttoned-down earnestness of the state’s current leaders.

“He brings back something missing in Louisiana politics: personality,” said Maginnis, noting that an appreciation of Edwards was now safe, inasmuch as his civic debt is paid and he’s not running for anything, so far as anyone knows.

Still, some Louisianans are leery about the upcoming show and its potential to perpetuate stereotypes about the state to a national audience, Maginnis said. "Fun to have around, but not something you want to show the neighbors," as he put it.

For all the raucous and rakish behavior, there was always an astute political side to Edwards. Even as he tried to beat back near-constant accusations of scandal in terms that he won from the 1970s to the 1990s, he gained swarms of supporters for what he has termed his  “serve the needy, not the greedy” political philosophy.

His tax policy, arrayed against oil and gas concerns, created a windfall for the state that helped finance generous social programs. He appointed blacks and women to positions in numbers never before seen in Louisiana, streamlined the government and oversaw the completion of the Superdome.

And he reveled in a reputation that, in his 1991 race for governor against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, featured bumper stickers imploring Louisianans: “Vote for the crook -- it’s important.”

Almost two decades after he left the governor’s office, the debate that shadowed that campaign still filters through public conversations: is he a criminal to be disdained, or a public servant to be honored? Or both?

The Gambit, a New Orleans weekly, denounced Edwards in a recent column, citing the “embarrassing” specter of the upcoming TV show, with its video inclusion of Edwards holding a sign reading “I’m innocent.” 

“Edwin Edwards is many things, but 'innocent' is not among them -- and Louisiana is not the same state that elected him four times,” the online column declared. “The wink-and-nod casual corruption that was once accepted as the price of doing business here has receded since Edwards' day (though it hasn't totally disappeared).”

Not so fast, countered a commenter.

“A crook, yes, but a crook that put the people first, not like the crooks there now that say the public be damned and you will get what we decide to let you have,” the commenter wrote. “Louisiana at one time had the best politicians money could buy, now we just have politicians that can be bought.”

It recalled an incident Maginnis cited in a 1991 Los Angeles Times story about the epic election battle that featured Edwards, Duke and the then-incumbent, Buddy Roemer.

As Maginnis told writer Richard E. Meyer, Edwards had brought 10,000 believers to their feet on the Fourth of July at a church tabernacle, and Maginnis wanted to know why.

Maginnis asked the Rev. Clarence Bates, who before preaching had served as a bodyguard for another less-than-virtuous governor, Earl Long: "How can any church intent on holiness and morality support a man like Edwin Edwards, who is known to gamble, chase women ... and constantly be under investigation for corruption?"

Bates looked at Maginnis.                      

"Well," he said, "he doesn't drink or smoke."

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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