This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on October 31, 1983.
Louisiana politics is of an intensity and complexity that are matched, in my experience, only in the Republic of Lebanon. —A.J. Liebling, 1960
Lest you think for a moment that the Louisiana governor’s race is an ordinary political event, let’s forget the fanfare and get right to the heart of the matter: pardons. Gubernatorial pardons. 1,181 of them. That’s how many Edwin Edwards granted in his last four-and-a-half years as this state’s last Democratic governor. It averages out to just about one every other day, as the Republican incumbent, Dave Treen, gleefully points out. Now if that seems a bit peculiar, stay tuned for Edwards’s strangely indisputable explanation. “Shall we forget,” he cries in his Cajun-French accent, “that the great Man God Himself who walked amongst us died on the cross to pardon people who realized they had made a mistake but wanted a second chance? And anyway,” he laughs as the crowd roars. “I thought Republicans knew all about pardons.” Welcome to Louisiana.
This is a race between an intensely charismatic ex-governor who (many argue) isn’t particularly honest, and an aggressively honest incumbent who (most agree) isn’t particularly interesting. In the state that thrives on Tabasco and Mardi Gras, dullness is the only unforgivable sin. Therefore Dave Treen is in big trouble.
These are tough times in Louisiana. Unemployment is at a record 12.5 percent, almost double since Edwards left office in 1979. Treen supporters blame the recession for devastating Louisiana’s crucial oil and gas industries, but voters remember the good ol’ days and associate the flamboyant Edwards with the boom that was. And if there are any who think the good times may be gone for good, Edwards is everywhere reassuring them in a style unlike that of any politician in America. “You that are elderly and have seen your funds cut, you that are crippled, blind, poor, or disabled,” he exhorts, “you that have suffered these long three-and-a-half years, take heart. Take heart, for on October 22 the great healer shall returneth. And he shall make ye well!”
It’s lines like these that the handsome Edwards delivers as his huge motorcade, like some vision from a forgotten political past, tours the state. Surrounded by a score of pistol-toting, walkie-talkie-waving bodyguards. Edwards is greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on hysteria, the crowds pouring in for autographs, hungry for a fleeting touch. And when in South Louisiana he breaks out his native Cajun-French, it’s like Beatlemania.
In an infinitely more colorful version of the lines hurled at Reagan by the Democratic Presidential hopefuls, Edwards blasts Treen for his 33 percent tax cut, which he claims has resulted in a reduction of human services across the board, from state schools to the Edwards-created Right To Bite program, which helps senior citizens buy dentures. “Can you imagine doing that?” Edwards asks the rapt crowds in small towns with names like Bunkie and Ville Platte. “Let’s face it, when you get to 65 there ain’t much fun left except eating. Treen’s not content to take little bites out of us, he’s trying to gum us to death!”
“Edwards Giveth… Treen Taketh Away!” heads the Edwards brochure. The Republican understandably asks where Edwards expects to get the money to do all this giving, and though the ex-governor advocates the repeal of Treen’s tax cut, it’s doubtful that this alone would pay for the sorts of programs the Democrat is promoting. But to the dismay of the Treen campaign, no one much seems to care.
Edwards’s pitch is aimed at the low-income whites and blacks who comprise his hard-core base. In an interesting experiment whose outcome may have repercussions for the 1984 Republican national effort, Treen is waging a fierce battle to lure black support. His appeal is based on his efforts to involve blacks in leadership roles in his administration, rather than the quantity of funds he has allocated to social programs. “I’ve done more to place blacks in decision-making positions than any other governor in our state’s history,” Treen boasts, and it seems to be true. Three of his cabinet secretaries are black, and in three-and-a-half years he’s more than doubled the number of blacks appointed to boards, commissions, and executive posts.
Knowing how blacks feel about Reagan, Treen has been careful to avoid mentioning his party’s leader or calling on the Administration for help. But under the best of circumstances, it’s tough for a Republican to get even the 12 to 15 percent of the black vote that Treen is shooting for (in 1979 he received only 3 percent). The Edwards camp is confident. However, the Treen campaign is expending tremendous resources, and if it is successful in garnering an unusually high black vote, more of an effort will be made in similar quests by other Republicans in ’84.
For both the black and white electorate, Treen is fighting Edwards’s image as a mover and shaker, a can-do populist .”Most people think Edwards is a pistol; he’s hot,” says John McGinnis, who is writing a book about the campaign. “He’s seen as somebody who can get things off dead center, make it happen.” It’s that ability to make it happen when the Treen people question, pointing to the 1,181 pardons; the twenty-seven grand jury investigations of Edwards or his associates; the $10,000 his wife got from Tongsun Park, the South Korean lobbyist; the off-hand statements like “Lying is a big part of my job”; the sprees in Las Vegas. Fast Eddie, they call him. “The question is,” Treen asks almost plaintively, “do the good people of this state think their best interests will be served by a return to a playboy administration?”
Right now the answer seems to be yes. Louisiana politics is not just great theater. It is, amazingly enough, the state’s third largest industry, with corporate and individual contributions reaching phenomenal levels. In 1979 over $20 million was spent in the gubernatorial race, one of the largest sums ever blown on a non-Presidential race. That’s just under two-thirds of the amount a Presidential nominee is granted for his national campaign. And Louisiana is a state with just 2 million registered voters. This year they are spending like sailors, too.
For this kind of money people expect some entertainment, and in some cases, more tangible rewards. Dave Treen’s problem is that more often than not he has failed to deliver either. There probably isn’t another state in the country where a decent, reform-minded and performance-oriented governor like Treen wouldn’t be reelected. But this is the state the Longs made. In 1979 Treen capitalized on the excitement of a fresh approach, the appeal of the unknown. In 1983, Edwards’s showy exuberance is proving to be a tough match for the quiet benefits of reform. As Edwards’s aide, Sid Moreland, put it, “A Republican governor once ever hundred years isn’t so bad. But only once.”