Edwin Edwards: the last La. populist

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Noted talk show host Larry King, left, laughs at a response to a question by former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards center during an interview at LSU's Union Theater Sunday as Leo Honeycutt, right, author of the book,
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Noted talk show host Larry King, left, laughs at a response to a question by former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards center during an interview at LSU's Union Theater Sunday as Leo Honeycutt, right, author of the book, "Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana, An Authorized Biography," listens.

Calling himself Louisiana’s last great populist, former Gov. Edwin Edwards showed off his characteristic wit at LSU’s Student Union Theater on Sunday, riffing on his wife’s good looks, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ambition and how he sometimes wishes he was still in prison.

Edwards, 86, appeared to bask in the spotlight, pausing for a moment to soak in a standing ovation as he joined his biographer Leo Honeycutt and later veteran broadcaster Larry King, 79, on stage.

Early in the interview, Edwards told King that he preferred not to use his time on stage to convince people of his innocence in the bribery and extortion scheme to rig riverboat casino licenses that landed him in federal prison for nearly a decade.

When King asked why the federal government went after him, Edwards replied, “Oh, well, it’s because I’m a big fish.”

“They sent me to prison for life, and I came out with a good-looking wife,” he added.

Edwards’s wife, Trina, was one of the central topics of the night, with Edwards saying his fellow prison inmates used to line up by the windows to watch the much younger woman walk from the parking lot into the visiting area.

Trina Edwards, 35, a Republican, met the former Democratic governor in prison. Now living in Gonzales, they have a blended family of six children, including Trina’s teenage sons and the couple’s nearly 1-month-old baby, Eli.

“I learned something good to use Republicans for,” Edwards deadpanned. “Sleep with them.”

With Honeycutt praising the four-term governor for being one of the state’s most effective administrators, the three men spent a large portion of the evening looking back on Edward’s political career, including his stint in Washington, D.C. serving in the U.S. Congress.

Edwards said he never wanted to stay in the nation’s capital, but rather he used his time there as a springboard to run for governor in 1971.

“If I would’ve stayed in Congress, I would’ve ended up as the speaker or majority leader,” Edwards said. “Huey Long was this state’s first great populist; I’m the last great populist.”

He then summed up his political philosophy as “serve the needy, not the greedy.”

The interview took a turn toward the nation’s current political climate with Edwards offering his support for the nation’s new health care law, known as Obamacare.

Part of the law offers funding to states to extend health insurance to the working poor. Gov. Bobby Jindal has steadfastly refused to accept those funds arguing that Louisiana won’t be able to afford the program years down the line once the federal government scales back the amount of money given to states.

Edwards said he believes Jindal won’t take the money because he wants to shore up his credentials as a conservative.

Edwards added that if he were still governor it would “haunt him” not to take the money. “But our current governor wants to use (the rejection of funds) as a springboard.”

During one exchange about race, King asked Edwards if he’d ever used race to win an election.

“Absolutely,” Edwards said.

“You’re a dirty old man,” King replied.

“I’m a successful old man,” Edwards shot back.

He explained that he felt Louisiana’s minority populations weren’t well-represented at the state level, so he openly campaigned for the black vote.

Edwards later remarked that race relations have come a long way in Louisiana, pointing out that Baton Rouge has a black mayor in Kip Holden.

He then looked to Holden, who was sitting near the front of the stage, and joked about the mayor’s interest in running for lieutenant governor.

“I don’t know why you’d want to be lieutenant governor and not mayor,” Edwards said. The lieutenant governor’s job is to “just wait for the governor to die.”

Edwards told King that even though he is not rich and his reputation took a hit by going to prison, he is happy in his post-prison life traveling, giving speeches and doing book signings.

“I’m so busy and so involved in a lot of things, sometimes I feel like going back to prison to get some rest,” Edwards said.