What Does Edwin Edwards Do When He's $4 Million in Debt? Take 617 of His Closest Friends to Paris

updated 02/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Politicians of most states kiss babies. In front of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Governor-elect Edwin Edwards of Louisiana is kissing a nun. Sister Benedict, originally of Rayne, La., now assigned to Paris, says she is bestowing upon him "a French kiss."

"That's fine, Sister," says the dapper 56-year-old populist, bestowing upon her one of his narrow but grandly confident smiles. "Just don't let me get into the habit." Sister Benedict can take a joke. Edwards supporters chortle and beam.

Politicians of most states speak of belt-tightening over motel ballroom banquets of chicken and peas. In the Palace of Versailles, Edwin Edwards, wearing a periwig commandeered from a waiter in 17th-century garb, goes from table to table asking his supporters how they enjoyed their Saumon Mariné à I'Aneth Sauce Moutarde Brune and their Champagne Brut Lenôtre Cuvée de Réserve.

"Let's have a wig party," cracks Edwards, who incidentally speaks French and does not drink. Then he makes a little speech urging everyone to take careful note of the Sun King's palace. "If I can get the legislature to appropriate the funds, we're going to build one like this in Louisiana."

Politicians of most states make clear the solidity of their family-man status. Edwin Edwards, in the presence of his four grown children but 4,800 miles from his wife of 34 years, asks women attending a reception at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to France, "Can I give you a tour? I'll show you the bedrooms first."

Politicians of most states root for the university's football team. In the casino at Monte Carlo, Edwin Edwards wins by his own estimate $15,000 ("it's not hard") shooting craps and betting on one of his biggest financial backers, Shreveport fish magnate Gus Mijalis, as Mijalis rolls the dice, sweats copiously, addresses the croupier as "Senor...Monsieur...Sumbitch" and rocks the crystal chandeliers with cries of "Am I good!?" and "Boola-boola! Boola-boola!"

Louisiana politics, as many a Louisianan is pleased to allow, are out of the ordinary. Last month they were even a long way out of Louisiana. Edwards' victorious 1983 campaign organization transported 617 loyalists, public officials and members of the press to France, with side trips to Monaco and Belgium. Thus was a $4.4-million campaign debt discharged, in the spirit of laissez les bons temps rouler.

It took two 747s, designated Gabriel and Evangeline for the Cajun-flavored occasion, to carry all the people who were up to spending a week tracing Louisiana's roots back to the Eiffel Tower, the Brussels City Hall, the Crazy Horse Saloon, the Hotel George V and other points of interest.

"This is the biggest fund raiser in the history of American politics," asserted Edwards, as he worked the aisles of the Gabriel en route from New Orleans to Paris. "A few years ago Ronald Reagan's people had a banquet in Houston. They only raised $3 million."

"And they didn't have any fun," put in Sen. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, who used to be Edwards' bitter political foe but now does for his fellow Democrat what he can—like lining up French President François Mitterrand for what Johnston gamely described as "a meeting with a state governor and a U.S. senator," but which was staged by Edwards' people as a summit meeting between Mitterrand and Edwards, who (unlike Mitterrand) has become so powerful and raffish a figure in his bailiwick as to invite comparison with Huey and Earl Long.

Constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive gubernatorial term in 1979, Edwards came back last year against incumbent Republican David Treen. According to polls taken throughout the campaign, most Louisianans thought Treen was more honest, but they preferred Edwards.

"I'd rather be inept," huffed Treen, "than corrupt."

"If we don't get Treen out of office soon," cracked Edwards during the campaign, "there won't be any money left to steal."

In October Edwards got 62 percent of the vote.

In March he will be inaugurated as the state's first third-term governor. "If something national opened up to me, I'd look at it," says Edwards. "But not the Senate. I'm an executive, not a legislator." That leaves only two offices.

Presidential timber—a man who has seemed to be on the brink of indictment several times for alleged influence-peddling and interference with justice? Vice-Presidential timber—a man who may be depended upon to say immediately, when he encounters an attractive woman in a red dress, "Hey Little Red Riding Hood. You want to meet the Big Bad Wolf?"

Prime Louisiana gubernatorial timber, at any rate. In Louisiana 40 percent of state revenues come not from the voter's pocket but from taxes on the companies that pump oil and gas out of the soil. And the governor has control over a $6-billion budget. And since there is no party discipline to speak of, a candidate's success depends on his personality and the creativity of his deals. Louisianans like a governor who is entertaining and who is good at letting not only the good times but also the moola roll.

It also seems to stand in Edwards' favor that although he is sometimes referred to by his initials, E.W.E., he makes such a point of establishing that he is a ram.

"I didn't vote for him for husband of the year," says a female supporter. "He makes things happen. He's good for the state."

"He can get so much out of people," says a male advocate. "He could take a eunuch and impregnate the world."

As for allegations that he has blocked prosecution of a friend and taken as much as $20,000 from South Korean wheeler-dealer Tongsun Park, Edwards says, "Everything's been said of me that the mind of man can produce. I don't gloss over things. But I don't fool around with the public's money. And I don't cross the line between what's legal and illegal."

"He's honest," says a New Orleans bartender who voted for Edwards in the belief that his style of government is good for business. "Maybe he'll lie, but he won't deny it."

"He's honest," agrees Nell Haynes of Clinton, La., who is developing the Pretty Creek Subdivision near home. "He gambles and he says he gambles. Now as far as righteousness goes, this governor we got now is about the best we ever had. But there ain't no demand for that in Louisiana."

At any rate, the Edwards operation comes up with rousing ideas, and the trip to Europe was one of them. The Evangeline and the Gabriel carried a rich mixture of folks that included some Republicans, several blacks, one Chinese sheriff and any number of people proud to identify themselves as "coon-asses" (Cajuns, from the state's southern portion, whence Edwards springs) and "rednecks" (Protestants, from the northern). Liquor flowed, cards and dice were wagered upon, and talk of politics and money predominated.

"There's a lot of assumption in Louisiana," said Sam Thomas, a Monroe, La. investor and longtime Edwards worker who, along with the governor-elect's brother, Marion, organized the grand tour. "If people know you're close to the governor, they're eager to do business with you. They like to visit the man, be able to have a meal with their feet under his table.

"People ask me, 'Why do you give $250,000 to a campaign?' Well, I don't fish, I don't hunt, I don't play golf. This is kind of my sport."

It was Marion Edwards who came up with the idea of financing the last two and a half months of the campaign—which had already consumed close to $10 million—with borrowed money. Friends who might feel that they had already shelled out enough in outright contributions were willing to lend the campaign $25,000 or so, whether by check or by letter of credit. Then, after the election, there was the matter of paying them back. The campaign owed some 170 people $4.4 million and had only $600,000 on hand.

So the campaign's creditors got a trip for their money. For every $10,000 they were owed, they received a ticket to "Retour aux Sources Avec Notre Gouverneur Edwards." Some passed their tickets on to a schoolteacher, a high-school principal, a priest. Others sold theirs for what they could get. More tickets were bought directly from the campaign for $10,000 each. Legislators, state office holders and representatives of the media were allowed to come along for $2,100 each, which covered expenses.

"Altogether we brought in a hair in excess of five million," said Thomas, who estimated the trip's expenses at $1,250,000. When you throw in the $600,000 on hand, everything seems to have come out rather neatly even.

The trip's balance sheet should also reflect miscellaneous other entries. Charles Pace, a Gulfport, Miss. investor who does most of his business in Louisiana, and Rita Dupuis Bozant of Broussard, La., who owns a $40,000 shotgun and is a member of her local Catholic school board, not only fell in love with each other on the trip but also managed to carry two stuffed Pink Panthers of enormous size into crusty Maxim's.

"I lined up a construction loan during the week," said Pace, "and it never hurts, when you need an off-ramp on the expressway or a zoning change, to know people in the governor's office."

Nell Haynes, who says "If you want to remember my voice, just tear a rag," felt that the trip was a good deal on the whole, "but that Monte Carlo wasn't worth a damn. I'd rather go to Vegas or Tahoe. You know, they play that Keno game. I won $5,000 at Tahoe and they tried to give it to me in $20 bills. Have you ever seen $5,000 in $20 bills? I said, 'You just take that back. I'm a widder woman. I'm not Mrs. Jesse James.' "

At Monte Carlo, she said, "I th'owed away $60 on them slot machines waiting on supper. You can't play poker there. Governor Edwards was throwing dice. I can't throw dice. I'd get mad. And they penalize for cussing. Don't they?"

The governor-elect's daughter Vicki Edwards was among several Louisianans who complained about haute cuisine. "It's silly," she said. "It takes too long, and it's not good."

But the trip provided new ideas. "How come the American ambassador has a place like this," mused one Louisianan on entering the lavish residence in Paris, "and our sheriff has to live in a tract home?"

"You're right," said another. "Let's buy the sheriff a house."

For all the predictions by the self-proclaimed coon-asses that Paris would never be the same after their visit, Paolo De Pol, manager of the Hotel George V, reported that his strongly unionized, left-leaning staff, which had never dealt with any kind of tour group before, "came to me after the Louisianans left and said, 'Let's have these people back again.' "

"We are actually a very couth people," said Susan Sutherlin of New Orleans. "We weren't going to streak the Hall of Mirrors."

Said Sam Thomas, "People are already suggesting that the Federal government do something about its deficit by organizing a trip like this to the moon."

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