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    Don't write anything you can phone.  Don't phone anything you can talk.  Don't talk anything you
    can whisper.  Don't whisper anything you can smile.  Don't smile anything you can nod.  Don't nod
    anything you can wink.
        -Earl Long, brother of Huey Long and himself a Governor of Louisiana

From a distance, it has seemed like Edwin Edwards was either the Governor of Louisiana or on trial for corruption, or possibly both at the same time, for nearly all of the past twenty five years.  Tyler Bridges, a former reporter for the Times-Picayune, who covered the successful efforts to legalize gambling there in the 1990s, has written a thorough account of that struggle and of the political career of the extraordinarily colorful and resilient Edwards.  In particular, he focusses on the fault line where the two stories came together, and how the slippery and seemingly invincible Governor was finally brought down by his eager and quite lucrative involvement in the rampant corruption surrounding the gambling industry.

In so doing, Bridges handles a welter of really labyrinthine information quite adeptly, wringing out of it a narrative that is relatively easy to follow (though sometimes, quite annoyingly, repetitious).  The tale is replete with shady Southern con men, mobsters, pols on the take, and features cameo appearances by well known scoundrels such as David Duke, Eddie DeBartolo, and Bill Clinton.  In the final section, as the FBI and Federal prosecutors close in on Edwards and bring him to trial, there is genuine drama : will he slip off the hook yet again, or has the barb finally been set deep enough ?  And as many states face the question of whether to rely increasingly on gambling revenues, instead of taxes, there's a real object lesson in the dangers they face.

For all of that, there's something strangely missing from the story : there's no tragic arc to it.  In that greatest of all political novels, All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren used the story of Huey Long and the miasmic Louisiana setting to explore the tragedy of how essentially decent men could be corrupted by the exercise of political power, the allure of easy money, and, most importantly, the self-assurance that even while doing well themselves they were doing good for others.  There is no moment, let alone a period, in the career of Edwin Edwards where he seems to have been genuinely concerned with trying to help the core of poor constituents, many of them black, who made up his base of power.  Nor do his voters appear to have harbored any illusions that he was truly on their side.  Bridges conveys a real sense that Edwards appeal lay almost entirely in his personal charm and the natural attraction folks feel toward a charming rogue.  As a result, there are no intimations of tragedy here, neither that Edwards is a good man whose faults brought him down, nor that this was a case where deserving supporters had their justifiable hopes betrayed.  Edwards was a crook.  Everyone knew he was a crook.  He did little or nothing to improve the lives of average Louisianans.  They voted for him anyway.  It's awfully hard to avoid the feeling that he and they got exactly what they deserved.

The journalism is, for the most part, excellent--clear, concise, and well paced--and the book is filled with amusing scenes.  The portrait Bridges paints of the effects of gambling on at least this one state is truly devastating.  On the other hand, one wishes that an editor had excised some of the needlessly repetitious material and it's too bad that Edwards was not as tragic a figure as he was comic.  But these things do weaken what is otherwise quite a good book.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Bad Bet on the Bayou (FSB Associates)
    -ESSAY : Southern Comfort : The coddling of David Duke (Tyler Bridges, February 22, 1999, New Republic)
    -ARTICLE :  Nevadans question wisdom of Florida gambling boats (Tyler Bridges, January 05, 1998, Knight-Ridder Newspapers)
    -PROFILE : The Contender : His parents reared their family on a patch of dust in a stinking slum and watched seven of their children die. But Alejandro Toledo got out. Now, 30 years after he arrived at Stanford penniless and without prospects, he is trying to make good on an audacious plan he hatched at the Farm--to become president of Peru. (Tyler Bridges, Stanford Alumni Magazine)
    -ARTICLE : GOP COOL TO ANTI-AFFIRMATIVE ACTION BID (Tyler Bridges, 3/16/99, Miami Herald)
    -ARTICLE : Professor's race views rack FSU : Academic discourse passionately debated (Tyler Bridges, Miami Herald)
    -ARTICLE :  Houseboat owner's true identity surprises Las Vegas crowd (Tyler Bridges, July 27, 1997, Miami Herald)
    -REVIEW : of Bad Bet on the Bayou : The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards  By Tyler Bridges (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Bad Bet on the Bayou (The Economist)
    -REVIEW : of Bad Bet ( Carmela Ciuraru , Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Bad Bet on the Bayou : The big sleazy When gambling  went legal in Louisiana, a new book shows, the state's incorrigible rogue of a governor was first in line at the public-money hogfest (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Bad Bet on the Bayou (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)