Insiders' view of Louisiana must come from outside

The Argument

The rich nonfiction literature of the dark side of the state's culture is mainly -- but not totally -- the work of visitors.


September 16, 2001|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

You have to be from Louisiana and live there to write a meaningful book about that state. Yet few Louisianians can afford to reveal what they know. Only insiders have the story; only outsiders are willing to tell it.

The exceptions include A. J. Liebling, who in 1970 wrote a devastating book called The Earl Of Louisiana (Louisiana State University Press, 252 pages, $14.95) about Gov. Earl K. Long. Uncle Earl, smarter than his brother Huey, was a master of politics practiced the Louisiana way.

"Those who are with me in the first primary get the jobs," Uncle Earl liked to say, referring to the Louisiana system -- primary, then runoff -- where elections happen twice. "Those who are with me later get good government." Don't miss the double entendre: "good government" was a buzzword, the opposite of Long populism to its enemies.

Liebling wrote his book and left town fast. So did Daniel Bergner, whose God of the Rodeo (Crown, 297 pages, $24), published in 1998, is an excellent book about the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Bergner began with a book about the prison, as seen through its annual rodeo. He found himself at the center of his own story when warden Burl Cain demanded $50,000 for continued access.

After a year, Bergner, deeply sympathetic to the prisoners at Angola, whose labor Cain was selling for his own profit to private companies, couldn't wait to get out of Louisiana. Renouncing the opportunity of a last interview with Cain, he writes: "I really didn't want to talk with him. Indeed, I really didn't want to watch the rodeo anymore. I wanted to go home."

Tyler Bridges, originally from Palo Alto, and a reporter on The New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1989 to 1996, has just published a startling expose of four-time Gov. Edwin Edwards and his lifetime of scams, Louisiana-style. An outsider at heart, beholden to no one, Bridges was equipped to tell the truth about everybody, and his book is a terrific read. As a rare, honest book about Louisiana, Bad Bet On The Bayou (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 422 pages, $27) is an event.

Last year, Edwards was convicted on 17 counts of racketeering, extortion, money laundering and more. As former U. S. Attorney John Volz, who prosecuted Edwards in the 1980s without the aid of electronic surveillance, told me, under Edwards "all jobs were for sale." In the most notorious moment of Edwards' history of scams and crimes, at the Baton Rouge Radisson, he passed Eddie De Bartolo, Jr., owner of the San Francisco 49ers, a note. It read, simply, "400,000." De Bartolo knew what he had to do.

Bad Bet On The Bayou is much more than a chronicle of the fall of the "silver-tongued" Cajun governor, populist heir to the Longs and a thief whose profits surpassed those of the Marcello mob. Bridges exposes how legalized gambling returned to Louisiana. He excoriates the cynicism of those who stood to gain while pretending that the public interest was served by the presence of that garish, half-empty casino on Poydras Street, or the sleazy riverboats which rarely bothered to cruise the Mississippi as the law mandated them to do.

As Bridges reveals, even the conviction of Edwards, who was caught with the help of FBI surveillance tapes, is not untainted. The government indicted Edwards; yet, in a staggering display of corruption, U. S. Attorney Eddie Jordan refused to indict one of Edwards' co-conspirators, a politician named Cleo Fields. That Fields was pictured taking $20,000 in payoffs on the tapes did not matter.

Jordan at once sacrificed the prosecutions of two other corrupt officials linked to Fields. Bridges points out that Jordan is black, Fields is black, and political favor appears strongly to have overruled integrity. Fresh from his victory against Edwards, who, on appeal, has yet to see the inside of a prison, Jordan is now running for district attorney of Orleans Parish against Harry Connick, who has been in the office since 1973.

Bridges, now with The Miami Herald, underestimates the indulgence even honest Louisiana lawyers and judges grant Edwards, who pardoned many Angola lifers, unlike the present governor. He misses the affection many honorable people continue to feel for Frank Caracci, who ran the 500 Club in French Quarter, on paper a Marcello-connected mobster. (Most outsiders do not distinguish the Louisiana Mafia from the vicious New York variety). It would seem disapproval is in order. It isn't.

Finally, insiders, like author Anne Butler, with eight generations resident in "English Louisiana," know best the feel and the flavor of this strange land. Butler married a former warden of Angola named F. Murray Henderson. They had co-authored two books about the prison. Calling Butler "the love of his life," Murray Henderson seemed honorable.

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