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Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards
By Tyler Bridges
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
422 pgs, US$27/C$43

How to make millions in politics

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 18, 2001

Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin EdwardsCorruption is an ugly word, one that even a person with only a passing knowledge of English should immediately recognize as the province of the nefarious. In politics there are varying degrees of corruption including the relatively benign, such as a Public Works foreman arranging the hiring of one of his children for a summer job. Then there is Edwin Edwards, a man who -- to engage in some almost justified hyperbole -- may have single-handedly redefined the word in modern American politics.

Edwards, a four-time governor of Louisiana - a state journalist Tyler Bridges refers to as "notably poor in the realm of political ethics" - was sentenced in 2000 to ten years in prison on racketeering and extortion charges, a story detailed in Bridges' Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Roberts. Like all good stories of political corruption, Bridges' account documents the intertwined threads of money, political influence, the mafia and an old boys club that brought a seemingly untouchable populist career politician's life crashing down.

Edwards was the best kind of politician in the worst possible way. Colorful and charming, Edwards was the modern day embodiment of another famous Louisiana politician and one of his heroes, Huey Long. Possessed of an unworldly charm and cunning, Edwards rose from poverty to become a lawyer and later successful politician. With some obvious parallels to Bill Clinton, he was an inveterate womanizer and dealmaker and like the former president, the stink of scandal followed him throughout his career. During the 1980s he managed to beat prosecutors twice on corruption charges.

It shouldn't be surprising then that Edwards was particularly fond of gambling, a vice that both entertained him and was the cause of his downfall. The centerpiece of this book, which lies along what seems like a dozen major threads, is the account of Harrah's and some partners attempting to open a lavish casino in downtown New Orleans. The project immediately becomes an example of herding cats with everything that could go wrong fulfilling the promise. Harrah's finally opens a temporary casino in May 1995, well behind schedule, and begins work on a permanent location nearby. Within six months both the temporary and permanent casinos floundered and were shutdown with the end result of hundreds of jobs lost and millions of dollars in tax revenues for the state gone.

Edwin Edwards

Of course, if that's all there was to the story, Bridges needn't have written Bad Bet on the Bayou. Underneath the water were hundreds of sharks, better known as bureaucrats and politicians like Edwards, who all wanted a piece of the action. It is a testament to Bridges' skill as a journalist - he covered the story as it happened for the New Orleans Times-Picayune - that he is able to keep all the competing players in their rightful places and trace the web of bribery, payoffs and extortion that marked the entry of legalized gambling in Louisiana.

While it's advantageous for a journalist who covered a story for years to write the book documenting the story, it's also a dangerous thing. Bridges' research and writing was exhaustive in its meticulousness but it's also frequently exhausting. Although flashes of emotion occasionally bubbled out of his journalist's poker face - such as when he writes about the effect gambling had on the poor of Louisiana - most of the time Bridges takes a dry approach to the subject matter, as if he believed that the facts alone would command your attention over four hundred pages. Given the black comedy that corruption can often be, especially with a character as colorful as Edwards at its center, it would have been interesting to see Bridges take a less academic approach and rely more on the natural charm of the characters inhabiting his account.

His extensive use of the facts also draws away from Edwards, ostensibly his central character. Bridges took such pains to detail the web of corruption that emanated from the gambling industry and its political leeches that Edwards often recedes far into the background for long periods of time. Edwards so dominated the political scene in Louisiana that even after he retired from politics he was able to command action from those in government. He didn't do it with outright threat but because of a lifetime of smiles, patronage and graft. In other words, a conman of the highest order. What a story that could have made had Edwards -- who was sentenced to ten years on extortion and criminal enterprise charges and is free pending an appeal -- been allowed to dominate the book more completely.

Despite those two significant failings, Bad Bet on the Bayou is marvelously instructive in how complex corruption can become at the highest levels of government and a clarion call for those easily seduced by the warm smile and firm handshake of a politician who can speak at length but not say much. Bridges' story of the corrosive effects that money and the gambling industry have on politics is occasionally overwritten but rarely was it not interesting. Kind of like Edwards himself.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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