"Bad Bet on the Bayou" by Tyler Bridges

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.

Published May 29, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

There's a restaurant in Memphis called the Rendezvous where the specialty is dry-rubbed ribs. The ribs are dredged in spices and then put into the oven so that the spices are seared onto the meat. When you bite into them you taste all the juices that have been sealed in.

Reading Tyler Bridges' thorough -- oy, is it thorough -- account of the Louisiana political shenanigans in "Bad Bet on the Bayou" should be like eating a plate of Rendezvous ribs. But the juice just ain't there. Bridges has a fabulous, mouth-watering subject: the way the rise of legal gambling in the state provided a heyday for the politicians who have always treated public office as a way to line their pockets. It would take hours to relate the city and state commissioners and councillors, not forgetting their various relatives, who tried their hands at shakedowns. None was more successful than the state's governor, the oft-indicted Edwin Edwards, fond throughout his career of boasting that the feds would never be able to pin anything on him. Edwards' boasting stopped last year at age 72 when he was convicted on 17 charges of extortion, money laundering and racketeering. (Sentenced to 10 years, he is now free pending appeal.)

Bridges covered the Edwards story for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. He knows the players, their connections, their backgounds. It's a story that requires a reporter to be not just a crime reporter but a political reporter, and a business reporter as well. After negotiations, bids, wooing and dealmaking of all sorts, Harrah's opened a temporary casino in New Orleans in May 1995, while it began work on a lavish permanent casino. After six months of revenues that fell short of projections, Harrah's closed the casino and suspended construction of the permanent complex, throwing scores of people -- casino employees as well as construction workers -- out of work and making the millions of revenues Louisiana was counting on go poof.

There's no task he's called upon to perform -- crime, political and business reporting -- that Tyler Bridges isn't up to. Why, then, is the book such a slog? Clearly the problem isn't talent but temperament. Covering the events has given Bridges a sense of outrage, of disgust at the flagrant corruption of Louisiana officials. This comes through most strongly in a section on the people most vulnerable to legalized gambling -- not the people who could afford to patronize the casino complex and the riverboat casinos, but the people who couldn't afford it and went anyway, and the ones who found an even more prevalent form of gambling in the video poker machines introduced into bars and convenience stores. (Though it's fair to ask just how much responsibility the state can bear for people who choose to squander their life savings on video poker.)

It would, I imagine, be next to impossible to cover these events so closely and not feel some outrage. To Bridges' credit, he expresses this not through self-righteousness but simply by laying out the facts. But there's such a thing as being too thorough. Bridges opens the book with a history of legalized gambling in Louisiana that has the same irritating effect as the begats that routinely open biographies -- it's background we don't care about that gets in the way of the story we opened the book to read. And the book never gets on track. He is so intent on detailing all the players involved and their various schemes that Edwin Edwards, introduced as a grand rogue, becomes a shadow figure. Edwards' one accomplisment, it seems, was winning the gubernatorial election against admitted Klan leader David Duke (in a contest that prompted Edwards' supporters to display bumper stickers that said "Vote for the Crook. It's Important") and bringing together an unprecedented coalition of people to do so. At the end of the book, when Bridges says that he squandered the potential of that coalition, it's hard not to agree with him. But it isn't clear that Edwards had either the talent or the desire to build on it.

An even funnier bumper sticker during that campaign read "Vote for the Lizard, not the Wizard." It's just that sense of humor that Bridges lacks. He's writing about some of the most openly corrupt political double dealings in the country, in a state that, by his admission, basically acknowledged graft as a perk of the job. But he doesn't see the comedy in that, or, more likely, he thinks that allowing himself to see the comedy would be somehow falling vulnerable to Edwards' con-man's charm. As a result, his book lacks the electricity of the colleagues he quotes who cracked wise at Edwards' expense, columnists who used good, straight plain talk to heckle the greed that surrounded the whole gambling enterprise. The tenacity of a reporter can be a dull thing stretched over a whole book without a vision into which to fit the pieces of the story. Maybe it's unfair to compare a reporter to a first-rate entertainer, but there's nothing in "Bad Bet on the Bayou" that any of Carl Hiaasen's thrillers about corruption in Florida doesn't do better. Edwin Edwards and his cronies did one generous thing: They presented some writer with the makings of a comic banquet of corruption. It's too bad that Bridges is too neat a guy to smack his lips at the prospect and dig in.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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