So, So, So Scandalous


From Lapham’s Quarterly:

You don’t always—or often—get to hear the whole story in a courtroom. The law is like pouring batter into a mold. The mold is the law but not necessarily the truth. Decades ago I covered the corruption trial of Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards (not to be confused with current governor John Bel Edwards, to whom he bears no resemblance). The trial was conducted in my hometown, New Orleans, which I had even then long since escaped. Sometimes it is more daring to stay home than to go out into the world. I always felt that way when it came to New Orleans. Yet many of my childhood friends returned there for practical reasons. Things didn’t work out, so they went home, where they knew they’d have their mother down the street and the support of their family. The next thing you know, you’re visiting your mother daily, materializing out of a dark hall, your remarks soaked in sarcasm, like in a Tennessee Williams play.

Louisiana had a history of megalomaniac politicians, some power-crazed, like Huey Long, and others just crazy, like his brother Earl Long. The latter made rambling and quixotic trips to the grocery store involving purchases that filled five state limousines when he was governor. When he went to the store, he didn’t just buy one cantaloupe, he bought forty-four cases of cantaloupes. Perhaps today they’d call that OCD, or even Tourette’s—an involuntary urge to buy cantaloupes—and it’s not illegal, it’s just bizarre. But is that a scandal? No, it’s a personality peccadillo, or a psychological disorder—duly depositing him in the state mental hospital at various junctures.

I could never in my heart condemn the governor whose trial I covered. Neither could the populace, for he was elected to another term after the trial—serving an unprecedented four terms in total. Just as one might have to feel a ray of pity in one’s heart for Earl Long and his quest for cantaloupes, or for the New Orleans mayoral candidate of my youth who ran on a perennial platform to outlaw exploding cigars, I was bemused by these curious public foibles and made no distinction between the antic and the crime. In fact, those seem more innocent days. Yet it was I who was innocent.

“Exquisite Scandal”, Nancy Lemann, Lapham’s Quarterly