It's been said that Louisiana voters will forgive a politician almost anything except being dull. That maxim came to prominence during the tenure of former Gov. Dave Treen, but in the end it was Treen who did most of the forgiving. It was the measure of the man. Treen died Oct. 29 at the age of 81 after a respiratory illness.
Louisiana's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Treen was one of the few true gentlemen in state politics. An ardent, lifelong conservative, he nonetheless appointed more African Americans to state offices than any other governor in history during his single term as Louisiana's chief executive (1980-84). He often ranked that among his proudest accomplishments.
In his younger days, Treen was a member of the States Rights Party, which fought racial integration in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He ran for Congress several times as a Republican against the late Hale Boggs, starting in 1962, and once nearly unseated the iconic Southern liberal. In 1972, Treen won election to Congress from Louisiana's Third District, becoming our state's first Republican congressman since Reconstruction. He served in Congress until his election as governor.
Treen defeated a handful of Democrats to win the governorship in 1979 — the first under Louisiana's then-new "open primary" electoral system. Ironically, that system was devised by Treen's longtime political nemesis, Edwin W. Edwards. Four years after Treen was elected governor, EWE came back for a third term as governor, routing Treen by a vote of 62 percent to Treen's 36 percent in the primary.
It was during that 1983 campaign that Edwards uttered some of his most memorable quotes, many of them as taunts aimed at the quieter, methodical Treen. Among the most infamous was EWE's quip that the GOP incumbent was so slow that "it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes."
I remember another one that is less quoted. Noting that Treen's campaign would make an issue of EWE's alleged dishonesty, Edwards said: "He keeps talking about me as if I'm going to steal something. ... If we don't get him outta there soon, there won't be anything left to steal!" Edwards' words proved to be more prophetic than he ever intended.
Another irony about Treen and EWE was the fact that, while Edwards could charm any crowd from a stage, he was cold as ice up close. Treen, who was stiff as a board in front of a crowd, was the life of the party in smaller settings — and he had a rapier wit. I once heard him do a spot-on impersonation of EWE.
Treen clearly had a change of heart about racial issues after his early days in the States Rights Party. His policies as governor and his actions after serving as governor likewise paint a picture of an honest, gentle soul who believed in the Christian ethic of repentance and forgiveness. An obvious example of the latter was Treen's tireless efforts to get EWE released from jail via a presidential pardon. When asked why he would work so hard to free a man who had caused him so much pain, he confided, "Because every night I say the Lord's Prayer, and when I say the words, 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,' I would feel like a hypocrite if I didn't forgive Edwin."
Dave Treen may have lost his biggest political campaign to Edwin Edwards, but in the race that really counts, he was much the better man.