Last Thursday, I lost a good friend, Republicans lost the trailblazing leader most responsible of getting the party “out of the phone booth” and Louisiana lost one of the most honorable leaders to hold high office with the passing of Dave Treen.
The first time I had a conversation with the former governor was in 1992, when he was running then-President George H.W.Bush’s re-election campaign. Our talk pertained to the Louisiana Republican State Committee, a board that I had planned on running for that Fall but couldn’t as I missed the minimum age requirement by a few days.
Treen went into great detail, something he was known to do on virtually any matter, about the mechanics of the governing board and even mailed me information on the subject.
After the Bush defeat, I made a point of keeping in touch with the former governor, inviting him to speak to the LSU College Republicans, something he graciously did on a regular basis. During a dinner with the leadership at The Chimes before his speech, Treen had mentioned that he had regretted winning governor in 1979 as he was happiest when serving in Congress.
After US Representative Bob Livingston resigned from office during the Clinton impeachment debate, I wrote a letter to the editor in the Times Picayune arguing that the former governor would be the most logical successor to Livingston as Treen knew the system and would be an ideal compromise candidate for the staunch Republican district. Treen called me up the morning it appeared to thank me for the gesture and asked that I help him if he entered the race.
The Treen for Congress campaign seemed unstoppable: it had the most political endorsements, media support and national backing from both Livingston and some of Treen’s former colleagues who had moved up the ladder with Newt Gingrich’s take over of Congress. Unfortunately, people who didn’t understand the new political environment and the dynamics of a special election ran the show.
While Treen’s advisors were encouraging the former governor to base his message on Washington contacts, opposing term-limits (!) and “bringing home the bacon”, I strongly urged that he run hard to the right to outflank David Vitter, who had “burned his ships” by resigning his seat in the state House of Representatives to drive out turn out in his district and heavily invested in his long-shot bid.
My voice was generally drowned out by the professionals and civic leaders and from then on I mailed Treen weekly memos pleading to establish himself more as a conservative candidate, something he was but whose credentials as such were often lost in his “qualified answers”. After the campaign ended, Treen sent me a letter thanking me for my unsolicited advice and asked me to keep in touch.
I took the man at his word.
The next year when I was seeking re-election to the Louisiana Republican State Committee, Governor Treen happily signed a letter of endorsement, which proved essential in countering the opposition I had to contend with from a millionaire social moderate State Senator.
Treen once again came to my aid when I sought a seat on the Saint Bernard Parish Council. Treen’s support proved crucial as voters who would not ordinarily take a twenty-six year old candidate seriously were more inclined to do so at the recommendation of a former governor. Treen also supported me in two unsuccessful runs for the state legislature and headlined a fundraiser for me in my 2007 run.
Treen didn’t have to do any of these things.
That he was willing to sign his name next to that of a supporter shows how much he valued loyalty and that it was a two-way street. Treen never let the prestige of the high offices he once held or his historical significance in Louisiana politics stop him from helping out others in small races, which made him different from not just most, but almost all other politicians, in Louisiana and elsewhere.
It’s that kind of unconventional thinking that led Treen to put his name out there on behalf someone else: convicted Democratic governor Edwin Edwards, a move has baffled many fellow Republicans and almost led to a censure from the state GOP that was mercifully and quietly quashed by the Louisiana Republican leadership.
While many people look at the imprisoned Edwards as just a crooked politician who finally got his just desserts, Treen viewed the continued incarceration fellow ex-governor as unconscionable because of Edwards’s advanced age.
To truly appreciate Treen’s public position on this matter one should be cognizant of the history between these two rival politicians.
Edwards defeated Treen twice for the state’s top office and on the second occasion tormented the Republican incumbent with brutal taunts (example: “Dave Treen is so slow that it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes”) and unseated him by a landslide.
While many petty politicians would be inclined to dance on the graves of their enemies, there was Treen, risking his personal reputation and his stature as a Republican leader on behalf of a man who made his political life a living hell.
Regardless of your opinion concerning whether Edwards’s prison sentence should be commuted (a pardon was never advocated by Treen), one must admire the former governor’s capacity to personally forgive his opponent and willingness to risk his public standing due to his conscience.
It could be said that Dave Treen was a better Christian than he was a Republican, and that in no way is a bad thing.