With a conservative Republican occupying the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, it’s not likely that any official commemoration will be given the dates of September 5 and September 10 this year. Other than a symposium at the Old State Capitol, sponsored by Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, no other official functions show up on the radar. For a state so steeped in colorful politics as Louisiana, perhaps the general indifference with which those dates are likely to be met might truly indicate that an era has passed, that the old guard has once and for all been replaced.
In another time, those dates would have borne an undeniably special significance with voters at either end of the political spectrum. September 5 will mark the 50th anniversary of Earl Long’s death and five days later, September 10 will be the 75th anniversary of the death of his older brother Huey. Perhaps ominously, there was a lunar eclipse on the nights before the deaths of both Huey and Earl. Dardenne’s event, it should be noted, commemorates only the death of Huey while ignoring the 50th anniversary of his younger brother’s death.
Both men, natives of Winn Parish, left indelible marks in both the state and national political arenas. Huey was in his fourth year as a U.S. Senator when he was gunned down on September 8, 1935, in the corridors of the State Capitol Building he built while governor and died two days later. Earl, a three-term governor, much like the Phoenix, rose from the ashes to defeat incumbent Rep. Harold McSween to represent the state’s 8th Congressional District just a day after his 65th birthday but suffered a heart attack on election night and died nine days later on September 5, 1960.
Huey, championing his “share our wealth” program, was poised to mount a challenge to President Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election bid in 1936 when he was assassinated, but not before he initiated a number of ambitious programs for the state. Among other things, he completed 9,000 miles of new roads, doubling the size of the state’s road system; increased the miles of paved roads from 331 to 2,301; built 111 new bridges, including the Huey P. Long Bridge in Jefferson Parish, the first bridge over the lower Mississippi River; built the Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South; founded the LSU School of Medicine and a new Charity Hospital building in New Orleans.
His free textbook, school-building, and school busing programs improved and expanded public education and his night schools allowed 100,000 adults to learn to read. He also increased funding for LSU, lowered tuition, and expanded its enrollment from 1,600 to 4,000.
Earl, on the other hand, was far ahead of his time by the simple fact that he refused to get caught up in the race-baiting politics so common in Louisiana and other southern states during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and 60s. In fact, Earl, going against the popular tide, increased the number of registered black voters from fewer than 23,000 to more than 107,000. He also brought black teacher pay up to the level of that of white teachers and insisted that classes at LSU-New Orleans (now the University of New Orleans) be open to blacks and whites alike when it opened its doors in September of 1958.
Earl also oversaw the construction of more than 1,000 new elementary and secondary schools; established several new college campuses and expanded others; built dozens of vocational-technical schools, and initiated the hot lunch program for school children.
But in retrospect, Earl’s greatest legacy would have to be his foresight during the racial strife of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. While others, namely Leander Perez of Plaquemines Parish and State Sen. Willie Rainach of Claiborne Parish, attempted to purge voter rolls of Blacks and to block school desegregation, it was Earl who recognized the inevitability of the changing times, refusing to bend to the White Citizens Council and the KKK. At the height of the hysterics, Earl once chastised Perez, asking the rhetorical question: “Whatcha gonna do now, Leander? The feds got the A-bomb.”
Both men believed in absolute power and both consolidated their power through patronage, firing political opponents and placing supporters in cherished state jobs. Huey had his famous de-duct box, a campaign war chest into which went 10 percent of every state employee’s paycheck. Earl, who abolished civil service in order to perpetuate similar political patronage, also opened the state to prostitution and gambling, taking rake-offs from organized crime, according to Earl biographers Michael Kurtz and the late Morgan Peoples.
Kurtz is a retired history professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and Peoples, who died in 1998, was a history professor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. The two collaborated on the book Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl and Louisiana Politics, published in 1990, which was the first to reveal FBI records that tied Earl to Carlos Marcello, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky.
Huey first ran for governor in 1924, narrowly missing a runoff, but that election set him up for a successful second run in 1928. In that 1928 election, he won with less than a majority of the vote. Huey got 43.9 percent of the vote and his opponents, Riley J. Wilson of Ruston and Oramel Simpson of New Orleans, split the remainder with 28.3 percent and 27.8 percent, respectively. When Simpson threw his support to Long, Wilson withdrew, giving Huey his victory.
He immediately set about firing opponents and replacing them with political supporters. When he got his free textbook program passed, Caddo Parish filed suit to prevent distribution of the books. But Long, flexing his political muscle, simply refused to authorize the location of an Army Air Corps base (now Barksdale AFB) in adjacent Bossier Parish until Caddo capitulated.
With Earl’s untiring help, he survived an excruciating impeachment in 1929, emerging more powerful than ever. He quickly went about firing opponents’ relatives and founded his own statewide newspaper, the Louisiana Progress. He not only trumpeted his administration’s accomplishments in the publication, but forced state employees to subscribe and pressured state contractors to purchase expensive advertisements.
In 1931, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating incumbent Joseph E. Ransdell of Alexandria, 57.3 percent to 42.7 percent. Planning what many consider to have been a serious effort to unseat FDR, Huey never got the chance. Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, whose father-in-law had been gerrymandered out of a judgeship by Huey, approached Long in the Capitol foyer. What happened next is unclear but what is known is that Long was shot by either a .38 or .45 caliber pistol, both of which were consistent with the weapons carried by Huey’s bodyguards. Weiss owned a .32 caliber pistol but it was never found. Whether Huey was slain by his own bodyguards reacting to some action of Weiss has never been determined but whatever the case, Weiss was cut down in a hail of gunfire from the bodyguards.
Huey’s hand-picked successor, Gov. O.K. Allen, died in office in January of 1936 after himself being elected to the U.S. Senate but before he could take office. He was succeeded for the remainder of his term by Monroe radio and television executive James A. Noe with whom Long had founded the infamous Win or Lose Oil Company from which Huey’s heirs were said to have reaped millions of dollars from leases of state-owned land that were subsequently sub-leased to major oil companies.
Another Long political heir, Richard Leche, was elected governor in 1936 along with his running mate for lieutenant governor, Earl Long. When Leche resigned for “health reasons” in 1939—prior to his being convicted of mail fraud and public corruption—Earl became governor but failed to win his own bid for the governorship in 1940 and again lost in 1944, when he ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Lewis L. Morgan of Covington, who in turn lost the governorship to Jimmie Davis.
Earl was finally elected governor in his own right in 1948 and immediately abolished the state’s civil service system (first established by Gov. Sam Jones) so that he could award jobs to political supporters. It was on Earl’s watch, according to Peoples and Kurtz, that the state saw an explosion in the spread of gambling, prostitution, and narcotics trafficking, eventually prompting hearings in New Orleans and Washington by Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee senator who chaired the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. The committee reported that under Long, organized crime operated openly and with the full cooperation of state and local officials.
Earl’s biggest blunder during his first administration, however, was in listening to Perez who prevailed upon the governor to reject the Truman administration’s generous offer in the settlement of the tidelands mineral royalty dispute. Perez was fearful of losing his vise-like grip on the royalties of mineral-rich Plaquemines Parish and lobbied Earl against accepting the offer put forward by House Speaker Sam Rayburn, saying the state would prevail in the pending federal litigation. The state of course, just as California had earlier, lost, costing Louisiana billions of dollars in lost revenue.
When Bob Kennon was elected in 1952, he instructed State Police Superintendent Francis X. Grevemberg to set about destroying slot machines from the Bossier Strip to Jefferson and Orleans parishes and to wipe out illegal gambling in general.
But Earl was back in ’56, winning in the first primary with 51.5 percent of the vote. He was aided no doubt by Costello and Marcello, each of whom contributed $250,000 to his campaign, according to FBI records cited in Kurtz’s and Peoples’s book. He also received substantial contributions from Louis Roussel of New Orleans who was interested in opening a racetrack in Jefferson Parish, and organized labor.
But trouble was on the horizon and Earl, already having suffered one heart attack in 1951, began a bizarre pattern of behavior that saw him first committed to mental institutions in Mandeville, Louisiana, and Galveston, Texas, embark on an odyssey across the southwest U.S. and Mexico, and become involved in a sordid affair with stripper Blaze Starr, all of which were dutifully chronicled by national and international media. As the pressure of racial tensions mounted—fueled by Perez and Rainach—Long grew ever more eccentric. He addressed the legislature in a rambling, incoherent tirade that ended with his being escorted from the floor of the House by Baton Rouge Advocate Editor Maggie Dixon and subsequently hospitalized.
Barred constitutionally from serving two consecutive terms, he ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Noe. Other gubernatorial candidates included New Orleans Mayor deLesseps (Chep) Morrison, Jimmie Davis, and Rainach. The plan was for Noe to get elected, resign, and allow Long to assume the governorship.
Noe ran fourth, however, failing even to win his own precinct. Long, outpolled his running mate but nevertheless finished third. Morrison led the first primary followed by Davis and Rainach. Davis won the runoff against Morrison, creating a sense of political Déjà vu: Davis had also won in 1944 when Earl ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.
Long was suddenly an old man at 64. Having survived a heart attack, a mental breakdown and a grueling, unsuccessful political campaign, most gave him up as politically dead. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Despite pleadings from friends and family and advice from his physicians that another campaign would surely kill him, Long steeled himself for one last hurrah. Hollow-eyed, gaunt, and pale, and sometimes lacking the energy to mount a platform from which to address crowds, he nevertheless plunged ahead, announcing that he would run against incumbent Harold McSween for the 8th District congressional seat. Few gave him any chance, especially McSween.
The incumbent stayed in the larger cities and towns of the district—Alexandria, Pineville, Marksville, and Natchitoches while Earl hit every village and hamlet in the district, incessantly driving himself in the stifling heat and humidity of Louisiana’s oppressive summer months of July and August.
Earl won by 4,458 votes, but the victory came with a price. He suffered another heart attack on election day, one day after his 65th birthday, but refused to check into a hospital until all the votes were in. In the movie Blaze, a sadly inaccurate account of Earl’s career by every measure, he is depicted as dying on election night but before doing so, pleading with Blaze Starr (who in fact was never with him during the campaign) to check the returns in Monroe. Monroe was not in the 8th District; it was in the 5th, represented at the time by Otto Passman.
In reality, Earl lived for nine days after the election and even held a press conference from his hospital room on Sept. 3, two days before his death.
The Long style of politics did not die a sudden and complete death; it took a while. The method of campaigning became more urbane with the advent of television, ad agencies, and political consultants, but the populism didn’t go quietly. John McKeithen won two terms with his plaintive “Won’t you he’p me?” campaigns in 1963 and 1967 (after a constitutional amendment allowed him to become the first governor to serve two consecutive terms). Edwin Edwards was elected on four different occasions (1971, 1975, 1983, and 1991).
Both McKeithen and Edwards, much as Earl had done, drew on a political base comprised largely of labor unions, blacks, and rural voters and both rewarded their constituents accordingly.
As political campaigns become slicker and more sophisticated and campaign costs continue to soar into the stratosphere, it becomes increasingly difficult for a true grassroots campaign to gather any real traction as witnessed by efforts of Buddy Leach and Foster Campbell in recent campaigns, capturing 13.8 and 17 percent, respectively, in the last two gubernatorial elections.
So, if there is to be any formal observance this month, perhaps it should be in fond memory of when political campaigns were more fun and the candidates far more colorful than today. In many ways, some would say we are better off now with our reform and Ivy League candidates but are we really? Is there something missing from the modern political landscape? Names like the Kingfish, Uncle Earl, Big John, and Fast Eddie have given way to Bobby, Dave, Buddy, and Kathleen.
Don’t we miss the old warriors and their charismatic politicking and stumping just a bit? When was the last time we heard a candidate address the real issues of the day by calling his opponent “Catfish Mouth” or a “yellow bellied sapsucker?”
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