“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, but you will never get to know the truth by reading the Alexandria Town Talk. You all read in that paper that I am crazy. Ohyeah. Do I look any crazier than I ever did? I been accused of saying the fella that owns that paper is a kept man. Maybe he ain't, but I'd like to be kep' as good as he is. He married a rich woman. That's about the best way I know to save yourself about ninety-eight years' hard work.”—Louisiana Governor Earl Long (1895-1960), quoted in A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana (1961)
For the current state of elections, I blame mostly the ad men and political consultants for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. These professionals didn’t have much to work with—a corrupt paranoid with an avid interest in policy, and a likable former matinee idol with no interest in policy—and sold them to the American people like bars of soap. Their advice, followed eagerly by their clients, was simple: Stick to the script. Stay on message.
Hearing this, Earl Long (1895-1960), as I think you can tell from the above quote, would have snorted in astonishment. Script? What script? Message—isn’t that something from Western Union?
Several years ago, in Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid, Time Magazine writer Joe Klein recalled Bobby Kennedy’s extraordinary impromptu address, amid the frenetic 1968 primary season, on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, to a group of anguished and angry African-American voters in Indiana. Kennedy spoke of his own brother’s murder, then mentioned his “favorite poet,” Aeschylus, quoting powerful lines about how “pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until ... in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'"
It was an electrifying moment in American political theater, a pause amid searing tragedy—created at least partly because a candidate was blissfully ignorant of his listeners’ psychographics: “The audience hasn't been sliced and diced by his pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups,” writes Klein.
“Uncle Earl” Long embodied a long-past moment of political theater, too, but in a comic vein: Aristophanes to Kennedy’s Aeschylus. What he shared with the fated Presidential candidate was an improvised performance. It was spoken, and then some.
“It is difficult to report a speech by Uncle Earl chronologically, listing the thoughts in order of appearance,” wrote The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling. “They chased one another on and off the stage like characters in a Shakespearean battle scene, full of alarums and sorties.”
Liebling’s politics were distinctly liberal, and certainly Long’s comparatively moderate civil-rights policies (no attempt to break Jim Crow laws, but an expansion of employment and suffrage opportunities for African-Americans) appealed to him. But even if that were not the case, one suspects that his overriding affection for those on the raffish side of life would have led him to hold a grudging affection for this politician.
This was, after all, not only the brother of “The Kingfish,” Huey Long, but a man whose outrageous fling with stripper Blaze Starr inspired the 1989 movie Blaze.
(Incidentally, if you really want an idea of what Earl Long’s life and last campaign were like, you’ll stick with Liebling rather than this movie. Liebling’s profile makes you feel what it was like in that last campaign—one so hot that at one memorable moment, Long holds a bottle of Coca-Cola up to his head to cool off. Director Ron Shelton seems far less interested in telling Long’s story than Blaze’s, and he was certainly besotted in the making of the film with female star Lolita Davidovich, whom he eventually married.)
The chapter from which the “Quote of the Day” was taken appeared in a book edited by Mordecai Richler, The Best of Modern Humor. It’s easy to see why Liebling’s account made it into this 1983 anthology. To be sure, Liebling wrote some clever asides about the politician.
But most of the chapter rolls along on the rhythms of Long’s voice, a style virtually nonexistent among today’s blow-dried, soundbite-hounded, risk-averse politicos. It’s at once colorful, earthy, raw, and even in your face, as when Long confronts a Democratic heckler and gives it to him with both barrels: “I knew your daddy, Camille Gravel, and he was a fine man. But you trying to make yourself a big man, and you nothing but a little puissant."
In my home Congressional district, we just went through a primary in which the two candidates bombarded each other for weeks with screaming mail order ads, high-decibel, sneering TV commercials, and nonstop robocalls—all the way to 15 minutes before the polls closed, and all to highlight virtually nonexistent differences between two veteran Democratic liberal congressmen. By the time it was over, I was thoroughly disgusted by the shameful spectacle.
I’m not saying I would have wanted to live in Long’s time, mind you, but the political combat would have been less disembodied, more hand to hand—and infinitely more entertaining.
Oh, one more thing about Long: After an incoherent speech against a bitter enemy, an unremitting racist, in the state legislature, Earl Long's wife, perhaps out of retaliation for his affair with Blaze Starr, committed her husband to a mental institution. In turn, he managed to check himself out and run in his last political campaign.
After all this time, it's hard to know the psychological disorder to which Earl Long was indebted. Whatever it was, however, he was still more sane than virtually the entire slate of GOP Presidential candidates this past year.
(Photo of Earl Long, undated, in his office at the state capitol.)