huey, earl, and russell -- the longs of louisiana -- 8/06/18

Today's selection -- from President Carter by Stuart E. Eizenstat. The Longs of Louisiana:

"Russell Long, whose committee would consider all the tax measures in the energy program, was a different and ... colorful personality. He was born into politics as the son of the assassinated Louisiana governor Huey Long, the Depression-era demagogue fictionalized in Robert Penn Warren's classic novel All the King's Men. He told me the story of his father coming home late one night to the governor's mansion so shaky from a night on the town that he collapsed in the foyer after struggling to fit his key in the door. Still young enough to hold on to 'Mama's apron strings,' Russell watched his mother with her arms folded, looking sternly at her husband for a full explanation. Without pause, the governor said, 'Mama, I've completed my prepared remarks, and I will now take questions from the floor!'

Huey Long

"Politics in Louisiana is a state of mind, and Huey's son had mastered the game as few others had. He was no mossback conservative. There was a pinch of the populism of his storied father and a bit of the rascal of his uncle, Earl Long, who also served as governor of Louisiana with young Russell as his chief of staff, before abandoning government and policies as folderol and running off with a stripper -- not an oil well, but a real one named Blaze Starr. One story Russell recounted was that in a bid for reelection, Uncle Earl made lavish promises of roads and bridges to the state's local leaders if they delivered the vote. After he won, they returned to collect what they considered bills due, but were far beyond the state's capacity to afford. Russell went into the governor's office and asked in a quavering voice what he should say. The answer was quickly given, 'Russell, tell them your uncle Earl lied!' ...

"I once asked [Russell] Long, a peerless legislator and leader of his committee, what was the key to his success. He replied with an infectious wink, 'I find out which way my troops are going and then I get in front of them.' ... Long was gregarious, avuncu­lar, effusive, and often talked or mumbled in riddles that others had a hard time deciphering. Fellow senators, the White House, and the press hung on every consciously ambiguous phrase. Chairman Long was such an engaging figure that he could be figuratively knifing you in the back while cupping his hand around your shoulder, chuckling and smiling. ...

Senator Russell Long confers with Lyndon B. Johnson

"Long served under a number of presidents, and his model was one who would say to a senator, '"If you'll go as far as you can with me, I'll do equally well by you, and there's not much I wouldn't do for you, providing it's mutual." ... [With] that kind of undemanding, you can just get a lot of good men to really get out there and do battle for you.' At the same time, he made clear that a president has to understand that he can ask too much, at which point a senator has the right to say, 'Mr. President, I can't do that.' He expected to support a president when it was easy to do so, and on the very few occasions when the political cost of supporting a White House was too much for him, it was the president who would have to back away. He made himself sound like the most reasonable fellow, which in reality he was not when an issue touched his most treasured interests -- incentives for his oil and gas industry and subsidies for his state's sugar industry. On the con­trary, he preferred to do deals.

"When President John F. Kennedy's trade bill was hung up in the Finance Committee and the administration was trying to stop a killer amendment proposed by the archconservative Harry Byrd of Virginia, Lyndon Johnson, then Kennedy's vice president, approached Long and asked him innocently: 'Are you trying to keep that military base open at Fort Polk [Louisiana]? If you do what I'll tell you to do, you'll get the base open.' Johnson then arranged an Oval Office meeting, advising the president in advance that both would benefit if 'you help him with the military base, and he helps you where he can help you.' Long talked about the military base, and Kennedy about the need for Long's support on the trade bill. But, recalled Long, 'He wasn't hearing me [and] President Kennedy said, "I don't understand what this trade bill has got to do with that military base."'

"Long then lectured the young president in Policies 101: 'I think the votes on the committee are equally divided, leaving me out of it, and if I vote with you on that bill, it's going to come out the way you wanted it. And if I don't vote with you, it's going to come out the way Harry Byrd wants it .... All I want is Fort Polk to be open and kept open.' Long remembers that Kennedy definitely did not like that but said, 'Oh, I see your point.' Long cast the decisive vote, and Fort Polk stayed open."



Stuart E. Eizenstat


President Carter: The White House Years


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2018 by Stuart E. Eizenstat


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