Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Day I Met Earl K. Long


In 1959 Earl Long was Governor of Louisiana, but could not run for re-election. For a while he schemed to resign a few months before the end of his term and then run again, but he could not bring himself to relinquish his power to do that. He met with old Long Crony Jimmy Noe of Monroe and prevailed on him to run for governor, with Uncle Earl on the ticket as his Lieutenant Governor.
At the time, I was a 12 year old and lived in Vivian, Louisiana in north Caddo Parish. Late that summer, signs went up around the Dixie Drug that Earl Long would make an appearance one evening.
Now we all knew that Uncle Earl was crazy. This was well documented. Earlier in the summer, he had been committed to the state hospital at Mandeville. That didn’t last long, however, as he fired the head of the state hospital system, who fired the head of the hospital who had refused to release him. A new director was appointed and the governor was discharged from care.
He also went on a trip through the west with the national press following every move. His actions were controversial. He had been diagnosed as bi-polar, and to really tip the canoe, he was taking amphetamines to keep him going 24/7. And of course, there was Blaze Starr, a (to the eyes of a 12 year old) glamorous entertainer from New Orleans. We knew about his doings.
It may seem strange in today’s context that a 12 year old was familiar with these events, but remember the times. We had no video games and no computers. I always watched the news, and even read the newspapers. I loved this stuff.
On the appointed evening, I talked my mother into letting me ride my bike 7 or 8 blocks to attend the affair. This was no small feat in itself, as my mother’s family had never been keen on the Longs. She was from an old Bossier Parish family, and they didn’t believe in all this carousing and flamboyance. But I prevailed and was able to attend, and what an affair it was, a good old-fashioned stump speech right there on the sidewalk in front of the drugstore.
A crowd of about 40 or so was gathered and waiting when the big black Oldsmobile pulled up with a state trooper driving. Uncle Earl got out, wearing a trademark white suit and panama hat, took off his coat and threw it into the car and began working the crowd.
There was a little peanut stand set up on the corner. Roasted peanuts were 10 cents per bag.
My moment of glory came when Earl K Long, the Governor of Louisiana, this glorious, crazy man, called to me. When I went over to him in response to his call, he handed me a one dollar bill and instructed me to buy 10 bags of peanuts and pass them out to all the kids. As I passed out the gubernatorial goobers, Uncle Earl hitched his thumbs in his suspenders and set in to talking.
He assured the old people, who made up most of the crowd, that he would personally assure them that they would all enjoy a $65 per month state pension. They had given their lives and their labor to make the ‘fat cats’ rich and now they would get their rewards. All they had to do was vote for Noe and Long.
As the sun went down and the Oldsmobile drove off, my moment of glory began to fade. A few minutes earlier, I had been personally appointed an important task by none other than the governor. A few minutes earlier I was having a heady ride on the coattails of history. Now I was just me again.
James Noe and Earl Kemp Long lost the election that fall. In 1960, Earl Long ran for congress in the old 8th district and won the Democratic nomination, which was tantamount to winning the election.
He died from a heart attack within days.

6 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jim, what a wonderful account of your day of glory. I remember that not long before Uncle Earl was locked up, he urinated in the hallway of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. You tell a story well, you know.

One day I'll tell you about the time I met Edwin Edwards.

Jim said...

I would love to hear your Edwin Edwards story. Write 'er up!

Michael said...

During Edwin's third term, I managed to get his attention for a brief spell...we had a short demonstration, with L.E.A.N. (La. Environmental Action Network) and OCAW folks who'd been locked out of the BASF plant in Geismar leading the way. If I remember right, there was even a small contingent of Greenpeace folks who were either there or had been during the week.

I'm proud of my little personal accomplishment: at my request, a number of marchers wore dustmasks to highlight the lack of air-quality concern here in the Gret Stet. A friend even managed to string a few on the statues flanking the Capitol.

The rally concluded on the steps of the Governor's Mansion, which, at that time, was still considered public property. Edwin was rumored to be in the mansion...and eventually, long after things had ended, he emerged. Everyone was polite...I forget if he took the mask I offered him, but he did insist that the major cause of cancer in Louisiana was "cigarette smoking" (probably true, but a dodge nonetheless). He then got in the back seat of a large car...after driving just a few feet, the car stopped, and Edwin made a gesture with his finger, as to say, "come over here," clearly directed at a young woman who was reporting the event for the LSU Reveille. Words were exchanged, then he was whisked away.

I asked the woman what he'd said, and she replied that he'd promised her a "private interview" if she would come back in a few hours.

And, no, I didn't ask if she planned to take him up on it...to my regret...

Grandmère Mimi said...

Michael, your story about the young woman from the Reveille is the same story I've heard more than once from others. That was the way Edwards operated.

Jim said...

Michael and Mimi, that really is typical of Edwards. I had a friend whose (attractive) daughter was a reporter and she said he was such a rogue.
As a side note, a state trooper friend told me that the guys loved to drive and guard Edwin, that he was a barrel of fun.
Their least favorite - Buddy Roemer.

Anonymous said...

This is such an interesting story about "Uncle Earl". There is another story about the Long era that just surfaced. The lost private political papers of Harvey G. Fields were discovered forty-five years after his death. He was a law partner of the Longs, took over Hueys PSC Seat and built the initial case against Leche that led to the Louisiana Scandals. You can read about him at www.thomastfieldsjr.com .