A 1992 documentary puts the Bayou State’s political circus in perspective
by Paul Stekler
It doesn’t take long for newcomers to the state to realize that Louisiana politics is just different.
Nearly every fall, it seems, hundreds and then thousands of campaign signs appear on wooden stakes and billboards: a forest of self promotion covering every available space by the roadsides. Everywhere, at any time, people debate the relative merits of a seemingly unending stream of candidates running for a myriad of offices, from governor to coroner, known to all by their first names or their nicknames. Endorsements for Bubba, Buddy and Dutch appear on grocery bags. The airwaves are packed with colorful if not libelous ads. Armies of canvassers crisscross neighborhoods. Caravans of buses, minivans and cars deliver voters to the polls. The prospective voters are met at each polling place by a gauntlet of people passing out thousands of endorsement tickets. In a nation where 50 percent is a high turnout, voters at Louisiana polls exceed 60, 70, sometimes 80 percent. More money was spent on the campaign for the mayor of Kenner (pop. 82,000) than for governor of Connecticut. And it’s all part of one of Louisiana’s most cherished pastimes: an election.
Five years ago, Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and I started production on a film about Louisiana politics. At the time, we saw the film as our last opportunity to make sense of Louisiana’s circuslike, often irrational political system. For a decade, the Bayou State’s politics had entertained and perplexed each of us, providing an endless supply of stories about crazy politicians, wild elections, and electoral shenanigans unlike anything we had ever seen before moving to Louisiana. Louis and Andy, who had previously produced Ends of the Earth, a film about Judge Leander Perez and his Plaquemines Parish empire, had already moved to New York City where they finished their Peabody Award-winning American Tongues. I was completing a six-year career teaching Southern politics at Tulane University. I had previously worked for Bill Jefferson’s campaign as pollster in his 1986 New Orleans mayoral bid, and had made two films about black politics in Louisiana: Hands that Picked Cotton and Among Brothers.
On the eve of my leaving the state, moving north to Boston to produce films for public television’s civil rights history series Eyes on the Prize, we all decided to take one last look back. The result was a film we called Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics.
From Robert Penn Warren’s Huey Long novel, All the Kings Men, to the recent national notoriety that ex-Klansman David Duke’s campaigns have received, the image of Louisiana as a colorful Byzantine world of high theater, low morals and crazy politicians has been engrained as part of the American consciousness. Nearly half a century ago, V.O. Key, in his classic Southern Politics, began his chapter on Louisiana by noting that “among its professional politicians, Louisiana has had more men who have been in jail, or should have been, than in any other American state.” Writer A.J. Liebling, who came down to watch the spectacle of Governor Earl Long being checked in and out of mental institutions in 1959, but who also wrote the flattering biography Earl of Louisiana, called Louisiana “the westernmost of the Arab states, sensual, seductive, speculative, devious.”
It is true that people talk about their own local brand of politics in all parts of the United States, and everyone thinks that theirs is unique. I’ve heard folks in Bismarck, North Dakota — in all seriousness — tell me that the election campaigns up there could get “kind a rough.” Ha! I spent 10 years hearing politicians openly brag about kickbacks and their sex lives, watching political commercials so mean and so funny that I would start choking because I was laughing so hard (Louisiana is still the only state where I’ve watched a judge on TV saying that God asked him to run for office), and seeing an electorate vote to set up a gubernatorial runoff between an ex-Klansman and Nazi sympathizer and a twice-indicted former governor. After all of that, I would have to agree with Texas Senator Tom Connally, who once advised anyone who thought they knew anything about politics “to go down to Louisiana and take a postgraduate course.”
Louisiana, a Gumbo of Ingredients
The initial tendency when discussing Louisiana politics is to completely focus on an unending cast of colorful personalities. One remembers Huey Long waving his arms wildly, directing a band as it played the song he wrote, Every Man a King. In scratchy old black and white films, his brother Earl mops his brow, drinks whiskey from a Coke bottle, and harangues the state legislature, rambling on about the personal habits of his opponents. Big John McKeithen leans in toward the camera in a 1960 campaign ad, his face filling the screen, and asks voters: “Will you he’p me?” One governor, Jimmie Davis, sang his farewell address to the legislature. Edwin Edwards told a crowd that it takes his opponent, then incumbent Governor Dave Treen, an hour and a half to watch “Sixty Minutes.” Then there are the images of David Duke, standing in a white robe before a fiery cross. Concentrating on the personalities alone, though, misses the point that these “colorful” politicians can best be understood in the context of the political culture and the political system which produced them.
The cultural mix of Louisiana in the early 20th century set the state apart from the other states of the South. Besides the usual Southern class cleavages between dirt farmers in the agriculturally poor hill country and wealthier, ex-slave-holding planters of the richer delta, Louisiana was also divided between its Catholic French-speaking Cajuns to the south and its Baptist Anglo-Saxons to the north. New Orleans was also unlike any other city in the South, with its large population of Creole Blacks, Irish, Italians and German immigrants, and the existence of a powerful urban political machine run by Martin Behrman and the New Orleans “Old Regulars.”
Louisiana also differed from its neighbors in the extent of its poverty and the level of control exerted by its ruling, old “Bourbon” Democratic party and an established oligarchy of economic interests. In Louisiana, such “interests” included the sugar growers of the Cajun Southwest, the most powerful lumber industry bloc in the South, the shipping companies concentrated at the Port of New Orleans, the conservative New Orleans’ machine, and the oil and gas companies notably the Standard Oil Company all in addition to the usual Southern cotton planter establishment. At the same time, Louisiana’s general population was dirt poor. As late as the 1930s, nearly 40 percent of the state’s rural, white male population over the age of 25 had less than four years of formal education. Fifteen percent had never attended school at all. Other Southern states had plausible populist threats around the turn of the century, men such as Tom Watson in Georgia and James Vardaman in Mississippi, who at least addressed class issues. But in Louisiana, not a single political leader had ever risen who could, in any way, be acclaimed as the leader of any common cause.
Every Man a King
“Someone is coming to deliver you from your despair.” (Pointing to the statue of Huey Long at his side, Edwin Edwards beholds the figure.) “Fifty five years ago, a sandy-haired man came down from these sandy hills and started Louisiana on its road to prosperity. I have come back to you today to tell you that which he started fifty-five years ago will not die as long as you and you and you support people like Edwin Edwards.”
–Edwin Edwards, in a 1983 speech given in Huey Long’s hometown, Winnfield, Louisiana (quoted by John Maginnis, The Last Hayride.)
In tracing the roots of how Louisiana’s political system is unique, all roads lead back to the same source: Huey Pierce Long. In today’s atomized world of American politics, where party organizations and labels have almost ceased to matter, it is nothing short of amazing that Edwin Edwards, along with many others (including, at times, even David Duke!), can still invoke the name of Huey Long to help define their appeal. Indeed, nearly fifty years after Long’s death, on the eve of my move to New Orleans, my grandfather, a Jewish immigrant who worshipped Franklin Roosevelt and who remembered Long’s stinging attacks on the New Deal, warned me to “watch out for that man Huey Long.”
To understand the basic dynamic around which all Louisiana politics revolves, one must understand Long’s creation of his own brand of Louisiana-style populism. Before Long, the extreme cultural and class differences within the state had furnished a convenient “divide and conquer” advantage for the monied interests. Few people bothered to vote in essentially meaningless elections contested between conservative candidates. Exploding onto the state political scene in the 1920s, Huey Long’s ability to revolutionize state politics was based on the representation of the poor’s economic aspirations. Unlike the usual Southern Populists and rabble-rousing demagogues the Gene Talmadges, Theo Bilbos, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillmans and “Cotton Ed” Smiths who focused their ire on the even poorer Southern blacks, Long had a program to benefit the poor, remained loyal to it, and got it passed. He promised free textbooks, new schools, free hospital care for the poor, and new bridges and roads to help end rural isolation — and he delivered.
Better yet, it didn’t seem to cost anything. V.O. Key wrote that Long “gave the people something and the corporations, mostly oil, paid for it … [And] he did not permit himself to be hamstrung by a legislature dominated by old hands. He elected his own legislature.” Long rode a backlash against a system of do-nothing, gentlemen’s government that perpetuated a level of profound poverty. Robert Penn Warren’s fiction mirrored that reality when Jack Burden, in All the Kings Men, said: “If the government of this state had been doing anything for the folks in it, would Stark (i.e., Long) have been able to get out there with his bare hands and bust the boys?” More recently, Louisiana State University Political Science Professor Wayne Parent summed up the basic lesson that latter-day Louisiana politicians learned from Long’s example:
“Huey Long did so much to change the politics of Louisiana. He said, ‘I’m gonna help poor people,’ and he helped poor people visibly. He built bridges, he gave them hot school lunches. That was a politics that politicians after Huey learned about. You promise helping poor people, every man a king. You get in and you do very visible things for poor people. And you win!”
Populist versus Good Government
Long’s legacy was to remake the political landscape of Louisiana in his own image. In the years following his death, the major statewide political fights were mostly between “Long” candidates and “anti-Long” candidates. That basic schism has endured up until today in the familiar populist/reformer battles that mark most Louisiana gubernatorial elections.
Huey created the “Share the Wealth” program, but it was his brother, “Uncle Earl” himself a three-time governor who helped institutionalize the system. Over the next two decades, after Huey’s assassination, Earl kept promising to further expand Huey’s programs. And whenever Earl was voted back into office, there was a significant shift in state spending policies. More money went into public education, into the Charity hospital system, into old age pension checks, and other social programs. And it didn’t matter if crazy old Earl got crazier over time, dallying in public with French Quarter strippers and even getting committed to an asylum during his last term. Louisiana’s state government had grown into the largest in the South, with significantly higher numbers of people on the public payroll. Government activism, as such, became something of a given, and voters had the chance to vote for or against it in election after election. The result is a familiar cycle of flamboyant populist governors, whose excesses bring about brief intervals in office of unexciting, never re-elected “good government” reformers: populist, good government, populist, good government.
In some ways, the most popular populist of the last two decades, Edwin Edwards, personifies the potential that Huey Long first presented in bridging the state’s cultural cleavages. T. Harry Williams, in the beginning of his biography of Long, touched on that potential by telling a story about the first time Huey campaigned in rural Catholic south Louisiana. Long would begin each speech by recounting his boyhood Sundays when he would wake early, hitch the family horse to a buggy and drive his Catholic grandparents to Mass, then return and take his Baptist grandparents to church. One night, a local parish political boss asked Long why he had never told Cajun voters about the Catholic side of his family. “Don’t be a damn fool,” replied Huey. “We didn’t even have a horse.”
Edwards, on the other hand, is the real thing. His mother was Catholic and his father was Presbyterian. He speaks fluent French, and, as a boy, he preached at brush-arbor Nazarene revivals. Equally at home in the Acadian countryside, at fundamentalist revivals in Tioga, and in any complicated discussion of legislative bills, constitutional issues, or the state budget, Edwards came into office as a reformer, besting a field of 17 candidates in 1971. He came into office at a time when he could both take advantage of an oil boom to fund an expansion of government services and, in turn, bring blacks into the political mainstream at the tail end of the state’s civil rights period. Edwards might not have been the second coming of Huey Long, but in the shell-shocked post-civil rights South, the explosion of government activity coming out of the state capitol — from rewriting the state constitution to actually expanding the social service network of programs stood in complete contrast to Louisiana’s neighboring states. In the midst of it all, Edwards’ frequent gambling trips, appearances before grand juries, and all the rumors about his personal life didn’t seem to dampen his popularity with Louisiana’s voters one bit.
Louisiana Politics, the Movie
When we first started production on Louisiana Boys in 1987, things had changed. The state’s economy was in a freefall alongside oil prices. Governor Edwards, fresh from his acquittal in a second racketeering trial, was running for reelection in a very somber, unentertaining primary. No one was doing much laughing. The state’s political image was suffering and suddenly pundits were saying that the long-time Louisiana hayride of wild, untamed politics was finally over. This was well before David Duke grabbed Louisiana’s center stage for a national audience.
Our original idea had been to use the 1987 statewide election campaign as the dramatic central story in a film that would examine the whole nature of Louisiana politics. The problem was that the election proved to be as boring and lifeless as the candidates that year. Governor Edwards, the life of the campaign party in elections past, seemed to be avoiding an obviously angry electorate and his own almost inevitable defeat. Only Buddy Roemer’s “I’m-not-going-to-take-it-any-more” Roemer Revolution TV commercials seemed to touch a nerve. No live action meant little to film, so we had to go back to the drawing board.
It was at that point that we collectively dug into the treasure chest of film we had gathered in a decade’s time living in Louisiana and began constructing a film that illustrated the continuity of state politics. Interweaving archival and contemporary footage, we linked the development of state populism and programs under Huey and Earl in which Louisiana’s voters actually benefited or lost given the results of elections. We tied it to the enthusiasm for politics that still exists in the Louisiana electorate today. We also began looking for ways to catch filmic glimpses of the color and humor that mark state politics in Louisiana. Over time, we filmed the sequences revolving around such oddities as candidate endorsements on Schwegmann’s supermarket shopping bags, the proposed Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in Huey and Earl’s hometown of Winnfield, the often hilarious “attack” commercials commissioned by candidates running for everything from governor down to the lowest of local offices, and so on.
We even added a new section on David Duke, who exploded onto the scene himself during the filming. And we distanced ourselves from the national press treatment of Duke by identifying the former admirer of Adolf Hitler squarely as part of a continuing Louisiana strain of reactionary politics that pre-dates Duke — and will outlive him as well. Finally, we wanted the film to be as entertaining to its broadcast audience as it usually is for Louisiana’s voters. We hoped that the humor we used would help attract a non-Louisiana national audience. Once they were hooked, we would show them that one could “explain” our politics however irrational it might sometimes seem in its curious mix of local culture and electoral self-interest.
Two memories of making Louisiana Boys stand out to me. One December night in 1989, we filmed the premier of Blaze in Baton Rouge. Men and women in tuxedos, gowns and furs paid $500 apiece to crowd into the rotunda of the state capitol. Steps from the hallway walls where bullet holes still mark the spot of Huey Long’s assassination, mountains of crawfish and shrimp stood stacked among ice sculptures. State senators elbowed Hollywood producers in the food line while local reporters cornered actresses and directors, asking them as outsiders to explain Louisiana politics. After a while, I lost track of the order of things who was Hollywood and who was Louisiana. Everyone there was either an entertainer or being entertained. Louisiana politics.
A year later, our film editor, Anne Craig — a native of Baton Rouge — sat perplexed, watching the monitor as the mayor of Huey’s hometown took us to visit the proposed site of the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame. As the picture revealed the building — a dilapidated old railroad shack — the editing room broke into howls of laughter. Anne’s family has a history of political involvement, from good-government campaigns to lobbying the legislature on recent environmental issues. After months in the editing room defending her home state against three transplanted filmmakers, she too began to laugh, shaking her head and asking if any of us thought Louisiana or Louisiana politics would ever change.
Will Things Ever Change?
Is there any reason to think that Louisiana politics will ever change, become part of the national move towards a more homogeneous culture? Maybe. The old-style stump-speaking courthouse square rally, complete with a hillbilly band and free food for the curious, is part of the past. Even basic door-to-door campaigning is being replaced by television ads where candidates — their images refined by national political consultants — reach the entire state night after night in ten- and thirty-second sound bites. The whole process tends to tone down the local color. On the eve of Buddy Roemer’s 1987 upset gubernatorial victory, one of our film interview subjects, John Maginnis, editor of the Baton Rouge newsweekly Gris-Gris told us:
“Our politics, like everywhere else, have become more homogenized. What it takes to win on TV is what we’re getting. And I think, in the end, it’s gonna lead to a blander kind of politics in Louisiana, but it’s not gonna happen overnight.”
Of course, long before Buddy Roemer’s revolution-and-reform agenda got lost on its way to a primary defeat to both Edwin Edwards and David Duke four years later, Maginnis also said that while Louisiana might join the 20th century, politically, before it ended, he “wasn’t going to hold his breath.”
On my last trip to visit Louisiana I remember talking to a friend about a recent election somewhere out in Acadiana. Over a strong cup of coffee and chicory, my friend recounted the story of a parish sheriff who had died during the campaign but had been reelected anyway, prompting one local to remark that in that parish “the deceased voters had finally elected one of their own.”
Even if you could teach an old dog new tricks, there are no guarantees the new spots would take. On the eve of his inauguration to a historic fourth term as governor, Edwin Edwards, who pledged that he was a new man on the way to beating David Duke, flew out to Las Vegas for a New Year’s Eve gambling spree that reportedly netted him at least $50,000 in winnings. While the newspapers seemed outraged by it all, it was less clear how surprised the voters of the state were. The moral seemed to be that Louisiana had experienced the “reform” of the Roemer administration and was more than ready for something more familiar, no matter what the consequences. As Earl Long once said, “Someday Louisiana is going to get good government. And they ain’t gonna like it.”
Paul Stekler, Louis Alvarez, and Andy Kolker’s film, Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics, was made possible in part by major funding from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. The documentary was broadcast nationally on PBS as part of its critically acclaimed “P.O.V.” series during the week of August 31,1992.