Three Louisiana Political Legends Look Back
Interview by Robert Mann
Politics in Louisiana would function very differently without that crucial innovation—lunch. Strategists trade boisterous laughter and hushed assurances in equal helpings, greasing the wheels of government while trading rumors and jokes. Recently Louisiana Cultural Vistas brought together three of the state’s great strategists for a Saturday lunch at Mansur’s in Baton Rouge. Gus Weill is often referred to as the father of modern Louisiana political public relations. He served as campaign consultant and executive secretary to Gov. John McKeithen, and managed the candidacies of Jimmie Davis, Edwin Edwards and Dave Treen. Along with James Carville, Weill’s most renowned protégés are Roy Fletcher and Raymond Strother, both of whom managed gubernatorial and U.S. presidential campaigns.
Over lunch, Weill, Fletcher and Strother told tales of campaigns, politicians and hijinks past, and provided their insight on the role and power of the office of governor. Robert Mann, chair of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and former communications director for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and LCV’s Brian Boyles pitched questions, videographer Chris Robert captured the fascinating conversation, and we selected the most printable portions. We thank them for a rewarding afternoon and these invaluable memories.
Weill gave both Strother and Fletcher, as well as James Carville, their starts in politics. His own career began with a fortuitous recommendation.
Strother: I might start by saying that Roy Fletcher and I are here only because of the man at the end of the table, Gus Weill.
Fletcher: That’s right.
Strother: Without him, I would not be a political consultant. Roy Fletcher would not have been a political consultant.
Strother: Both of our lives would have been entirely different.
Strother: Do you agree with that, Fletcher?
Mann: Can I add that I wouldn’t be here either because you all elected most of the people that I work for. I’d probably still be a reporter up in Shreveport.
Weill: These guys, these two men, and at this stage of my life I have no reason to lie,were so much better at this political business than I was, and there was a simple reason for it. Intellectually, I would say we were all on the same plane, but they were enamored, taken up with, in love with this business of politics—getting someone elected and someone not elected—and I never was. If they’re kind, they won’t expose me, but I never was. I wanted to write, and I had a breathless sort of mentality that I didn’t give it what they gave it, and they were wonderful. The one thing I take credit for, I’m one hell of a judge of talent.
Mann: How did you find these guys?
Strother: [laughs] I was delivering newspapers [in Port Arthur, Texas], and Gus stopped me, pulled me off my paper route, and said, “Why don’t you come to work for me?”
Weill: No, they were in that business, but such talent … We were in the business in its infancy, absolutely. I went into the advertising business in 1958. This is a good start. How did I get in a political business? There was none. I couldn’t make a living in the [advertising] business in Lafayette in 1958. Somebody came to see me. They were running for school board from a parish [or] a police juror. “Mr. Weill, you have a candidate yet?” I didn’t know a damn thing about it. That’s how I got into the political business. I’m only giving you this because it serves as a background for them. That was in 1958. Then in the summer of ‘63—was it?—John McKeithen came. Judge Edmund Reggie told him to talk to me. Nobody was interested in his campaign though. He had no chance, none.
Strother: He was running eighth I think in a field of eight.
Fletcher: Eight, yeah.
Weill: This was a hell of a story. One thing I’ll tell you about McKeithen: he hired many. When McKeithen was running, we would stump in those days, go from place to place like a carnival. There were signs, there were billboards in North Louisiana, and the billboards said, “KO the Kennedys,” and they had a big boxing glove.
Fletcher: Shelby Jackson.
Mann: “KO the Kennedys”?
Weill: Yeah, and it was paid for by supporters of Governor Bob Kennon, fine man. So Kennedy gets assassinated, and Kennon, who was running way up in the poll, drops, and McKeithen wins.
The panelists recall a late night incident involving Seymour Weiss, Huey Long and the Roosevelt Hotel.
Encounters in Corruption
Louisiana politics carries a reputation for corruption, some of it visible, much of it cloaked in “business-as-usual” practices. The men told riveting stories of the practices and pratfalls of wayward politicians.
Weill: McKeithen’s not in office 10 days, when one morning two gentlemen come in and they carry a paper bag, so help me God. They said, “This is for the governor,” then they left it on my desk. I said, “Thank you.” I didn’t open it.
Fletcher: [Laughs] Don’t mind if I do.
Weill: I went in and I said, “I had the damnedest thing. Some guy came in and brought you this bag.” He said, “I bet it’s vegetables. They know your governor likes vegetables.” We open the bag and it was filled with money, hundred dollar bills from the slot machines. That’s what they were …
Strother: It was a Jimmie Davis tradition. That’s where it came from.
Strother: Wasn’t it, they all called it, “sheet music”?
Weill: I take it into McKeithen, he looks at it, and he screamed, “What?” He said, “Stop them! Stop them!” I’m running, and I’m hauling, money falling out of the bag. I finally catch up with them. I said, “The governor doesn’t want it.” They said, “Thank you sir,” and they did an interesting thing. Here’s one of the big lessons learned about politics. When people like that want to get into government, they just go to the next person, the weak person to get in.
I know in our office who they finally gave those damn bags of money to. I wanted them, too, but I didn’t quite have the guts. Can you imagine? Imagine a system where people bring paper bags of money.
Weill talks about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s greeting to Gov. John McKeithen and the use of racial slur.
On Edwin Edwards
Weill: You know the first time I met Edwin Edwards? I was handling [a race with] the Boustany family in Lafayette. That’s Judge [Edmund] Reggie’s in-laws. Reggie called me one day he said, “Do you want to go up to Texas with me?” I said, “For what?” He said, “That young Senator from Massachusetts is speaking. John F. Kennedy.” I said, “Oh, how are we going to get there?” He said. “I’ve got a friend who’s got a plane.”
Out comes this friend who’s a councilman on the Acadia Parish Council. Edwin Edwards flew us to that. That’s the first time I met him. He was a pilot, a very intelligent pilot — a bright pilot, but a pilot. Gosh.
Strother: McKeithin told us one time, and I don’t know if Gus remembers this, he said, “The only thing wrong with Edwards is he’s too greedy.” Edwards, I always got the idea that his first term was pretty straight.
Weill: Edwards was a phenomenon. Those Cajuns finally had one. Edwards looked like a movie star and dressed like one. McKeithen did not care for him.
The Art of Successful Campaign Spots
Each man remembered iconic advertisements that were sparked by accidents.
Weill: McKeithen and I were at Channel 2 here in Baton Rouge to make some TV spots for the campaign. And I looked at him, he was leaning against the wall. He was exhausted, broke, no chance against [Chep] Morrison, right at the end of his rope. So we cut these spots. Aubrey Moore was the station manager and production leader. And when the spots were over Aubrey says, “Gus, we can’t use these spots. He’s dropping his L’s.” I said, “He’s what?” He said, “He’s dropping his L’s.” I was about to tell him we got to do it again. I looked at him and he was exhausted, like the living dead. So I said, “Go with them. That’s all right.” Those damn spots came on: “Won’t ya he’p me?” They might have elected him.
Strother: One of the most important lines in Louisiana politics in my memory.
Mann: And it was inadvertent. It was because he was tired.
Weill: It was an error, yeah.
Boyles: Why was that ad important?
Strother: Because it distinguished him. It gave [you] something to hang on to McKeithen that made you remember him. And if you looked at those spots, and I haven’t looked at them in decades, he looked like a man who was exhausted. He looked like a man who was desperate. He also looked like a man who gave a damn. He said, “Won’t you he’p me?” It went right to your heart.
Strother praised Fletcher’s work on a 1991 commercial for then-Senator Mike Foster that featured the candidate wearing a welder’s mask.
Mann: How did that come about Roy?
Fletcher: I had in my mind that what people wanted after Governor Edwards in the ‘91 campaign. They wanted a papa. They wanted a grandpa, and I had a grandpa, a man with big old hands. So I had these couple scenes and [Foster] had told me one time something about welding, and I don’t know anything about welding—funny, my son’s a welder. But we were on the shop floor of the construction company and I asked a couple of the guys around me, did he ever weld?
Hell yeah, [they told me], them goddamn tractors would come in here after they cut cane at night and they’d be busted up and [Foster would] be out there three o’clock in the morning welding, putting the tractors back together when he was a young man. And so I looked at him and said, “Senator, do you weld still?” He said, “Yeah, I weld.” So Ed Ball was the guy who was filming for us. I said Ed, take him over there and weld something. So Ed goes over there and I stay completely out of it, and that’s what I got. And I did not know what I had until I walked in. It was a film… so I didn’t really know and I—
Mann: So you didn’t choreograph?
Fletcher: Oh, hell no.
Strother: He looks like he should be there. To me, that’s one of the greatest scenes in Louisiana politics. That few seconds probably meant more than anything in that campaign.
Strother crafted a spot to portray candidate Buddy Roemer as a reformer in the 1987 election.
Strother: Magic moments are so important in a campaign. The Roemer commercial that I did: “I love Louisiana. I love Louisiana enough to make some people angry.” I was working D Street [in Washington, D.C.] and there were guys regularly walking there with tire irons looking in cars, seeing what they could break and steal from the cars. I was watching them, it was amusing to watch them every night. Somebody left their briefcase in the back seat, you knew it was only going to last an hour, hour and a half. So I’m watching them and a spot came to me and I had a typewriter, not a computer, and I wrote it out and wrote it fast and I called Buddy and read it to him and he said, “You got it, you got it, come on down here.” I said, “When?” He said, “Right now, go get on an airplane.” I said “I won’t be able to do it until tomorrow morning, Buddy.” He said, “Well come on.” So I got down and we had a studio here in Baton Rouge.
… The spot, he gave it just the way I wrote it, until he got to the last paragraph, the last sentence. And he did that, and that was the magic moment in that spot. “I don’t like this. I don’t like that. I don’t like that. I’m going to brick up the top three quarters of the department of education.” That was all stuff I’d heard him say around the state, those were his words, in effect, from one time or another—I just put them all together. But he wrote that last line and that was the magic moment. When we went on the air with that spot we were at seven percent. In two weeks we’re at 35 percent. Two weeks.
Fletcher: “I love Louisiana but I hate Louisiana politics.”
Fletcher and Strother discuss the frequency of debates in the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial race.
Social media and partisan politics
For campaign strategists, the advent of social media presents challenges and opportunities. Yet technology does not rise in a vacuum. The conversation turned to social and economic forces that changed the landscape in Louisiana.
Mann: Every campaign’s got these reporters following around. The social media … I’m not asking about that behavior in particular, but how has the press and its attention on these campaigns and social media and the citizen’s ability to tape whatever these campaigns are doing. How has that changed?
Weill: Back in the day, and I won’t name them, there were some reporters you could buy. No two ways about it. You give them a hundred dollars and they’ll put you in a column, and anything else you want. When you stop paying them off, they stop befriending you.
Strother: You know what had happened, Bob, in my opinion, I didn’t mean to interrupt there Roy, but I thought a lot about this, about press coverage, and Gus is right, I can name two or three, and Gus could too. I think we hit the same two or three. Nobody had any respect for them, but you could get something published. What I think happened is, I think women came into journalism and changed all the rules.
Strother: That’s my theory. Because for example, when I lived that hard year with Gary Hart in ‘84 with the Monkey Business and all that, there seemed to be competition to expose scandal at that point. I think it was initiated originally, the climate was originated by these newly entered women into the profession.
Fletcher: That’s interesting.
Strother: There were women around. Iris Kelso in New Orleans, and Margaret Dixon in Baton Rouge. There were women, but not aggressive investigative reporters. I may be completely wrong on that, but that’s my theory.
Mann: Roy, what do you think?
Fletcher: I think that’s a fascinating idea. Particularly as it relates to people’s proclivities for extracurricular activities and whatever the case may be. My sense of it is that about 1999, when I really started to notice this [social media] stuff, it was scary as hell. By 2000 in the presidential campaign with John McCain [Fletcher was an advisor], a couple of days before the Republican primary in New Hampshire, maybe a week, our computers, which I didn’t know too much about, they started burning down with money. I didn’t even know how they were getting the money, that’s how stupid I was. How do you get the money to …?
Weill: You were innocent.
Fletcher: Yeah, I was very innocent, but it was all of a sudden, this thing had become a place to raise money for an insurgent candidate. Then, all of a sudden, you could start seeing how we could deal with the reporters and help shape the news, at least how it related to our [candidate], through this thing. What’s happened since then is that people, the Facebook and the Twitter and all of that, and the bloggers, and the tweeting of the bloggers, you know the scope [changed]. It’s gotten so much more [intense] that people, just regular people all of a sudden are looking into candidates’ lives. You’ve got this kid, [conservative activist James] O’Keefe that can go all over the place, and like him or not, he does extraordinary work, and liberals that do that. All of a sudden, all of the façade has been stripped away. I think what happens is the politicians continue to try to build up that wall, and it’s not a wall anymore.
Weill: The biggest thing that happened was the advent of the Republican Party in this state. That turned everything on its head.
Mann: Talk about that. Explain what you mean.
Weill: I’m from Lafayette, which was the most Catholic of all communities. You couldn’t be more Catholic. The man who ran Lafayette was Bishop Jules B. Jeanmard, a great man. Here comes the Republicans with Mr. Hammond, Maurice Hammond, who opened the Oil Center in Lafayette. They started pouring in from Texas, and the power went from the bishop to a head of the First Baptist Church in Lafayette, Perry Sanders, and that changed everything. They were allegedly the good government people and more straight. Don’t you think that had an impact?
Fletcher: A profound impact, the Republican party.
Strother: That’s a fabulous theory. Because the Oil Center was a turning point, I think, in Lafayette. Lafayette was a Democratic city, and now it’s hard, stone cold Republican.
Qualities of a Governor
The LEH’s Louisiana Governors Project seeks to provide citizens with insights into the function of the office. Mann asked Weill, Strother and Fletcher to reflect on qualities that make for a successful governor.
Fletcher: The thing that I recall about governors that are interesting—you got to have a person who’s authentic and who’s true to themselves. McKeithen was so true to himself …. And Edwards was, like it or lump it, Edwin Edwards was Edwin Edwards. You knew what you were getting with Edwin Edwards.
Fletcher: Yeah, you knew what you were getting with McKeithen. Foster, he was the same damn way. He was exactly that way. You knew what you were getting. You come in there with the old man, and the old man would give you exactly what he was. A very bright man, too, a tough guy. Those guys were all to me, even though Edwards failed ultimately, and all of the crap that happened to him, I think I agree with Raymond fully … they remained true to themselves and they did what you knew that they would do.
Strother: I wrote an ad that won an award; I wrote it for Gus. It says, “Since McKeithen was elected the skies are black with progress, comma pollution.” But here’s another thing, I was sitting on the back porch at the ranch with Governor Barnes [of Georgia] … He said, “We shouldn’t be electing amateurs to office.” He said, “If a guy served in the legislature for ten years, he’s going to make a better governor.” And you know, he was right there. McKeithen had really been seasoned, Edwards had really been seasoned by the time he got to office…. [Barnes] said, “A guy’s got to learn something about governing, and it isn’t just what you read in the Constitution.”
Mann: I think that some people might say the same thing about one of your guys. Roemer didn’t serve in the legislature and he didn’t understand it, right?
Strother: And it hurt! He could not help it. He was a terrible manager. And he didn’t like politics, and he didn’t like politicians. The other thing, these guys all have a love of politics.
Weill: You know what I told Bob that was shocking? That in all the times since we were all together, no one has ever thought of doing a program like this…. In other words it’s not like you can open a book by Robert Penn Warren and hear these stories. They only exist within us.
Strother: This is a reunion that I’ve looked forward to since you called me. And we both owe Gus some recognition.
Weill: No, thank you. That I found them two guys, god help us, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And they went on and elected presidents and governors.
Strother: But you got to stop telling people you found me delivering papers for the Port Arthur News.