That’s Earl, Folks!

The history of the South is full of stories of fiery young economic populists who turned to racism, like George Wallace and Pitchfork Ben Tillman, as well as the man C. Vann Woodward made into an emblem of that political progression, Tom Watson. But one prominent Southern politician during the very peak of Massive Resistance openly embraced the causes of black suffrage and the education of blacks, and at the same time was able to retain his appeal to the resentment that the white small farmer and blue-collar worker felt toward the rich and powerful. This was Earl Kemp Long—the younger brother of Huey Long—who was governor of Louisiana three times in twenty years, in mid-1939 and early 1940, from 1948 to 1952, and then again from 1956 to 1960.

When Earl Long began his first full term as governor there were 22,572 registered black voters in Louisiana, 2.4 percent of the total electorate. By the time he left office for the last time, the electorate was 15.6 percent black: more than 100,000 blacks had been added to the rolls. Only after the Voting Rights Act took effect in 1965 did any other Southern governor allow substantial black voter registration. In the late 1950s Earl built the New Orleans branch of Louisiana State University, which was integrated—making it, in the words of Michael Kurtz and Morgan Peoples, “the first public, state-supported university in the Deep South that admitted all students without regard to race.” Moreover, to quote Kurtz and Peoples again:

During his eight years as governor, Louisiana witnessed the construction of fourteen new trade schools for blacks and over a hundred new public schools, the hiring of over two thousand new black schoolteachers, paid on an equal salary scale with white teachers, a 50 percent reduction in black illiteracy, and a tenfold increase in spending for black colleges.

Today we are told we are supposed to love Earl Long, not just for his enlightened racial views but also for his raffishness. His opponents inspired him to insults of the highest eloquence. His behavior seemed outrageous. Often he doused himself with Coca-Cola in the middle of a speech, he went on wild shopping sprees at country stores, he had affairs with strippers. His eccentricities strike a chord of collective yearning in us for the earthy, colorful, pretelevision days in American politics.

The inventor of the Earl cult was A. J. Liebling, who found in the governor the rare politician whose taste in both ideology and recreation he could admire. His book, The Earl of Louisiana, came out shortly after Earl’s death in 1960, and since then the accepted picture of Earl has remained essentially the same; last year’s movie Blaze, which depicted the affair between Earl (played by Paul Newman) and Blaze Starr as a touching story of two Southern eccentrics in love, adopted Liebling’s view of Earl as a good-hearted, fighting populist.

When Earl was actually among us, though, his merits escaped the very liberal opinion that would celebrate him today. Because its position was for its time truly unconventional, Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana has a bite that Blaze, produced in a very different cultural and political climate, only seems to have. How could “we”—meaning, specifically, liberals, especially in the South—have failed to appreciate this hero, this civil rights visionary, this fresh and courageous voice, while we loudly complained about the bigotry and cowardice of other Southern politicians?

It must be remembered that Huey Long was himself thoroughly unrespectable during his life, which ended with his assassination in 1935, and for at least a quarter century thereafter. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (as well as the fine 1949 movie version) show Huey as the embodiment of the abuse of power. In Warren’s book, he is. In the 1930s and 1940s, the populist demagogue who promises everything to the poor and has extraordinary popular appeal while becoming increasingly totalitarian was a figure American intellectuals of good conscience found particularly menacing. Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., in The Politics of Upheaval, published just a year before The Earl of Louisiana, wrote that Huey Long “transformed the state government into a virtual dictatorship,” where corruption was rampant and political opponents were physically intimidated; in 1934, Schlesinger reminds us, Huey attempted to take from the city government control of the New Orleans police force and tax assessors’ offices, and when the city resisted, he had the Louisiana National Guard capture City Hall and put machine-gun emplacements in the windows to keep the mayor out.

Louisiana journalists who commanded national attention, such as Hodding Carter1 and Harnett T. Kane, whose Louisiana Hayride chronicled the corruption of the post-Huey years, were rabidly anti-Long. Carter even suggested that an armed revolution should be mounted against Huey. None of these critics, needless to say, fits Huey’s characterization of his opposition as being made up only of Bourbon planters and pawns of Standard Oil.

Huey Long was fully rehabilitated in 1969 by T. Harry Williams’s authoritative and admiring biography, which put relatively more weight on Huey’s success in addressing Louisiana’s severe economic and social problems, and less on his methods. As Willams describes the excellent prospect for Huey’s reelection to the Senate,

Above all he relied on the desire of the people to retain the Long program. They would not turn out of office the faction that was responsible for the great road and bridge program, the improved free hospital services, the free textbooks and increased appropriations to schools, the free night school for adults…and the abolition of the poll tax. Huey could well take pride in his program. It was a rare achievement in a Southern state of that time.

Williams’s rehabilitation was not universally accepted, though: it was often pointed out to me when I was growing up in uptown New Orleans, in the heartland of anti-Longism, that Williams had received considerable encouragement and aid, including financial aid, from Huey’s devoted son Russell, so what else could you expect him to write?

Earl himself was thought of as the last of a long line of buffoons, cronies, and crooks (such as Governors O. K. Allen and Richard Leche, Huey’s immediate successors) who, by claiming a connection to Huey, were able to occupy the grandiose Louisiana governor’s mansion for much of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Williams portrays Earl as a sort of successful Billy Carter. While Huey Long was governor, his opponents formed a Progressive-style coalition of the more straight-laced business interests, journalists, lawyers, professors, and clergymen, and worried that he would become a dictator, whereas the anti-Long forces’ view of Earl can be suggested by the name of an organization of his enemies mentioned by Kurtz and Peoples: The Committee to Save Louisiana from National Embarrassment.

Anyone living in a rapidly growing provincial American city, as New Orleans was in the 1950s, fears being thought of as a rube by New York (which is why Dallas has a brand-new art museum and symphony hall today). It was hard to keep up a front in New Orleans in 1959 while the governor of Louisiana was being committed to a mental institution by his family, then escaping and taking a heavily publicized tour of various western racetracks and nightclubs to recuperate.

If Williams was a revisionist of the liberal position represented by Schlesinger, Kurtz and Peoples are re-revisionists: they dismiss Huey Long as “a sinister, paranoic individual” who has been mistakenly lionized by “certain historians,” but they call Earl “the best governor in the state’s history”. Their treatment of Huey is too hostile to be altogether convincing; they make a point of telling us over and over that his inner circle included “men of wealth and prominence,” which is intended to give the lie to his populist oratory.

It’s true that Earl was less comfortable than Huey with the likes of Seymour Weiss, the owner of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and Louis Roussel, a rich, tough, independent oilman. It’s also true that Earl was much more loyal than Huey to the Long family; Huey hated the central Louisiana town they grew up in, Winnfield, and cut off relations with his parents and other siblings, whereas Earl spent many a happy weekend slopping hogs and visiting with his relatives at his ramshackle farm back home. Kurtz and Peoples probably picked up from the surviving Longs some of the family prejudice for Earl and against Huey. Huey was a truly important American figure during the Depression, though; it won’t do to dismiss him because of shortcomings that were essentially flaws of character, not failures as a public man.

Still, on the subject of Earl himself, Kurtz and Peoples are so thorough that their biases aren’t an issue. Their book is a monument to one of the Longs’ greatest legacies, the high quality of the state universities. Kurtz and Peoples, professors at Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana Tech respectively, have produced a work that is almost obsessively well researched (the bibliography lists interviews conducted as early as 1965 and as late as 1989) and it is written cleanly and well. It is a rare pleasure to find that there is support in the university for a full and readable biography of a minor but interesting political figure.

Kurtz and Peoples make the case that many of the accomplishments that Louisianans casually attribute to Huey are actually Earl’s. After Huey’s death, Earl, as lieutenant governor, talked the federal government into providing most of the funds for the enormous Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and got the legislature to institute the state old-age pension. Later, when he was governor, Earl built more miles of roads than Huey had. Even when Huey was alive, his successes owed substantially to Earl’s having been at his side, working the floor of the legislature with the consummate shrewdness expressed in his famous advice on conducting political business: “Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can wink.”

The superiority-of-Earl theory is appealingly fresh, but it must be said that it holds up only if the focus is kept tightly within the borders of Louisiana. Huey Long posed a threat to the most powerful president of this century. His “Share Our Wealth” clubs had a nationwide membership of more than four million. In his speeches and books, he outlined a sweeping new agenda for the federal government, whose chief feature was a heavy tax on wealth that would be redistributed to ordinary people in the form of a stipend. Earl may have been a master operator in state government, but he had no wider vision or ambitions, and his ideology, to the extent that he had one, was appropriated from Huey. Kurtz and Peoples are able to build up Earl because they are oblivious to life on the other side of the Pearl River, as Earl was too.

Both Long brothers began life on the unsuccessful livestock farm of their father, who was a populist, a free-silver man, and a sworn enemy of capitalism. Huey, two years older, was considered smarter and less emotional than Earl; Earl, who adored Huey, was physically more imposing, and he loved to fight. As children they settled into a pattern in which Huey would pick their battles and Earl would execute them. Earl dropped out of school in the eleventh grade. A little later he spent a trimester at Louisiana Tech, but flunked every course and dropped out. He became a traveling salesman, as Huey had before him, peddling various items, including patent medicines, before settling into a well-paid job selling shoe polish wholesale, which he held from 1919 until 1927. It was during this period that he adopted the routines that would serve him for the rest of his days:

Always an eccentric person, Earl was usually oblivious to the time of day. He possessed an extraordinary amount of restless energy, a characteristic of the males in the Long family. He could go without sleeping for forty-eight hours and, after a catnap, awaken refreshed and energetic. He seemed constantly on the go, needing to be doing something. Although he liked typical southern country food—cornbread, greens, ham—he usually wolfed down his meals and paid little attention to table manners. Many times he would conduct business in the middle of the night, and friends and political associates grew accustomed to being awakened at two o’clock in the morning by a telephone call from Earl. He had an amazing ability to recall names and faces and knew thousands of people by their first names. A naturally gregarious person, he loved to talk and, with an unexcelled talent for communicating with people, could captivate them for hours by delving into his endless store-house of tales and anecdotes. Other than the daily racing sheets and grocery ads in newspapers, which he studied religiously, he read very little, considering reading books a waste of valuable time.

Huey drew Earl into politics: Huey’s first race, for the state Railroad Commission in 1918, was also the first campaign in which Earl worked. Earl was a key operative in Huey’s unsuccessful run for the governorship in 1924, and before the next governor’s race he sold his shoe polish sales route so he could campaign for Huey full time. Huey won, and in 1928 he named Earl, then in his early thirties, “attorney for the inheritance tax collector,” which Kurtz and Peoples describe as “the highest paying state job,” and a good berth from which to handle special political assignments from his brother. These usually fell into the old pattern of Earl fighting Huey’s battles for him. The Long system required that every government employee and government contractor in Louisiana be made to realize that he served purely at Huey’s pleasure and was expected to do Huey’s bidding and also to kick back money that would be used to buy endorsements at election time. Earl was often the one who made the system work, ramming a bill through the legislature here, trading a government contract for someone’s support there.

In 1932 Earl broke with Huey, feeling that he was underappreciated and not taken seriously. Kurtz and Peoples’s account of the specific incident that precipitated their split conveys some of the flavor of life inside the Long Camelot:

A Highway Commission employee named Sam Irby threatened to disclose evidence of corruption in the agency, thereby damaging Huey’s chances in the election. At a meeting of Long strategists, Huey authorized a bizarre plan to kidnap Irby until after the election. During the meeting, Earl jokingly suggested that they “take the sonofabitch and kill him.” One witness said that when Huey heard the remark, he “wheeled Earl around and I never kicked a nigger in the ass harder than he kicked Earl.” Humiliated, Earl made up his mind to run for state office….

Earl ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor without his brother’s support, and then testified against him at hearings held in New Orleans by a US Senate committee investigating election fraud by the Long machine. They patched it up for reasons that are somewhat obscure; various Long associates, including the evangelist Gerald L. K. Smith, claimed to have brought the brothers back together, but the real point is that their reunion was probably inevitable because they were inherently so close. In the next election, in 1936, after Huey’s assassination, Earl ran for lieutenant governor again, and won. The governor, Richard Leche, resigned toward the end of his term in a scandal over corruption at Louisiana State University, and Earl briefly succeeded him, but when he ran for the office on his own in 1940 he lost to a reformer, Sam Houston Jones. He spent the next several years making money—he had considerable real estate holdings in New Orleans and a “law practice” from which he did political fixing for hire,2 and he usually did very well betting on race-horses—and engaging in complex political machinations in service of his ambition to reclaim the governorship.

Finally, in 1948, Earl won the governorship. Because the governor of Lousiana then couldn’t succeed himself, he had to step down after four years and watch another good-government candidate take over. He had no intention of retiring, though; as Kurtz and Peoples put it, he figured that “after four, dull, listless years of reform, the voters would once again be ready for a return to Longism,” and in 1956 indeed they were. He ran the state for another three years until, in the spring of 1959, when he was on a particularly heavy regimen of liquor, Dexedrine, and gambling, he had a public nervous breakdown on the floor of the legislature, “personally denouncing his political opponents and launching into outbursts of obscenities. After an hour and a half, [he] had to be escorted from the podium.”

His wife called in the men in white coats. Earl recovered sufficiently to run for lieutenant governor in 1959 and for US Congress in 1960, losing the first race and winning the second, but he died a few days after the end of the campaign.

Earl never had an articulated political program like his brother’s, or even a slogan, but Longism as he practiced it was consistent throughout his career. Its essential features were racial moderation, high taxes, big state government, and corruption. As Kurtz and Peoples point out, Earl’s racial enlightenment was relative. He frequently proclaimed his belief in segregation, and he refused to shake hands with blacks. There is a scene in Blaze intended to demonstrate that Earl was underneath it all a sly civil rights crusader—he gets black nurses hired at a hospital by feigning horror that white nurses were touching black patients—which is actually an incident from Huey’s life. Still, Earl’s career gives the lie to the idea that in the panoply of white Southerners during Jim Crow days, it was always the patricians who were the least racist. Many of Earl’s more gentlemanly opponents expressed more racist views on the Negro question. For example, Earl’s nemesis, the handsome and well-mannered mayor of New Orleans, De-Lesseps “Chep” (or, as Earl called him, “Dellasoups”) Morrison, opposed Earl all the way on the integration of LSU-NO, and Sam Jones, Louisiana’s first anti-Long governor, later led the local states’ rights forces.

A. J. Liebling ascribed to Earl a genuine racial conscience—Earl had won him over by saying he considered Lincoln “a fine man,” though he hastened to add, “But don’t quote me on dat!” Kurtz and Peoples are more skeptical on the subject of his inner feelings, but it does seem plain that he was morally offended by many aspects of segregation. He split with one of his most important allies, Leander Perez, Louisiana’s leading racist politician, because Perez joined Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat rebellion in 1948 while Earl stayed loyal to his friend Harry Truman (the Long–Perez feud produced one of Earl’s most famous one-liners: “Whatchya gonna do now, Leander? The feds have got the atom bomb”). In any case the question of Earl’s true feelings is slightly beside the point, because, in the ethical swamp of Louisiana politics, results are more important than the nobility of people’s intentions.

On those terms, Earl’s civil rights position fitted comfortably with the way he ran the Louisiana government: blacks were one category of the “little people” of the state, who loyally voted for the Longs and in return got more government benefits than they might otherwise have. The finance of Lousiana state government has two essential features: the “severance tax,” levied on oil as it comes out of the ground, and the “homestead exemption,” a waiver of property taxes for 85 percent of Louisiana’s homeowners. With these financial policies, politicians could make the claim that the extremely munificent state government was paid for by the oil companies rather than by its citizens. Earl made his claim most energetically. Kurtz and Peoples describe his promises in the 1948 gubernatorial campaign:

His platform promised something for everyone: $50 monthly old-age pensions; free hot school lunches; new charity hospitals and mental asylums; $2,400 annual teachers’ salaries; $5,000 homestead tax exemption; a trade school in every parish; and a bonus for World War II veterans or their survivors.

The idea that Louisianans were spared taxation because of the homestead exemption was an illusion; income and sales taxes were relatively high, and many of the heavy business taxes were passed on to consumers. After a few years of Long’s governorship, Louisiana had the highest per-capita taxation of any state: the rate went from $55.94 in 1947, just before Earl became governor, to $86.10 in 1949. He used some of the money to buy votes and endorsements, but most of it went toward fulfilling his promises. By the end of his term, Louisiana was first in the South in government spending, first in welfare benefits, and first in teacher salaries, and most of its new hospitals and schools had been built.

One of Earl’s most dramatic early acts as governor was to call a special session of the legislature to abolish the civil service. It would have been theoretically possible, I guess, for Earl to have combined the populist elements of Longism with a reforming spirit, but the reality was that a tremendous amount of illegitimate money had been sloshing around in the system since Huey was governor, and it figured for decades in most of the important political transactions of the state. Legislators were bribed, state employees were tithed by the Long machine, recipients of contracts were expected to repay the favor, and public jobs were considered an acceptable substitute for hard currency. Probably the leading source of the machine’s money was the Mafia—specifically, the New York family headed by Frank Costello and its New Orleans affiliate, which was run by Carlos Marcello.

Kurtz and Peoples have used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to FBI records that corroborate the long-held suspicions of Louisianans about the Longs’ arrangement with Costello (suspicious that T. Harry Williams mentioned and dismissed as implausible). Huey Long and Costello first met in 1933 and quickly arrived at an arrangement that lasted for decades: the Longs would look the other way while the mob set up gambling equipment in bars in New Orleans, and full-fledged casinos just outside the city limits; the mob would give the Longs a share of the profits. In 1936, a year after Huey’s death, Costello and Meyer Lansky met with Earl, then lieutenant governor, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to ensure that things would continue as before. Under Earl’s leadership, the mob began fixing horse races at the New Orleans tracks, and installed slot machines and pinball machines everywhere.3 Costello contributed $500,000 to Earl’s losing campaign for governor in 1940, according to the FBI reports; in 1956, Costello and Marcello contributed $500,000 together, and in return Earl pardoned several employees of Marcello’s who were in the state penitentiary on drug charges. Kurtz and Peoples take the view that Earl was not particularly interested in using his relationship with the mob for personal enrichment. As they quote one of his associates as saying, “Earl took some for himself, but at least, he got jobs for people.” Earl didn’t much like the fancy life, he had plenty of quasi-legitimate ways of earning money (like betting on fixed horse races), and he would probably have used most of Costello’s money in pursuit of his true passion, which was practicing the art of politics and government.

The political divisions in Louisiana in the Long era were between farmers, blacks, unions, and organized crime on the one hand, and business and clean-government interests on the other. The hero of clean government during Earl’s tenure was Mayor Morrisson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor four times. The advantage of the electorate’s being divided in this way, with blacks and poor whites on the same side, was that, unlike Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, Louisiana did not produce a popular politician who appealed primarily to white racial prejudice until recently, with the rise of David Duke, and Duke hasn’t won a statewide election yet. Instead Louisiana politics was infused with what Kurtz and Peoples call Earl’s “persistent advocacy of the notion that people can get something for nothing.” Since the Longs, there is a pernicious tradition of free-lunchism in Louisiana politics which the state can’t seem to shake. In Louisiana it has been impossible to persuade the citizenry to tax itself enough to have good schools, high-quality municipal services, and other essentials, something now true, of course, throughout the US.

During the boom times that followed the 1973 OPEC embargo, the dominant Louisiana politician was Edwin Edwards, who served two nonconsecutive terms as governor and was indicted, tried, and acquitted on corruption charges during his second term in office. The silver-haired Edwards had a political base and policies similar to the Longs’, but his incumbency had about it an air of hedonism. He lacked even the pretension to higher purpose. And Edwards left the state in a mess: when oil prices collapsed the state government did too, and Louisiana, once known for its elaborate public sector, became known for having the South’s most badly deteriorated one. In accordance with the rhythm of Louisiana politics, Edwards was succeeded by Buddy Roemer, a clean-cut young congressman with bachelor’s and business administration degrees from Harvard, who was heavily backed by reform groups. Roemer tried to cut back on the homestead exemption and the punitive taxes on business, and failed miserably; after the voters rejected his final tax-reform initiative, he gave up, and today reform seems more and more unlikely.4

The Earl Long of Kurtz and Peoples’s book is not the adorable, cuddly Earl of folklore. While their portrayal of him is an admiring one, they make it easy to see what there was to dislike. They admit that he was corrupt, vulgar, mean, and averse to putting state government on a sound footing. Kurtz and Peoples also speculate that he suffered, especially toward the end of his life, from a severe mental illness, which they believe was bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression). But he accomplished a great deal, particularly in black enfranchisement and in providing basic social welfare benefits like pensions and medical care. The blindness of local liberals to his virtues isn’t really so peculiar: nationally, liberals were similarly blind to many of the accomplishments of the politician whose temperament in many ways closely matches Earl’s, Lyndon Johnson.

  1. 1

    During the Thirties Carter ran an anti-Long paper in Hammond, Louisiana.

  2. 2

    Although he didn’t have a degree from high school, college, or law school, Earl took a night-school course in the mid-Twenties to prepare himself for the Louisiana bar exam, which he took and passed in 1926.

  3. 3

    At pinball you could actually win money. On a typical pinball machine, if you get a high score you win a free game. On the Mafia’s pinball machines, the playing surface was made up of a series of holes; by pushing various buttons, you could bet that the pinballs would fall into a certain combination of holes. In the unlikely event that you won, you’d get not one free game, but hundreds. Instead of playing them all you’d go tell the proprietor, who would pay you a nickel for each game you didn’t play and then push a “wipe button” on the machine that would bring the number of free games back to zero. I know this because I used to play these machines as a boy, at a hamburger joint for teen-agers.

  4. 4

    I am indebted to Alison Cook for letting me read her essay on Roemer, soon to be published in Esquire.