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The Long, Long Trail
The members of Huey’s Louisiana clan who tried to follow his footsteps to the land of their dreams never quite matched his bumptious stride or dictatorial power—but they grew into a thriving political dynasty
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
A lieutenant governor, Earl had never been part of the inner circle. He disliked Leche. “The office of lieutenant governor is a part-time job paying $200 a month,” said Earl. “While I was lieutenant governor I spent twenty per cent of my time in Baton Rouge. The rest of my time I spent on a pea patch farm in Winnfield or practicing law in New Orleans.” He was never implicated in the scandals. “I ain’t against stealing,” Earl joked, “but it takes two of us to steal and the other might squeal.” The Longs were always more interested in power than in money, anyway.
Later Time Magazine would say of the second Long governor: “Earl has aped his brother with the beetlebrowed assiduousness of a vaudeville baboon learning to roller-skate; he rubs himself with the legend of Huey’s greatness like a voodoo worshiper using ‘Fast Dice Oil.’ ” There was no doubt that Earl lived in the shadow of his brother. Even when he reached the exalted position of governor, the zenith of his ambition, there was Huey right below his office window: a huge, perpetually lighted bronze statue of the Kingfish that the state had erected over his grave. But Huey was more than a magic charm to be rubbed smooth; he was also the rivalled sibling. When Earl became the only three-time governor of the state, his first thought was, “Huey never done that.” Huey was Earl’s yardstick, always there for comparison. “I ain’t like Huey. He could go a-chomping around and get away with it. I’ve gotta go slower—I might get my head knocked off. Maybe I ain’t as much of a genius. But I got more horse sense.” And again, “Huey used to buy the legislature like a sack of potatoes. Hell, I never bought one in my life. I just rent ’em. It’s cheaper that way.” And again, “I’ve done more for the poor people of this state than any other governor. The only other governor who came close was my brother Huey, and he was just starting out. I’ve got his experience and I’ve got my experience, and you’ll see that I can make a better governor.”
When Earl inherited Leche’s scandal-ridden administration, he announced that his motto would be, “Better a little with righteousness, than a great revenue without right.” But it was soon clear that the new governor would not be a reformer. He needed the organization to get elected in 1940, and the last thing the organization wanted was a new broom. After the president of L.S.U. changed his academic gown for horizontal stripes, Earl remarked, “Don’t blame everyone. Look at Jesus Christ. He picked twelve. And one of ’em was a sonofagun!”
The 1940 gubernatorial race proved that Earl Long was a worthy successor to the Kingfish in invective. Of his opponent, a successful small-city lawyer named Sam Jones, Earl said: “He’s High Hat Sam, the High Society Kid, the High-Kicking, High and Mighty Snide Sam, the guy that pumps perfume under his arms.” The Governor told the hill farmers, “You vote for a good old country boy from over here in Winn Parish that thinks and smells like you on Saturday.” Replied his opponents, “Earl Long posing as a leader of the Huey Long peoplel That’s like Judas Iscariot running on the platform of Jesus Christ.” A hostile cartoonist pictured a disreputable bunch in a café plastered with signs, “Vote for Honest Earl; He Ain’t Like Us Burglars.” And there was Earl at the piano saying, “I just work here. I eat out.” Momentarily at least, Louisiana had had enough of Huey’s heirs; though Earl received 40.9 per cent of the vote in the primary, he lost by slightly more than 19,000 votes in the runoff. Immediately after the election he tried unsuccessfully to get himself appointed Secretary of State. Then there was nothing he could do but go back to his pea patch in Winnfield. For the first time since 1912, when Julius was elected district attorney of Winn Parish, no member of the Long dynasty held public office.
By 1948, however, the people of Louisiana were already fed up with the good-government element. Sam Jones had been succeeded as governor by Jimmie Davis, composer of “You Are My Sunshine.” If the reformers had the virtue of honesty, they also committed the political sin of being incredibly dull. (Moreover, Davis proved to be an absentee governor, spending 108 days out of the state in 1946-47 while making a movie in Hollywood.)
So Earl ran again for governor, determined that he would not be defeated for lack of promises. His something-for-everyone platform offered bonuses for veterans, hot lunches for school children, higher salaries for teachers, increased old-age pensions, wider highways, improved mental institutions, more and better hospitals and prisons.
He also recruited an impressive array of familial support. Rose, Huey’s widow, came out of retirement to say a few nice words about her brother-in-law; brother George campaigned briefly; nephew Russell—now a naval veteran of World War II—was back on the stump; and a new face, cousin Gillis Long, pitched in too. In the runoff primary Earl carried 62 of the State’s 64 parishes; all but 33 of 539 wards.
To celebrate the Longs’ return to power after eight years on the pea patch, Earl staged a jumbo inauguration in the L.S.U. football stadium. There were cowboys, clowns, a baseball game, and a two-hour parade, with 140 high school bands; refreshments included 16,000 gallons of buttermilk, 240,000 bottles of soda pop, 200,000 hot dogs. There was only one embarrassing incident: Russell Long received a greater ovation than the new governor.