The Long, Long Trail

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It was not easy to be Huey P. Long’s son. The young man whose bulbous nose, cleft chin, and unruly hair might have been traced from his father’s image had had more than his share of schoolboy fights in defense of the family name. At the tender age of thirteen Russell Long had granted his first press interview. “I miss my father a lot since he went to Washington.” As he escorted the reporter to the door, he added, “When I get big and run for office, I want you to remember the promise you made to vote for me.” By 1938 he was a candidate—for president of the L.S.U. student body. Russell hired airplanes to shower the campus with literature, imported Ted (“Is everybody happy?”) Lewis’ dance band, painted L-O-N-G on the bare backs of a bevy of bathing beauties. His victory was followed by a law degree, also at L.S.U., and Navy service as a landing-boat officer in North Africa and Sicily, at Anzio, and in southern France.

In the spring of 1948 Governor-elect Earl made him his executive counsel, in which post he helped draft the promised new programs (and the unpromised legislation providing for $80,000,000 in additional taxes to pay for them). Two months later United States Senator John Overton died, and Russell was soon campaigning in shirt sleeves, tie loosened, arms windmilling in rank imitation of his father. He compared his opponent, Robert Kennon, to a “mosquito dodging through a barrage of Flit.” The comparison, by Huey’s standards, was tepid. For Russell was a city boy and a college graduate masquerading as a Winn Parish bumpkin. Liebling found him a “toned-down” Long, “which is the equivalent of a Samson with a store haircut.” But if he didn’t have quite the right smell on Saturday, he at least had the right name and physiognomy.

On November 2, 1948, Russell B. Long was elected to the United States Senate; the next day he celebrated his thirtieth birthday. He became the first American to have been preceded in the Senate by both his father and mother.

In 1952, when Earl Long was prevented by state law from succeeding himself as governor, a split developed between him and Russell that was reminiscent of the great intra-dynasty battle of 1932. Earl supported Judge Carlos Späht as his replacement; his nephew was for Congressman Hale Boggs. The fight between Long and Long, as usual, overshadowed the mainrounder. Earl: “Russell Long was picked too green on the vine.” Russell: “If I was picked too green on the vine, then Uncle Earl is too ripe on the vine and should be picked at once.”

The result was that neither Long-backed candidate won. Historically a Long gets forty per cent of the first primary vote. In the runoff he needs to pick up only another ten per cent, which is assured if his opponents cannot unite against him. In 1952 the Longs’ forty per cent was divided about in half, Earl’s man getting 22.8 per cent, Russell’s man 18.7. Robert Kennon, who had lost to Russell when the Longs were united in 1948, became governor.

By 1956, however, Earl was back in the running. In fact, the Longs were in the embarrassing position of a baseball team with three runners on one base: Earl wanted to be governor; so did Russell; so did George, who had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1952. After they exchanged a few mutually unkind words, Earl emerged as the dynasty’s candidate, and went on to win a stunning victory over New Orleans Mayor deLesseps S. Morrison (“Dellasoups,” Earl called him). At the inauguration George said, “We always seem to get together at this time of year, particularly every four years.”

Earl Long, three times governor of Louisiana and beginning to fail physically, then had his wife elected Democratic national committeewoman. There had even been a story that he wanted George to resign so that he could give “Miz Blanche” a congressional seat. Earl had met pretty, dark-haired Blanche Revere while he was at law school and she was working behind the cigar counter at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans. Unlike Rose Long, who claimed she never talked politics with Huey, Blanche became her husband’s trusted political confidante. “I guess all the Longs just naturally take to politics,” Blanche said, “and even though I’m a Long by marriage, I guess I take to it too.” In 1948 she ran Earl’s state campaign headquarters, and during his middle term as governor there was a rash of editorials about “petticoat politics.”

The spring of 1959 closed around Earl Long. He was by now a sick man, having already suffered one thrombosis; he was an aging man, cut off by law from running for governor again; he was a childless man, with “the pressures,” said one psychiatrist, “of being the childless branch of a dynasty.” And he was a man suddenly standing alone against the terrible spectre of mass race hatred.

An explosion of fears and forces in the South that followed the Supreme Court decision on desegregation of the schools produced the White Citizens Councils, and in Louisiana a racist state senator named Willie Rainach sought to translate their bigotry into local law. The Longs had always paid lip service to segregation, but it had never been one of the tenets of their faith. (“My father and my mother favored the Union,” old Huey Long, Sr., had said. “Why not? They didn’t have slaves. They didn’t even have decent land.”) Now, as Rainach steamrolled his anti-Negro bills through the legislature, the physically and mentally ill Governor threw his once-impressive body in their path. “A lot of people are following you, not because they agree with you but because they’re scared of you,” Earl shouted at Rainach. “I’m for segregation one hundred per cent, but I don’t believe you should run for office on it.”