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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
His voice rising and cracking under the strain, Earl Long hurled obscenities at the legislators over statewide television. Before the eyes of his terrified wife he shed the personal characteristics of a lifetime. He started chain-smoking, carried a soda-pop bottle filled with grape juice and gin (“one hundred proof Coke,” said a reporter), and had well-publicized trysts with a red-headed stripper named Blaze Starr. Here were all the elements of an international news story. L E GOUVERNEUR TERRIBLE , headlined a French journal. A governor was dying, and attention must be paid.
After consulting with Russell, Blanche arranged to have a National Guard plane fly Earl to a mental institution across the state border in Galveston. She gave her story of the Governor’s crack-up to Life Magazine: “They say that when Earl gets out of the hospital he will take his certificate of health and take it out on the campaign trail with him. Then he can say he is the only man in the race who can actually prove he is sane. The people will laugh and be happy again because they know he is the only man in the state who really knows their wants and needs. And I’ll be happy again, too. I will know in my heart of hearts that he is well again. I’ve lived with this turbulent character for twenty-seven years and I love him very much.” But the story didn’t have a “they-lived-happily-ever-after” ending. What followed was more like a tragic performance of the Keystone Cops. Earl wangled his release from the Galveston institution on the promise of entering Ochsner Clinic at New Orleans, then promptly walked out of Ochsner. Blanche countered by getting him committed to a state hospital for the insane; Earl immediately fired the superintendent and replaced him with a doctor who signed his release.
Earl Long’s final race for state-wide office was as a candidate for lieutenant governor. He could manage to place no better than third in a six-man field. But there was still one last effort to be made.
In the Eighth Congressional District, heartland of the Longs’ domain, young Harold B. McSween had been elected to the seat left vacant by the death of Earl’s brother, George. In 1959, after his defeat for lieutenant governor, Earl decided to take on McSween. On the night before the primary Earl suffered another heart attack, but refused to enter a hospital for fear that it would deter people from voting for him. As the voters went to the polls on August 27, Earl Long gasped in pain on a bed in the Hotel Bentley in Alexandria. Finally, after the polls had closed and the news could no longer affect his chances, Earl went to the hospital. He won the primary for Congress by some 6,000 votes. Earlier that year he had announced, “I won’t quit running until I die.” On September 5 he died.
For the moment, this left only one Long on the national scene—Russell, who in 1948, at the age of thirty, had entered the United States Senate, a legislative body whose rules of civilized procedure had been bent and burlesqued by his father. Some of his older colleagues had been witness to Huey’s tirades. And here was a young man who arrived in Washington with the announced intention of vindicating the Kingfish’s name. He meant it; to Cabell Phillips of the New York Times Russell said, “I think my father was one of the greatest men of his time. He was certainly the greatest man I ever knew.”
But Russell was a second-generation legislator who, like other sons of self-made men, worked hard to maintain a newly won respectability. If his father was the shirt-sleeved laborer, he was the man in the gray flannel suit—Louisiana style. “I guess the main difference between me and my father,” Russell said, “is that the only way he knew to get the things he wanted was to fight and raise hell for them. He wanted all these good things to happen right now—fast. I know you can’t get things that fast, and I’m satisfied to take my time. And if I do that, and make a good senator, then I figure people will be bound to say, ‘Well, Huey Long must not have been so bad after all.’ ”
By his third term in the Senate, Russell had outgrown his compulsion to be the “Princefish,” merely Huey’s boy. “I have a fond and warm recollection of my father,” he said in 1963, “but I have my job to do, and for a long time now I have been working for Russell Long, not Huey Long.” When he steered President Johnson’s tax program through the Senate in 1964, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who opposed it, called him a “legislative artist in action.”
After Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for Vice President in August, 1964, Russell Long quietly began lining up votes to succeed him as majority whip of the Senate. While his chief opponent, John O. Pasture of Rhode Island, campaigned by sending a belated form letter to his fellow senators, Russell made a point of personally asking his colleagues for their support. He was assured of a sizable bloc of southern votes, but newspapermen were surprised at his strength among northern and western liberals. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, the most outspoken foe of the filibuster, agreed to become his campaign manager; Paul Douglas of Illinois, torchbearer for economic liberalism, announced that he was for Long because “he has a warm heart and a compassion for the poor.”