Political Pomp: Political Storytelling in Louisiana

By C. Renée Harvison Christian


"They take their politics seriously here in Louisiana. I think Louisiana is where politics was born in the United States of America. I think we have the best politics in the world." —Max Greig, Cajun, St. Martinville

To know the hearts and minds of Louisianians is to know politics—a topic which has provided more grist for the state's storytelling mill and which has unified its various peoples like no other. Whether Creole or Cajun, Isleño or Italian, Anglo or African American, a Louisianian has either heard or told a political story.

Politics is an important concern in Louisiana and the cultural landscape reflects this before an election. Political signs in Eunice, Louisiana, October 1990. Photo: Maida Owens.

It is no wonder that we tell so many of these stories, considering the central role that politics has played in the development of Louisiana's culture. Together, the people of Louisiana have sampled and survived various types of politics under the dominions of France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States. Many hands have stirred the state's political pot, following no single recipe. But the ingredients have included dictatorial authority, complicated bureaucracy, carpetbag rule, laws based on the Code Napoleon, parishes as the governmental unit instead of the typical county, the establishment of a much-disputed lottery in 1868 and again in 1991, many governmental factions and scandals, and an assassination of its most ambitious governor. After nearly three centuries of brewing, the result is a political system which continues to be colorful, controversial, and confusing. Louisianians cope with the confusion through a sense of humor, which is evident in their numerous political stories.

From its political start, Louisiana has been a land of scandal. In the early eighteenth century, Scottish gambler John Law devised a scheme which cheated thousands of men and women of their money as they crossed the Atlantic from Europe to a Louisiana which Law had falsely described as a land full of waiting wealth. The Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor in the 1740s, introduced the area to more corruption when he started practicing political kickbacks. As the area fell into the various hands of the Spanish, of the French, of the Americans with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, of the Federals during the Civil War, and into those in charge of Reconstruction after the war years, an environment was being created in which political shenanigans thrived.

This backdrop ultimately was the setting for an era in Louisiana history which remains unrivaled both in the effect it had on the people of the state and in the number of stories it spawned. From 1928 to 1935, Louisiana was the hotbed of governmental dispute. Huey Pierce Long was at the helm of a powerful, political machine and became the unstated dictator of the state. Until his assassination in Baton Rouge in 1935, in the very capitol building he had had constructed, Long ran Louisiana with a domination unaccustomed to American politics. First as governor and then as a member of the United States Senate, he was either the demigod of his followers or the antagonist of his opposers. There was no in between.

Often, devotion to Huey caused severe splits, among townspeople, friends, and even families. Dorothy Peroyea, an Anglo resident of Greensburg, experienced this in her own family:

Well, my grandfather thought Huey Long was the worst person in the world. Just thought he was terrible. What he said was, "I can see through him. He's a politician, and he's saying all the things that people want to hear. But he's not a good man." Then, my daddy (Thomas Holland) went to the Senate, and Daddy soon saw that if you were not with Huey Long, you may as well go home. So Daddy tried to be friendly with him.

My daddy's brother and family sided with my grandfather. It almost caused bad relations between my father and his family, who had always been so close

Louisiana folklore has manifested legends of heroes in various regional characters, such as Benjamin Vernon Lily, the strongman of Morehouse Parish, and Jean Lafitte, who patrolled the coast of South Louisiana. But none have taken on such heroic proportions as Huey Long, following a long line of epic champions like King Arthur, Saint George, and Robin Hood, who despite incredible odds and obstacles defeated evil forces and became the heroes of the common man. Long also follows in the tradition of such American heroes as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, everyday men who died defending the Alamo and what they believed in. Although Long was neither of royal lineage nor a lionhearted frontiersman, he was like them in that his life and deeds follow a heroic pattern. He came forward in a time of economic crisis for Louisiana, gained stature with the common folk, and in the years following his assassination, became almost venerable. Consequently, he has become a hero whose deeds continue to be retold in the oral tradition.

Like many American heroes, Huey Long was of humble beginnings. He was the product of poverty stricken but outspoken Winn Parish. Just prior to Louisiana's decision to join the Civil War, the parish, unwilling to join the fight to save other men's slaves, declared itself "The Free State of Winn." After the war, much of Winn Parish became Populist, a part of the people whose goal was to wipe out the rule of the wealthy. In the early twentieth century, many in Winn declared themselves Socialist believe rs in better chances for the common man. Winn Parish was also staunchly Protestant, led by Bible-thumping, gospel-thundering preachers.

All of these environmental and historical influences were to have a profound effect on Huey, in his political philosophy of "Every Man a King" and in his evangelical method of using dramatic tones and personal parables to win others over to that philosophy. Joseph Aaron, a Cajun resident of Iowa, Calcasieu Parish, captured the spirit of Huey's drama when he recalled the time the then-future governor campaigned at Iowa High School:

I can still see Huey Long up there waving his hands, talking. I can still see it like today. And he made a talk there on something I'll never forget . . . .

Huey Long said, 'Now, listen folks, y'all stick with me.' He said, 'The other day, I went fishing with this friend of mine. He fell out of the boat.' He said, 'I reached over the boat to pick him up, and his hand came off. So I threw his hand in the boat. I reached over and caught him by the leg and his leg came off!' He said, 'I looked down at my friend and I said, 'How in the hell can I save you if you don't stick together?' Y'all stick with me, and I'll save all of y'all!'

I'll never forget that for as long as I live.

Long died a hero's death, shot down at the height of his career and power. His assassination in 1935 is as steeped in controversial stories as his political career. The official account is that he was killed by Dr. Carl Weiss of Baton Rouge. Other stories insist that it was Long's bodyguards, while others believe that Al Capone's men killed Huey because he had stopped their rum-running business on the Mississippi River. One rumor still circulating is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, threatened by Huey's rising power (his platform to make every man a king had won masses of followers) and aspirations toward the White House, was responsible for the Louisiana governor's assassination.

After Long's death, his political machine eventually fell apart. But Louisianians throughout the state still tell stories about the rule of Huey Long like it was yesterday. Perhaps it is because we continue to be amazed at his genius. John T. Campbell, a resident of Minden in Webster Parish, summed Huey up this way:

"Huey was the most outstanding individual I've ever known. He's the most brilliant man I've ever known. He was, in every field, brilliant . . . . He could be a statesman among statesmen. He could get down with the lowest people in the world. Or he could be an s.o.b. among s.o.

Louisiana's people can assume that they will never again be swayed into such a political regime, yet we continue to marvel at the man and his methods. We understand his politically ambitious motives, but the stories still circulating about Huey Long have created a hero.

Other politicians are the subjects of anecdotes, such as Sam Jones, the governor who brought reform to the state in the early 1940s, and Earl Long, who had his own intense political career, distinctly different from his older brother's. Many expected him to carry the strength of the Long political torch, but Earl was not Huey. He lacked his genius, his strategy, and his appeal. He shared, however, Huey's love of politics, the necessary tenacity to achieve office, and like Huey, Earl's strongest support came from the poor in the state.

Earl managed to keep the Long name alive in Louisiana politics a while longer by serving as lieutenant governor from 1937 to 1939, and then as governor from 1939-40 (after the resignation of Governor Richard Leche), 1948-1952, and 1956-1960. When he died, he had created as many enemies as his brother. The Honorable Hiram J. Wright, a retired judge and resident of the Longs' hometown, Winnfield, related the following two stories about the deaths of the two brothers, both of which demonstrate the intensity the public once felt toward the Longs:

At Earl Long Park here, on the east side of town, they'd buried Earl right there and put a lot of concrete over his grave to hold up the statue of Earl that's on top of his grave.

The cement man had poured all that cement there and was out there one day finishing the cement, smoothing it. A local Presbyterian pastor walked by. Saw all that cement on top of that grave and said, 'You know, I don't believe I'd want all that cement on top of my grave come Judgment Day.'

The old cement finisher didn't even look up. He just spit that tobacco juice out there on the grave, said, 'Don't worry about that, Preacher, he ain't goin' that way.'

Another story that was related to me, Squire Kidd was his name. When Huey Long was shot, of course all the country people supported Huey Long, practically. In every parish in North Louisiana, they gathered up in towns.

Here, they gathered up at the courthouse to get rides to Baton Rouge. They were running school buses down there. Anybody that had a car and was going down to Baton Rouge would stop at the courthouse to pick up some people to go if they didn't have a ride. Highways weren't the same then. It wasn't easy to get to Baton Rouge from Winnfield or anywhere else in North Louisiana. The roads are now much better because of what Huey had done.

But anyway, Squire showed up that morning. Brand new linen suit. New shirt, new tie, new shoes, new straw hat, lookin' great. Everybody was amazed at how good Squire looked. One of 'em said, 'Squire, you goin' to the funeral?'

"He said, "Hell, no, but I approve of it.'"

With the gubernatorial election of 1960, Louisiana temporarily entered a new and quieter era of politics. Jimmie H. Davis, who had served from 1944 to 1948 as governor, was again elected. Not many stories are told about this time in the state's political history. A quiet man with a drawling voice, the easy-going Davis was the opposite from the Longs' flamboyant personalities. An uncontroversial figure whose time in office created little dispute, Davis did not provide much fodder for tales about him. However, like Huey, who was noted for his silver-tongue, Davis could and still can entertain people with a story. Even though Davis is no longer in political office, his oratory skills remain sharp and he can still tell a "windie" without so much as blinking an eye. He recently related this tale involving another controversial Louisiana politician, a former governor, Edwin Edwards.

I live right next door to the (Governor's) Mansion. There's a lake there. The lake separates, you go across the lake and there is the capitol. And my wife and I were out in the backyard one morning. Knocked down a wasp's nest, dirt dobbers, killing snakes, lizards, everything else running around there. And she said, 'Well, Edwards!'

Governor Edwards was coming down, going walking toward the water. She said, 'I believe he's gonna walk on the water!'

I said, 'No, I don't think he can walk the water!'

But I was wrong! He took off, went across there, just prancing like Edwards does, you know! Prancing. Got about halfway, down he went! Sunk. I ran out there, picked him up, and walked him on across!

And that's the truth!

Even though the election of Jimmie H. Davis saw the demise of the Long political machine, those thirty years of the combined rule of Huey and Earl so greatly affected the course of Louisiana politics that we still talk about it some thirty, even fifty, years later. Louisiana continues to produce controversial politics and politicians. It is through these stories about politics that the people of Louisiana cope with and explain such a confusing part of their culture.

This article first appeared in the 1991 Louisiana Folklife Festival book. C. Renée Harvison Christian is currently in market research for Sprint in Overland Park, Kansas.