"Factory, Ohio River, near Moundsville, West Virginia," by Michael Sherwin
Last of the Red Hot Poppas
By Eric Benson
Drive east on Main Street in Winnfield, a hollowed-out city of fewer than 5,000 residents set amid the pine and hardwood forests of northern Louisiana, and you’ll pass the Country Cajun Deli, a couple old-fashioned pharmacies, and a series of vacant storefronts in impressive red-brick buildings. Continue over the still-used freight tracks, look directly to your left, and you’ll notice the old L&A rail depot set back from the road. With its shabby green-and-white-striped awnings and wraparound deck, the building looks out of place—like a dockside restaurant beached in the landlocked hill country—and so does the diamond-shaped placard next to it that reads LOUISIANA POLITICAL MUSEUM & HALL OF FAME.
“Fifteen years ago, this used to be a wonderful small town,” Jack McGuire, the chair of the museum’s fundraising foundation, told me. “There used to be all sorts of nice shops and cafes. Now you can see the boarded-up places. The old hotel was demolished. Frankly, if it were not a courthouse town . . .”
Winnfield is the seat of Winn Parish, established in 1852, and its downtrodden present belies its history as a hotbed of civic engagement and rustic progressivism. On the eve of the Civil War, Winn Parish’s citizens, poor farmers mostly, voted against secession. A few decades later, the Populist Louisiana People’s Party consistently dominated parish elections. In 1912, Socialists were elected to every city office in Winnfield, and the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, claimed more than a third of the parish vote. Fueled by the thriving timber industry, early Winnfield was a bustling, cosmopolitan redoubt, complete with pool halls and pubs, immigrant street vendors, and even an opera house. But little evidence of that place remains today. The timber industry has been decimated, taking the rest of the economy with it. The population has dwindled. And the politics have changed. In the notorious 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election, Winn Parish, bucking its anti-Confederate history, gave a majority of its votes to the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. In January, the area’s freshman congressman, Vance McAllister, made headlines by inviting Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson (from nearby Ouachita Parish) to the State of the Union address. (McAllister was back in the news a couple months later when he was caught on tape kissing a married staffer.) Winnfield’s biggest tourist draw is now Uncle Earl’s Hog Dog Trials, an annual competition that bills itself as “the world’s largest hog-baying.”
Outside the Winn Parish Courthouse on Main Street stands a bronze statue of Winnfield’s most famous son. He’s nattily dressed in a three-piece suit and appears taller and thinner than in pictures. A plaque nearby describes him matter-of-factly as a LAWYER, ADMINISTRATOR, STATESMAN; in the “Home of Three Governors,” the legendary exploits of Huey Pierce Long, Jr. need not be oversold. The “Kingfish,” the “Caesar of the bayous,” the “despot of the Delta,” Long was the most potent political force in the history of a state that has had many—a populist demagogue who reigned over Louisiana from 1928 to 1935 as a proudly leftist, spectacularly effective, and undeniably corrupt governor and U.S. senator.
Long took power in a state with an illiteracy rate of 75 percent and an infrastructure to rival Dark Ages Gaul, and proceeded to pave thousands of miles of roads, erect more than a hundred bridges, dispense free textbooks, build a system of charity hospitals, and preach a “Share the Wealth” gospel that included a hard cap on personal wealth. Louisiana’s entrenched powers reviled him, of course, and tried, unsuccessfully, to drive him from office. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his one-time ally, dubbed him one of the two most dangerous men in America. Two days after Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge, at the age of forty-two, in a corridor of the state capitol that he built, his second book, My First Days in the White House, was published. A decade later, he was immortalized as Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men. Perhaps more than any other American politician who never held the presidency, Long’s ghost lingers.
“My dad grew up on a farm in Abbeville and they had two pictures on the living room wall—one of Jesus Christ, one of Huey Long,” Ron LeLeux, the two-term mayor of Sulphur, told me. “My granddad, he would have cut you if you said anything bad about Huey.”
LeLeux and I had come to Winnfield for the Louisiana Political Museum’s 22nd annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a gathering of the Bayou State’s faded Democratic old guard. The Louisiana Political Museum is a relic. In an age of interactive exhibitions, it’s lined with wooden cabinets full of memorabilia and features doughy, audio-animatronic-style sculptures of Huey and his brother Earl, himself a three-term governor. Among this year’s inductees were Huey Long’s wife, Rose, who filled Huey’s Senate seat after his death in 1935; Huey and Earl’s nephew John Smoker Hunt II, a Louisiana Public Service Commissioner; and one of Huey’s staunchest allies, John Fournet, best known for trying to block Huey’s impeachment in the Louisiana House and trying to knock the gun from the hand of Dr. Carl Weiss, Huey’s assassin. (Fournet was unsuccessful on both occasions.) Of the eight inductees in the Hall of Fame’s 2014 class, five—including Rose Long, Hunt, and Fournet—were dead, two were in their mid-eighties, and all of them were Democrats. T. Harry Williams, Huey Long’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, wrote in 1970 that Huey and Earl “created what might be called the Long tradition in Louisiana politics—the idea that the state had an obligation to use its power to raise the lot of the masses.” In an era of Tea Party ascendency, I wanted to see whether any part of the tradition lived on.
“When Huey came in, there were only three hundred miles of roads in Louisiana, LSU was a C-ranked school, we were lowest in the country in childhood immunization,” said Long’s great-grandson Russell Long Mosely, a Baton Rouge businessman who sits on the museum foundation’s board. He wore a silver kingfish pin on his lapel.
“They’re legends! It’s in the genes! It’s like Archie Manning and his sons,” Buddy Caldwell, the state’s attorney general, told me. Caldwell, who is also an in-demand Elvis impersonator, was one of the few Republicans present—although like many Louisiana Republicans, he’d been a Democrat until recently.
“Huey was a genius,” said eighty-five-year-old Hall of Fame inductee Edward “Bubby” Lyons. “Huey did more for the state of Louisiana—my god, highways, roads, bridges, school systems. I mean, he forced Standard Oil to its knees and they paid for the Huey Long Bridge.” Lyons is a short man with a baritone twang, cataract-fogged blue eyes, and the trivia-answer distinction of being the only person to serve as mayor of two different Louisiana cities (Houma and Mandeville). He never possessed Huey Long’s world-conquering ambitions—“local government is where the action is,” he told me—but he still pined for the pharaonic Kingfish.
As Lyons was pointing out his eleven grandchildren to me, a group of new arrivals flooded into the museum. It was the Edwards family, the 2014 winners of the Hall of Fame’s “Louisiana Political Family of Officeholders Award.” A Tangipahoa Parish clan of lawmen and legislators, the Edwardses date their political involvement back to the Battle of New Orleans and have been entrenched in elected office for six consecutive generations.
The family is now led (at least in the eyes of the museum) by John Bel Edwards, a thickset former Army officer and current state representative. When Lyons and I approached him, he handed both of us fresh business cards that read JOHN BEL EDWARDS, GOVERNOR.
“Congratulations for running. I appreciate you running,” Bubby Lyons said to Edwards. “You a Democrat?”
“Yes, I am,” Edwards replied. Then, recognizing his audience, he added, “I sure am!”
“It’s time,” Lyons said. “The Democrat Party’s been sittin’ on its ass.”
The conversation paused. I asked Edwards about Huey Long.
“I will tell you from my perspective Huey Long was controversial because he wanted to build institutions to help people; the current governor is controversial because he’s tearing them apart and hurting people,” Edwards said, as if rehearsing a future stump-speech applause line. “The current governor is a very ambitious man, and I think his ambitions are leading him to do these things. He would rather do something to get primary voters in South Carolina and New Hampshire and Iowa than do something useful here. And the people of Louisiana are fed up with it.”
It’s not entirely clear how fed up the people of Louisiana are with Bobby Jindal. But, as an old Long-ite politician might say, here at the Louisiana Political Museum, Jindal couldn’t get elected dog-ketcher. As I milled about the room, I heard attendees mention Mitch, the mayor of New Orleans, and Mary, Louisiana’s senior U.S. senator, and Edwin, a four-term governor (and convicted felon). No one referred to the current governor as “Bobby.” Few even referred to him as “Jindal.” He was merely the “current governor,” a conservative with White House ambitions who spent little time in the state. Outside of Buddy Caldwell, it seemed that none of the 200 politically plugged-in attendees had ever so much as shaken Jindal’s hand.
And then in Huey Long’s corner of the museum, a raised platform that included a recreation of Long’s living room in the governor’s mansion and his discomfiting, audio-animatronic-style likeness, I found one of Jindal’s leading critics: Robert Mann. The only 2014 inductee born after Huey Long’s death, Mann, a fifty-five-year-old veteran political operative and award-winning historian, had spent much of his career in the halls of power, working as an aide to Senator Russell Long (Huey’s eldest son), Senator John Breaux, and Governor Kathleen Blanco. But those Democrats were now dead, retired, or vanquished, and Mann, without an obvious political employer, had taken refuge in academia with an endowed chair at LSU.
“Most people don’t know who Huey Long is anymore,” Mann said. “It’s not something that people even think about when it comes to their politics. Jindal sort of portrayed himself as an antidote to Longism. He said his election was a decisive break with the past. But in some interesting ways Jindal is operating like Long did.”
With that, Mann recounted for me a story that could have been ripped from the pages of All The King’s Men, the plot of which hinges on Willie Stark’s tactic of blackmailing his political adversaries. Former LSU chancellor Mike Martin had publicly clashed with Jindal, Mann said, so Jindal’s minions “hauled him into the governor’s office, and they opened up a dossier that they’d been collecting on him with everything that he’d ever said that was remotely negative about Jindal. It was transcripts of conversations that they’d been told about, newspaper clippings—all this kind of stuff. They basically said, We’ve collected this on you, keep your mouth shut.”
But even more than intimidation, Jindal has used sharp budget cuts to implement his agenda, and the Louisiana Political Museum has been on the block from the start of his administration. In 2006, when the museum began to receive state funding under Governor Blanco (a Democrat), its budget was $197,000. Last year, the budget was just over half of that. “I’m at wit’s end,” said Carolyn Phillips, the museum’s executive director, who has lived in Winnfield since 1962. “We have no maintenance money. Nothing. Just the bare minimum to get by on.”
The museum, the town, and the party shared a predicament. In these perilous times, a small event—another Democratic defection or defeat, another budget cut, another drop in timber prices—could spell the end. Mary Landrieu, the last Democratic senator in the Deep South, is facing an uphill reelection fight in the fall (“demographically, she’s got a problem,” Mann said). Jindal is likely to be replaced by the state’s other U.S. senator, David Vitter, who may further cut budgets in his zeal to shrink government and slash taxes. And while Phillips told me a new timber mill that could revive the parish was in the works, it might be too late. Many of the best loggers, she said, had already gone out of business.
So perhaps it was fitting that the 22nd annual Louisiana Political Hall of Fame induction ceremony ended with the assembled group singing “You Are My Sunshine,” written by the former governor and Hall of Fame inductee Jimmie Davis. The song is best known for its chorus, which has a tinge of sadness but remains hopeful on the prospects of love. The verse, however, plummets into despair. And as we droned on, Bubby Lyons took the stage to belt out the final stanza:
You told me once, dear / You really loved me
And no one else could come between.
But now you’ve left me / And love another
You have shattered all my dreams.