The Earl of Louisiana
by A. J. Liebling

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Simon and Schuster: New York, 1961
252 pages

included in —

The Sweet Science & Other Writings
Library of America, New York, 2009

November 2009

Politics: high, wide, and handsome

"Earl [Long] is like Huey [Long, his late brother] on Negroes," Tom said. "When the new Charity Hospital was built here, some Negro politicians came to Huey and said it was a shame there were no Negro nurses, when more than half the patients were colored. Huey said he'd fix it for them, but they wouldn't like his method. He went around to visit the hospital and pretended to be surprised when he found white nurses waiting on colored men. He blew high as a buzzard can fly, saying it wasn't fit for white women to be so insulted. It was the most racist talk you ever heard, but the result was he got the white nurses out and the colored nurses in, and they've had the jobs ever since."

A Negro minister in Baton Rouge said to me, later, "Earl is a politician — and a human being." The combination, he evidently felt, was rare.

Earl Long (1895-1960) was three times the Governor of Louisiana, running election campaigns and the State government in an old high, wide, and handsome style: managing the Democratic Party machine, rewarding cronies with the contracts and patronage that went with the Governor's office. In varying degrees in other times and places, this is too often a description of American politics. But what is particularly interesting about the 1930s through the 1950s in Louisiana politics is the evolution of the "race question": how the brothers Huey Long ("Every Man a King") and then Earl Long as Governors adroitly handled the white and black voting population.

A.J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana expands his political-cultural reporting on Governor Earl Long and Louisiana in 1959-1960 that originally appeared in the New Yorker. It's a laid-back and entertaining book, and a valuable report in American history as it happened.

Like trying to pin down an alligator

Some of the hurricanes and hijinks of the Long brothers' regime in Louisiana should cause to blink the most hardened politics-watchers in other states. After being worn out during a session of the Legislature, Governor Earl Long was led out, "tired and incoherent", and:

A day later he was under heavy sedation and on his way to Texas, where he arrived, he subsequently stated, with "not enough clothes on me to cover a red bug, and a week later I was enjoying the same wardrobe."

But within a fortnight he had talked a Texas judge into letting him return to Louisiana on his promise to matriculate at a private hospital in New Orleans. After signing himself in and out of the New Orleans hospital, the Governor had started for Baton Rouge to assume power, only to be stopped by sheriff's deputies at the behest of his wife, Miz Blanche, who had then committed him to the State Hospital at Mandeville. Thence he had been rescued by a faithful retainer, the lawyer Joe Arthur Sims, who sought a writ of habeas corpus.

Once the Governor had regained temporary liberty, he completed the job by firing the director of the Department of Hospitals and the superintendent of the hospital, who, in the normal course of events, might have appeared against him to contend that he was insane.

There's resilience to leave us open-mouthed; and then grinning. Surely this is the stuff of political legend.

Race and voters

I want to stress the value of Liebling's account of how the black-white racial accommodations of Huey Long and Earl Long worked in Louisiana in their time, successfully juggling multiple blocs of voters. The methods may strike us as odd, colorful, underhanded; but the Longs knew their practical psychology, and their system endured. Eventually, at the end of the Long regime, this accommodation came apart under the stress of deliberately increased racism.

Just one more example of the Long approach. In one of Liebling's conversations with Earl Long, the subject slips to boxers' training, and then to prizefighting itself. After some preliminaries, Liebling focuses it on the Governor's domain:

"I hear they've got a law here in Louisiana that a white boy can't even box on the same card with colored boys," I said.

"Yeah," said the Governor, "but dat kind of stuff is foolish. If dere's enough money in it, dey're bound to get together."

I recognized the theory of an economic resolution of the race conflict.

This is a little gem. The civil society of free institutions grows and thrives on free markets, free minds, free men.

Surprising angles on old problems

Here's one local politician's formula for reforming police behavior in New Orleans simply by restacking their priorities:

"If I had my way, I'd make a law — a cop catch one gambler, he won't be allow to bring in another until he arrest a burglar. You follow me? The cops would catch every burglar in town so they could have a chance to shake down another gambler."

As at least a half-way house for reform, this has timeless applicability across towns and nations. A. J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana is full of such sparkling insights, both from Louisianans and Liebling, warm from the hand of a thoughtful listener and a master stylist. The perspectives here are fascinating and humorous, and the insight — well, greater insight into the history and workings of society always may serve us well.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


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