As another campaign season particularly loaded with low blows winds to an end, let us sit back and reflect on some of the great Southern political scandals that blazed the campaign trails…
And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good and the devil take the hindmost.—Robert Penn Warren “All The King’s Men”
God don’t let me die. I have so much to do.—The last words of Huey Pierce Long
What we students of history have also learned is that the South is unique in this great land for producing politicians with, shall we say, extremely large personalities. This should not be terribly surprising. This is, after all, the part of the country that declared war on the United States of America, thought it was a damned good idea at the time and might have pulled it off had it caught a couple of breaks and if Ulysses S. Grant had rediscovered his fondness for the amber liquid.
Perhaps it is because here we like our religion and our whiskey uncut. Perhaps it is because here in the South politics, like football, is a full contact sport, which requires its participants to actually enjoy getting slugged in the mouth. It was Bill Clinton who said, “Never tell somebody to go to Hell unless you can make them go,” and here in the South we tend to elect folks who can make them go. It is for this reason that it is inconceivable that George and Lurleen Wallace (D-Alabama) could have been produced anywhere else. In fact, I am willing to wager that the State of Indiana, just to pick one out of the air, has never birthed anyone named Lurleen.
Our examination of the Southern politician begins, as it must, with the Great State of Louisiana and the above-referenced Huey Long (D-Louisiana) who began his career selling shortening to rural housewives in North Louisiana, and ended it as the most powerful man in the history of Louisiana. The Kingfish, adored and reviled in equal measure, blew in to the Governor’s Mansion on a platform of “ share the wealth” and making “every man a king.” Long, who once modestly described himself as “sui generis,” taxed the oil companies to a fare the well and used the money to build roads, schools and charity hospitals. As a United States Senator, he was considered by FDR to be a very real threat to his Presidency. The Kingfish, who continued to run the State of Louisiana from his office in Washington, was so despised in some quarters that there were actually cells of political opponents scattered throughout the Pelican State that plotted his assassination.
You know you’re heavy when people want to kill you. That’s one political problem Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) over here doesn’t have to worry with.
Eventually, somebody got through and Huey Long got himself shot in the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, the victim of a shadowy ophthalmologist named Weiss and his scatter shooting security team.
Not too long after that, Huey’s brother Earl (D-Louisiana) was elected Governor despite having a personality construct that ran from “quirky” to “completely unstable.” Indeed, Uncle Earl’s family had him committed to a state mental hospital mainly because of his barely hidden affair with a New Orleans stripper called Blaze Starr which was not the name conferred upon her at her baptism. When the administrator of the hospital refused to release Earl, he fired him and appointed another administrator who sprung him with a clean bill of mental hygiene. Afterwards, Uncle Earl would famously brandish his discharge papers on the stump while claiming to be the only certifiably sane politician in Louisiana.
Odds are Jimmie Davis (D-Louisiana) is the only Governor in U.S. history to be buried in a tabernacle. There is no doubt that Bobby Jindal (R-Louisiana) is the only one who ever attended an exorcism. Which may or may not be useful experience for running Louisiana state government.
Edwin Edwards (D-Louisiana) served 4 terms as Governor despite being dogged by questions about corruption and his personal life. Edwards tended to view such things as issues to be managed rather than actual problems with consequences. For example when accused of taking illegal campaign contributions, he allowed as how while it may have been illegal for folks to give them, it wasn’t illegal for him to take them.
Edwards was last elected Governor in 1991 when he was called out of the bullpen by a Democratic Party that was anxious at the prospect of the Mansion being occupied by Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke (R-Lowest Bunsen Burner in Hell) who had won the Republican primary. When I was at Tulane in the early eighties, Duke had a little office in Metairie where he cranked out racist propaganda. Rumor had it back then that he also supplemented his income as an FBI informant. To this day, there is nothing any man could tell me about David Duke that I would not believe. In any event, I remember well the bumper stickers from that campaign put out by folks who were worried about what the prospect of David Duke’s election would mean for the Great State’s otherwise pristine reputation: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
Edwards once declared that the only way he could lose an election was if he were “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” He was never caught with either. He was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing the sort of inducements he could bring to bear on various state licensing boards. The Feds, who had investigated Edwards off and on for virtually his entire career as Governor, had finally gotten their man. He caught 8 years for bribery and extortion. He was recently released and immediately married a 32-year-old woman with whom he corresponded while in the joint.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Caught in the Act
Speaking of affairs of the heart, or just affairs, extramarital activity seems to be a particular vice of the Southern male politician. Like I said, we tend to elect outsized personalities down here. Perhaps this causes them to believe that they are bullet proof and invisible on this score. Perhaps, as in the cases of Uncle Earl and Edwin Edwards, some of them don’t much care. But boy, when they blow up, they blow up good.
Former U.S. Congressman Wilbur D. Mills (D-Arkansas), the powerful Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, was thought to have few interests outside of the United States Tax Code. That was until the night he wrecked his car driving drunk with an Argentine stripper called Fannie Foxe, which was not the name conferred upon her at her Baptism either.
Speaking of Argentinian women, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina) went off across the water to visit his Argentine lover while claiming all the while to be taking in the air during a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Which leads to the following question: What is it about Argentinian women that cause otherwise sensible powerful men to take complete leave of their senses? I think I would like to meet one but I would probably need to be lashed to a post first.
Speaking of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, (R-South Carolina) who once ran for President as an avowed segregationist, apparently had no problem with integration when it came to fooling around with a black woman because he had a child with one. This conclusively proves that some people can indeed carry two divergent thoughts in their head at the same time. Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice (R-Mississippi), once described in the Washington Post as “a pro-business redneck” by an anonymous colleague, managed to flip his car over on the way home after somehow escaping his security detail for a trip to Memphis to see his mistress. John Edwards (D-North Carolina) incredulously thought he could actually run for President while simultaneously a) carrying on with a new-age head case and b) lying to his wife about it, thereby reaching heretofore unplumbed depths for phoniness and narcissism in the process.
And of course, there is Arkansas’s own native son Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas), who got himself impeached after Monica Lewinsky forgot to take that blue dress to the dry cleaner.
But the human being is a complicated contraption. Jimmy Carter’s (D-Georgia) Presidency is widely considered a failure. But he is widely considered to be a very good man. Edwin Edwards was one of the most beloved governors in Louisiana history. He has never been confused with the “good.” George Wallace, who stood in the door at the University of Alabama, practically invented the creation of tax incentives to induce industry to move there, a practice which is widely used elsewhere nowadays. Huey Long built roads and schools while scaring the bejeesus out of Franklin Roosevelt. Earl Long’s administration was known for its racial moderation. Winthrop Rockefeller (R-Arkansas) and Dale Bumpers (D-Arkansas) drug Arkansas kicking and screaming into the 21st century. As President, Bill Clinton balanced the budget and presided over a period of growth and prosperity when he wasn’t otherwise preoccupied with Kenneth Starr and dodging lamps in the family quarters of the White House.
Here in the South bad comes out of the good and good comes out of the bad. It’s our history. It’s our politics.
Oh. Remember that scene in the movie “Blaze” where Paul Newman’s Uncle Earl shoots the lawn mower?
That really happened.
Arthur Paul Bowen is a lawyer and writer who lives in what he calls the “People’s Republic of Hillcrest” in Little Rock. He may also be found on his blog, The Moving Finger Writes.