Paul Greenberg

If you're looking for a three-word explanation for why so many Americans grow so cynical about government, you could do worse than this one:

Erma Fingers Hendrix.

That's the impressive name of an alderwoman here in Little Rock, a city government with a top-heavy organizational chart and a top-heavy salary schedule to match. What is her response to these challenging times for local government? She wants the city to ... give her a raise.

Reading that little news item transported me back more than half a century, and reminded me of how little things change in politics.

A story: Long ago and in another century, the 20th, my youthful ambition was to write the definitive history of Huey Long's plans to add the presidency of the United States to his long list of elective offices. This meant mounting a challenge to the president at the time -- the spellbinding Franklin D. Roosevelt. Or just Frank, as Huey Long used to refer to him with typical lese majeste.

I never finished that history, any more than the Kingfish ever became president, his plans having been cut short by an encounter with an assassin in the lobby of the soaring new Louisiana state Capitol he'd built.

How to describe that skyscraper of a Capitol building? It's a mix of classical, art deco and what might be called the international fascist style of the 1930s -- as towering as The Kingfish's political career. It would prove his tombstone; he's buried on the grounds.

In the course of my researches that summer, I was in a very different kind of building that day to interview Huey's brother Julius, who had long been estranged from Huey and the whole Long machine. Julius Long had suffered from a crippling disability in Louisiana politics: He was an honest man.

At one point in his own political career, revealing the inborn flare of every Long for sweeping rhetoric, Julius had described his distinguished younger brother and head of state as "the greatest political burglar of all times."

Toward the end of his life, Mister Julius was practicing law in Shreveport, or at least he maintained a cluttered office there. I had come to hear him talk about the old days, which was how I found myself in the narrow old Giddens-Lane Building downtown, which at the time was undergoing one of its periodic periods of disrepair.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.