Paul Greenberg

As soon as you walked into the dingy little lobby, you were in the world of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men." The image of old Julius in his little office -- more of a cave, really -- has stayed with me ever since, like an old tintype. Leaning back in an ancient swivel chair, he told of how he'd watch his wizard of a brother mesmerize the hard-hit sharecroppers who'd turn out to hear him at one cotton-loading platform after another across Northern Louisiana in the 1920s.

The practiced anecdotes unfolded to the rhythm of the oscillating fan at his feet that sweaty August-in-Louisiana day as Julius Long, occasionally stretching his galluses, stared off into space and just remembered, which is the way history ought to be told by an original source.

And then, like all things, the interview was over and Mister Julius and I headed out together.

On the way down in the rickety old elevator, who should get on but my own brother, who practiced law on one of the lower floors. And who should be with him but a friend who'd grown up with us in the old neighborhood and now had become a minor cog in the Long machine. By then the machine had been inherited by Huey's younger brother Earl, aka Uncle Earl. And my brother was congratulating our old boyhood friend -- effusively -- on his appointment to some well-paid sinecure in state government.

My brother's Southern accent would deepen on these ceremonial occasions and his praise thicken like an overdone roux. Aspiring politicians tend to have an infinite capacity for flattery, and the less important the office they've attained, the more praise they can absorb. And my brother was laying it on. As we proceeded down, it occurred to me that he was descending in more ways than one that sultry day.

As for old Julius, he said nary a word. Till we got to the ground floor, where the elevator door slowly creaked open. Only then did Julius T. Long utter his sole comment on the political rise of our friend: "Another snout at the public trough."

There you have the definitive summary of what makes so many Americans develop, shall we say, a certain skepticism when one more politician confuses the public interest with his own. It was a familiar type in the last century -- and still is. Some things never change.

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.