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.
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.
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