Thursday, September 17, 2009
Perdido Key, Florida
IN LOUISIANA, JUST TELL EM I LIED!
When South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson hollered out “You lie” as the President was addressing congress last week, even Louisiana republicans were aghast. Northeast Louisiana congressman Rodney Alexander summed up the delegation’s response. “I was embarrassed,” Alexander said after speaking to a West Monroe-West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce breakfast Monday. “I understand his frustration, but it was neither the appropriate thing to say nor the appropriate time to say it.” The congressman and his colleagues might take note that they represent a state with a long and colorful history of legislative brawls with often viciously partisan debate and charges of lying.
I was in the middle of such a legislative altercation in my first few months as a state senator back in 1972. A controversial proposal to create a new trade school system was up for final passage in the waning minutes of the legislative session. I sat next to Senator “Big Jim” Jumonville, who was as brash and tenacious in debate on the senate floor as they come. He just never took no for an answer. Jumonville was opposing last minute amendments that would take one of the trade schools out of his district and move it to Baton Rouge.
The legislation was dead at the stroke of midnight, and the official clock was high on the back wall of the senate chamber. With only seconds left, Jumonville pulled off his boot and heaved it at the clock in an effort to stop the moving hands. Off came the other boot as Big Jim hollered out to his colleague at the podium that “You are a liar.” He then raised back to throw the remaining boot at the clock again. I put myself in grave peril by grabbing Jumonville’s arm in an effort to calm him down. He missed the clock, time ran out, and I don’t think Big Jim ever forgave me.
Who can forget the Governor Earl Long story of reneging on a promise to a group of south Louisiana constituents? The blow by blow account was given to me by my deceased old friend, Camille Gravel, who was on Long’s staff and a witness to the Governor’s comments. Long was reluctant to live up to his campaign commitment, and Gravel inquired as to what he should tell the group. Without batting an eye, Long told Gravel: “Just tell them I lied.”
Dutch Morial was Louisiana’s first black legislator, and went on to serve as a judge and two term Mayor of New Orleans. Dutch relished telling friends, with much humor and gusto, of his first day at the state capitol as a new legislator. Representatives have desk mates, with two desks side by side. As chance would have it, Dutch sat right next to Representative Jesse McLain from an arch conservative district in southeast Louisiana that had been a hotbed of Klan activity. Now Dutch was from a Creole background and quite light skinned. He had also made a few comments that it was time to bring some of the backward areas of the state into the 20th century and allow more opportunities for minorities.
When Dutch took his seat, as he related to me, Jesse leaned over and whispered: “Where’s that lyin’ N…..? (Yes the N word.) Dutch said he just smiled, looked around the room for a minute, then leaned over to Jesse, got right up in his face, and said: “You’re looking at him.” The he burst out laughing. A flustered McClain excused himself from the legislature for the rest of the day.
Probably the most bizarre and tense situation I ever witnessed was during the 1967 gubernatorial election. I was just out of the Army and had begun a new law practice in Ferriday. Incumbent Governor John McKeithen was being challenged by conservative Congressman John Rarick. McKeithen had been the focus of a Life Magazine article that raised questions about the governor’s possible ties to the New Orleans mafia. Rarick ran against “Big John” on this issue. I read in my local paper that the two candidates would speak at a rally in McKeithen’s home town of Columbia in northeast Louisiana that evening, so I drove the 45 minute trip to see the incumbent and the challenger in action.
Rarick spoke first and immediately accused McKeithen of having mafia ties. Now this was Big John’s home town and the locals were not too happy to hear Rarick’s charges. When he stepped off the stage, Sheriff Slim Hodges suggested that the congressman might want to “move on out of town” because of all the tension in the air.
McKeithen then took the stage, threw off his coat, loosened his tie, and held back no punches. “John Rarick’s a liar. That’s right a down and dirty liar. The man lies. You folks know I’m not in no mafia…right?” The crowd in unison hollered “Right, Governor!” Then they cheered McKeithen and booed Rarick for the rest of the night. I was enthralled and decided then to run for public office at the first opportunity. (John Rarick passed away this past Monday).
So Joe Wilson, don’t get too upset because you used the “L” word, even when the President was talking. If South Carolina gets too rowdy and critical of you, we can certainly find a spot for you in Louisiana. We have plenty of lyin’ going on in the deepest of the deep southern states. Maybe it’s in the roux or the Tabasco sauce. But it’s always lively here when Louisiana politics is involved. So just come on down.
“Telling lies is a fault in a boy, an art in a lover, an accomplishment in a bachelor, and second nature in a politician.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south. To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.