The rancor and animosity of both political parties in Washington seem to be at an all-time high. Both sides are calling their opponents “liars,” and there are reports of tension building to the point where fistfights have nearly broken out within same party caucuses. Louisiana members of congress say they have never seen such bitterness and vicious personal attacks.
Even Governor Bobby Jindal joined the fray by accusing his own political party of being irresponsible. “We are not going to allow the Republican Party to be defined by the dysfunction in Washington.” But the Governor and the Bayou State’s congressional delegation might take note that they represent a state that many believe is quite dysfunctional itself, with a long and colorful history of legislative brawls, viciously partisan debate and charges of lying.
I was in the middle of such a legislative altercation in my first few months as a Louisiana 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 would die at the stroke of midnight, and the official clock high on the back wall of the senate chamber was ticking away. With only seconds left, Jumonville pulled off his boot and heaved it at the clock in an effort to stave off the deadline. He missed. Off came the other boot as Big Jim hollered out to his colleague at the podium, “You are a liar.” He then rose back to throw the remaining boot. I put myself in grave danger by grabbing Jumonville’s arm in an effort to calm him down. He missed the clock a second time, and time ran out. I don’t think Big Jim ever forgave me.
And 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 a 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. With much humor and gusto, Dutch relished telling friends of his first day at the state capitol as a new legislator. Representatives have seatmates, with their two desks sitting side by side. As chance would have it, Dutch sat right next to Representative Jesse McLain, who represented an archconservative district in southeast Louisiana that had been a hotbed of Klu Klux Klan activity. Now Dutch was from a Creole background and quite light skinned. He had made numerous 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.
As Dutch told me years later of that first day -- when he took his seat, 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.” Then 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 Louisiana gubernatorial election. I was just out of the Army and had begun a new law practice in Ferriday. Conservative Congressman John Rarick was challenging the incumbent governor, John McKeithen, who was up for re-election. 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 hometown 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 territory 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. It came four years later when I was elected and began my political career as a new member of the Louisiana State Senate.
So as tensions continue to mount in the nation’s capitol, and fellow members of congress roll their eyes in disgust over the lack of civility, tell those congressmen from other states that they are playing softball in trying to reach compromise. If they want to learn how to experience real hardball politics, we can certainly find a “learning experience” for them here in Louisiana. We have plenty of political lyin,’fumin’ and fightin’” 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.