The Boston Phoenix
August 20 - 27, 1998


"Da raight" stuff

A very suspicious Barnicle column

by Dan Kennedy

Twelve and a half years ago, Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle wrote a column about Louisiana political legend Earl Long, attributing a string of anecdotes to Gillis Long, a distant cousin. ("Politics in the Bayou," Boston Globe, January 20, 1986.)

Trouble is, Barnicle appears to have borrowed heavily from A.J. Liebling's classic 1961 biography of Long, The Earl of Louisiana (Louisiana State University, 1970), complete with exact quotes and, in some cases, idiosyncratic spelling (see underlined text below). Now, for the first time, the Phoenix reveals the details of Barnicle's apparent plagiarism.



Forget that New Orleans is actually a little like the Combat Zone with French cooking, it still happens to be part of the great state of Louisiana where people play the political game the same way it's played in Lebanon. The place is one layer after another of tribes, factions and at least a million laughs.

The busybodies and goo-goos who adorn Beacon Hill would soon be calling room service at McLean Hospital if they plied their preachy trade in Baton Rouge. The suspender set around Boston, so easily offended by the likes of Eddie King or any pol who came out of parochial school instead of Camelot High, would be babbling to a Vienna-bred shrink if they found themselves going one on one with a bunch of down-home pols who think that Ben Franklin is famous because he invented the $100 bill. You see, a portion of my misspent youth occurred at the edges of politics. It was a corner filled with great tales and most of those who told the best hailed from places far south of our parochial little world in Massachusetts.

Gillis Long, cousin to the legendary Longs of Louisiana, had stories that would not quit. He was a New Orleans congressman who especially loved to talk about "Uncle Earl."

Earl Long was Huey's brother. Huey, of course, was first a governor, then a U.S. Senator and then a body lying in the corridor of the state Capitol, dead at the hand of an assassin.

Earl was certifiably insane. As a matter of fact, his wife and nephew, Sen. Russell Long, once had him hauled off to a mental hospital in Texas.

Earl used to begin his mornings in the governor's mansion handicapping the horses and reading the supermarket ads. He bought everything at supermarkets: Clothes, food, candy, everything.

"A $400 suit on old Uncle Earl," he used to say, "would look like socks on a rooster."

One day, Uncle Earl saw that Schwegmann's Market was having a sale on potatoes. He ran out of the mansion, hopped in his Cadillac and, with troopers blazing the way -- sirens blaring -- headed off to buy potatoes.

He filled the limo with hundreds of pounds of potatoes. Then, always with an eye out for bargains, he purchased $300 worth of alarm clocks, 87 dozen goldfish and two cases of Mogen-David wine.

Because the stuff weighed him down a bit, Earl called a couple judges and state senators and ordered them to report immediately to Schwegmann's. When they arrived, Uncle Earl, governor of the great state of Louisiana, had them carry the stuff out, pack what they could in the car then tie the rest of it on the roof and hood. Can you imagine the look on the faces of Globe editorial writers if Billy Bulger tried that?

"A four-hundred-dollar suit on old Uncle Earl would look like socks on a rooster."
[Attributed to Earl Long, speaking of himself in the third person.]
page 92

"Like the morning he saw that Schwegmann's was selling potatoes for forty-nine cents a ten-pound sack. Schwegmann's is a string of three big supermarkets here that sell everything -- furniture, automobile parts, grits, steak....Earl says, 'Come on, boys, I can't afford to pass that up,' and he goes downstairs and gets into his eleven-thousand-dollar air-conditioned official Cadillac ... , and the state troopers get out in front on motorcycles to clear the way, . . . and they take off. They pull up in front of Schwegmann's -- all the sirens blowing, frightening hell out of the other shoppers. . . . [S]o he buys a hundred pounds of the potatoes and tells a state senator to pick them up and carry them to the car, and then he sees some alarm clocks on sale and buys three hundred dollars' worth, and tells some representatives from upcountry to carry them. And eighty-seven dozen goldfish in individual plastic bags of water, and two cases of that sweet Mogen David wine. . ..

"Well, when they got out there on the sidewalk, under about a hundred degrees of heat, the stuff won't all go in the trunk of the Cadillac. . . . So Uncle Earl sends a couple of senators and a judge into the store again to buy some rope . . ."

-- pages 43-44
When Uncle Earl ran for re-election, his lieutenant governor was a local dummer named Oscar Guidry. Earl proudly pointed out that Oscar was, "a fine Frenchman, a fine Catholic and the father of 23 children."

Guidry, no relation to Ron, felt compelled to correct Uncle Earl. It seems Oscar came from a family of 23 brothers and sisters but had only 14 children. "Oscar says he has only 14 children," Earl said, "but that's a good beginnin'."

"And first," he [Long] said, "I want to introduce to you the man I have selected to serve under me as Lieutenant Governor during my next term of office -- a fine Frenchmun, a fine Catholic, the father of twenty-three children, Mr. Oscar Guidry." . . .
Mr. Guidry . . . . appeared embarrassed, and he whispered rapidly to Uncle Earl.
"Oscar says he has only fourteen children," the Governor announced. "But that's a good beginnin'."

Mr. Guidry whispered again, agitated, and Earl said, "But he is a member of a family of twenty-three brothers and sisters."

-- pages 98-99
Of course, Earl will live forever in the Rooster Hall of Fame because of his affair with stripper Blaze Starr. He never cared what the public thought because much of Louisiana was then in the process of going from paper ballot to voting machines and, as Earl wisely pointed out, "If I have da raight commissioners I can make dem machines play 'Home Sweet Home.' "

But the governor had such a case of the hots for Starr that when Charles DeGaulle visited the state, Earl, sitting in the lead car of the parade honoring the French president, ordered the driver to swing down Bourbon Street. It wasn't the official route; Earl just wanted to bring the general past the Sho-Bar so Blaze could get a peek at history. Can you imagine what the pencil-pushers and green eyeshade set at "The Vault" would do with a governor like that?

Around here, people got squeamish during Eddie King's last few days in office. Then, you might remember, anybody wearing corduroy pants with whales on them got one thing or another from the governor before he took the big walk.

But on Uncle Earl's last night as governor of Louisiana, he invited every stripper from the Sho-Bar to a big blowout at the mansion. With his help and encouragement, the party-goers stripped the house of silverware, glasses and all china. Then, with the radio playing "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog," Blaze Starr took it all off as Uncle Earl Long shouted to the assembled crowd, "Last strip at the governor's mansion."

Let's see Mike Dukakis match that.

Da voting machines won't hold me up," he [Long] said. "If I have da raight commissioners, I can make dem machines play 'Home Sweet Home.' "

-- page 136

Did Barnicle steal from A.J. Liebling?
Jason Gay's 50 reasons why Barnicle's column was predictable
Unrest at Channel 5

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