The Once and Future Kingfish: In Retirement, Sen. Russell Long Thought of a Final Act, Governor.

By Mitch Rabalais, contributing writer for The Bayou Brief

In Louisiana, Russell Billiu Long may always be remembered first as the son of the Kingfish, the heir to a political dynasty that was without rival or comparison and a last name that, for a time, defined both of the state’s major political factions. His father Huey was, arguably, the 20th century’s most important American governor and undoubtedly the most bombastic and influential politician in Louisiana’s history. His uncle Earl was a three term governor himself, and proved to be even more outlandish than his brother. When reflecting on his own life in later years, Russell once remarked, “I never knew what it was like to not be in politics.”

But during his 37 years in the U.S. Senate, Russell Long became more prominent and powerful in national politics than his father, his uncle, or any other member of his extended family. He was a man who earned the praise of Richard Nixon, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy and countless others.

But there is also a chapter in Russell Long’s political life that is rarely acknowledged. In 1988, two years after his retirement from the U.S. Senate, Russell could have very well been living in the Governor’s Mansion and working on the fourth floor of the House that Huey Built. An overwhelming majority of Louisianans approved of Long, and he was the prohibitive favorite in the 1987 race for governor.

He was much closer to running than the general public may think today, and for a time, it sounded as if Huey’s son was ready to take over the family business in Baton Rouge, even after his announced retirement.

This is the story of how Louisiana’s retiring senior U.S. Senator might have become the third Long to be governor in only 60 years.

On Feb, 25, 1985, Russell Long, Louisiana’s senior U.S. Senator, announced he would be retiring after 36 years in Congress. A master of the legislative process, Long was one of the Senate’s most powerful members. As Chairman of the Finance Committee, he directly controlled the nation’s foreign aid spending and tax policy. In fact, the last set of tax codes of which Long oversaw passage are the same laws that President Trump and Congressional Republicans are currently attempting to reform.

First elected in 1948, Long skillfully used his position to secure countless appropriations and federal priorities for Louisiana over his long tenure. For example, when Fort Polk was slated to be closed in the 1960s, a brief phone call from the Senator to President Johnson was all it took to keep the base open. In addition to being well-liked by Presidents, Long commanded immense, bipartisan respect from his colleagues.

When Russell faced a scrappy conservative challenger in 1980, Republican Bob Dole of Kansas appeared in an ad supporting his re-election. After Ted Kennedy heard that Long had announced his retirement, he rushed over to Long’s office and begged him to reconsider.

The announcement came as a surprise to most. Shocked reporters crowded with a stunned staff for the press conference in Long’s office. Russell kept his remarks fairly short, forgoing a more formal address from the Senate’s press gallery.

“Every senator should decide for himself at what point he thinks he should retire from the Senate if he has the good fortune to live his term out. After 36 years here I’ve made that decision,” he said.

Up until the day Long decided to retire, he had been actively working toward re-election in 1986. He had begun the cycle of early campaign appearances and amassed a war chest worth several million dollars. However, the Senator, an aging Southern Democrat in Ronald Reagan’s Washington, had become a major target. With Louisiana increasingly becoming more and more Republican, strong challengers such as Rep. Henson Moore and former Gov. Dave Treen lined up to run, while conservative PACs and donors prepared to spend heavily.

While meeting with consultants about the 1986 campaign, the Senator was told to take out his calendar and mark off just two weekends in the next 18 months. Those, he was told, were the only personal time he would be allowed until after the election. Everything else was to be spent on fundraising, campaigning and legislating.

“That really rocked his world,” says Bob Mann, the LSU professor and author who once served as Russell Long’s Press Secretary.  “He looked around and said to himself, ‘I don’t want to do this.’” Privately harboring doubts, the Senator began to express his reluctance to a few family members and friends.

After Long announced his retirement, a steady stream of letters began arriving at his office. From all over Louisiana, people implored the Senator to run for governor in 1987. Edwards, after all, was facing a criminal indictment that eventually turned into two lengthy trials, while the state government was facing huge deficits and massive budget cuts. Amid sinking oil prices and rising unemployment, it seemed that Louisiana voters wanted Russell to lead them, just as they had turned to his father and uncle in tough times before. Who better, in rough economic times, than the fiscal wizard of Washington?

The late Louisiana political writer John Maginnis asked at the time, “Now Louisianans need a really big favor: leadership – whom else should they ask?”

As the letters continued into the latter part of 1985, aides began putting them in Long’s briefcase along with his nightly reading materials. “We were getting letters from little old ladies from Tallulah and everywhere asking him to run,” says Mann. “It was things like ‘this is how much you mean to the state, and this is why we need you.’” As word got out to the media, the number of letters increased. It was the letters, more than anything, that got the Senator thinking seriously about the race.

With the premiere of Ken Burns’ documentary, Huey Long, in January of 1986, Russell made national news by speaking publicly about his father for one of the first times in his Senate career.

In a speech before the National Press Club in Washington, he was critical of the film, while also launching a vigorous defense of his father’s programs and legacy.

By this time, most politicos and reporters believed the rumors that Long was interested in the governor’s race to be false. The Senator himself was noncommittal, emphasizing that he was more focused on his work in Washington.

However, on February 15th, Long’s Senate colleague, Bennett Johnston, surprised everybody with a full endorsement of Russell’s candidacy for governor. Speaking at a press breakfast in Baton Rouge, Johnston told reporters, “He’s the one person you could have absolute confidence in that he would do what he thought was right without regard for his political future.”

A poll taken a week later by The Baton Rouge Advocate found that Long had a 77% approval rating, dwarfing that of any other potential candidate. Editorialists began calling for him to run, citing his experience in the Senate and his contacts in the corporate world as huge positives. Notably, even Edwards’ hometown paper, The Crowley Post-Signal, joined the chorus, despite the governor’s insistence that he would run for re-election.

Long publicly acknowledged that he would look at the race in a speech to the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce on February 24th. “Right now, all I’m running for is my freedom,” he joked. “But after I’ve enjoyed that freedom for a while, I might feel like getting back in the trenches. I’m willing to think about it.” John Hill, a reporter with the Shreveport Times, observed, “Long and his staff sound more and more like gubernatorial candidates every day.”

With the Senator taking a serious interest in the race, his staff began to schedule more trips to Louisiana. During these visits, Russell took the time to meet with influential sheriffs, police jurors, and party heavyweights. This was a marked change for Long, who had become a creature of the capitol during his career. In addition, he also sat down with the state’s major editorial boards to discuss Louisiana, rather than federal issues, at length. Long was playing up his credentials and selling his candidacy. He told the Alexandria Town Talk, “I think the state’s in trouble and I think I could do for the state some things other couldn’t do.”

As spring turned to summer, Edwards remained Long’s biggest obstacle. Publicly, the governor declared that he would run again, but privately, he expressed doubts. With the conflicting signals coming out of the Governor’s Mansion, the Senator flew down to Baton Rouge to see Edwards. The meeting lasted about an hour, and ended with the two taking a stroll around the Mansion grounds and Capitol Lake. Reportedly, Edwards had his arm around Long as the two walked.

Over lunch at Piccadilly Cafeteria, Long told his personal aide, Kyle France, “He told me he’s not going to run. But I think he is.” Both men insisted that they would not challenge each other. According to Edwards, he told Long that he would stay out of the race if the Senator decided to run and would enthusiastically support his campaign in any way possible.

Meanwhile, Rep. Billy Tauzin of Chackbay jumped into the race, believing that Long would not run. Former Gov. Dave Treen, eager to win back the office he had lost just four years prior, turned down a federal judgeship in order to potentially qualify. Attorney General Billy Guste, State Rep. John Hainkel, Public Service Commissioners Louis Lambert and John F. Schwegmann were also contenders, but they wanted to wait and see what Long would do.

Even Puggy Moity, Louisiana’s perennial joke candidate, noted the Senator’s strength, saying, “If he runs, Edwin should go into retirement.”

With his massive popularity and fundraising potential, Long was considered a lock to win by pundits.

One candidate that was undeterred by Long was State Rep. Fox McKeithen of Columbia.

As the son of Gov. John McKeithen, running for governor not only gave Fox the opportunity to obtain his father’s old seat, but he also could stick it to one of Big John’s longtime political enemies. “John McKeithen and Russell Long never liked each other going back to their days at LSU Law School,” Bob Mann explains.

Russell’s cousin, Speedy, declared his candidacy as well. A former Congressman and District Attorney from Jena, Speedy had run for governor in 1971, then challenging another Long cousin, Rep. Gillis Long of Alexandria. In that race, Speedy had pulled enough votes away from Gillis to keep him out the runoff.

Rumors abounded that John McKeithen was secretly bankrolling Speedy’s campaign this time in order pull votes away from Russell with another Long on the ballot.

With Sen. Long in Washington trying to negotiate tax reform with the Reagan administration as the summer progressed, John McKeithen took to the stump to campaign for his son.

Attacking Long at an Alexandria rally, the former governor dredged up decades-old allegations about the Win-or-Lose Oil Corporation, a group formed by the Kingfish and his cronies that owned prime oil leases in Northeast Louisiana. Russell had inherited the leases, which were operated by Texaco, bringing in millions of dollars a year. “I don’t think it’s timely for the chief beneficiary of the Win or Lose Oil Company to say, ‘Look, I’m your savior,’” said McKeithen. Long responded by calling it a “non-issue.”

John McKeithen had promised to “put some things on the table that should be out there.” In speeches and interviews, he made pointed attacks on Russell’s health and age. He also dismissed Long’s popularity by saying, “I know I’ve had more people come and try to get me to run for governor than Russell Long has.” McKeithen went on to say that he thought the idea of people writing to Long asking him to run was an absurd fantasy cooked up in the Senator’s mind. 

McKeithen’s attacks received a fair bit of press attention. Cartoonists, in particular, lampooned the former governor, with one depicting him pushing Fox in a stroller, while another showed him defacing a Long sign and saying, “just helping out my boy!”

In an effort to calm Long supporters who feared he might stay out after all, Bennett Johnston responded in a speech to the Baton Rouge Press Club on August 18th. “He feels the state really wants him and needs him,” the junior Senator said. “When you talk to Russell Long about running for governor, he really gets excited.”

Still, however, Long had not made any type of formal announcement and had not done any fundraising or polling. “In fact,” says Bob Mann, “he was busy trying to give back all of the money we had raised for his re-election.”

Unsure of his own political future, Edwin Edwards was growing impatient with Long’s indecision. The governor had been written off by most major Democrats after he failed to pass any parts of his revenue package, which included proposals to legalize casino gambling and establish a state lottery.

Speaking to the Shreveport Journal after the conclusion of the Legislature’s regular session, Edwards implored Long to “get in it” or stay out. “He’d be well advised to decide now that he’s either going to run or not run,” the governor said.

As summer turned to fall, talk of the governor’s race quieted as the state became consumed by the race to succeed Long in the Senate. The campaign became brutal as the two candidates, Rep. Henson Moore of Baton Rouge and Rep. John Breaux of Crowley, traded barbs. Moore almost won the primary outright, but committed some costly errors in the runoff, leading to a Breaux victory with 53% of the vote.

Happy that his seat would remain in Democratic hands, Long traveled to Louisiana for one of his final trips while still in office. On the fight from Washington to New Orleans, Bob Mann was approached by the Senator’s wife, Carolyn, who asked to switch seats so that Mann could go sit with Russell for a few minutes. Up in first class, he told Mann that he would not be running for governor and wanted to announce it the following day at a press conference. Long had written a draft of his remarks on a legal pad and worked with Mann on revisions.

That evening, the Senator practiced his speech with aides at his farm south of Baton Rouge. It was a passionate address about Louisiana and how much the state had meant to him. The speech would culminate in his announcement of whether or not he would run. Questioning his decision, Long purposely left the last line of the speech blank, still leaving the door open to entering the race the following morning. As he bid his staff farewell for the night, Long remarked that he wished that a sign or something that would reassure him of his decision one way or the other.

With no change in his resolution the following morning, Long was emotional as he spoke to the assembled media.

“On January 2, 1987, my career as an elected office holder will end. I will not seek another elected office.” Reminiscing, he went on to say, “My father once told my mother that he hoped to one day take his name out of politics some day in honor. It has been my great fortune to have the opportunity that an assassin’s bullet denied to him.” The Bayou Brief is a non-profit news publication that relies 100% on donations from our readers. Help support independent journalism about the stories of Louisiana through a monthly or one-time donation by clicking here. 

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.