Scratch a Louisiana politician and you’ll find someone with an itch to be governor. The political history of the Gret Stet is littered with members of Congress who ran and lost for Governor: Hale Boggs, Gillis Long, Bennett Johnston, Speedy Long, Bob Livingston, Billy Tauzin, Clyde Holloway, Mary Landrieu, Cleo Fields, Dollar Bill Jefferson, Budd Leach, David Vitter, and Ralph Abraham.
The list could have been much longer, but I cherry-picked because reading long lists can be dull and my goal is to entertain as well as to inform. Whether I succeed is in your hands.
Mike Foster defeated three members of that list in 1995 and 1999.
Foster’s death on October 4th at the age of 90 was overshadowed by hurricanes, the pandemic, the presidential election, and the madness of Donald Trump. That would have been fine with Governor Warbucks. He was a gruff man who didn’t need to be in the spotlight all the time unlike the subject of the second part of this column, Earl K. Long. The headline and tagline of Richard Fausset’s New York Times obituary sums it up perfectly :
“Mike Foster, Louisiana Governor During a Lull, Dies at 90. A two-term Republican convert, he served between the tumult of the scandalous Edwin Edwards era and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.”
As a hardcore liberal Democrat, I never voted for Mike Foster although I regret my vote for Dollar Bill Jefferson in 1999. The idea of the Jefferson machine with its hands in the state till appalls me to this very day. In contrast, Mike Foster was a steady, honest, and reliable governor who was lucky in his opponents.
I wish I could take credit for the nickname Governor Warbucks but that’s on Clancy DuBos. I only steal from the best. For the kids out there, Clancy borrowed the name from the comic strip Little Orphan Annie and musical Annie. Daddy Warbucks was a gruff rich bald dude who was Annie’s guardian. As far as I know, Mike Foster was not one for belting out show tunes, he was more likely to be found in a duck blind or at Southern Law School, which he attended while governor.
Foster played footsie with David Duke to win the 1995 election but, unlike a certain president*, he was not a slave to the nuttier parts of his base. He governed as a pragmatic moderate conservative. If a proposal made sense to him, he’d support it even if it was a liberal one.
Since I’m borrowing from Clancy, I might as well quote his tribute to the former governor who was not your typical Republican:
“… he supported a hate crimes law that covered crimes against LGBTQ people. He also helped convince voters to enact the Stelly Plan, which raised income taxes but lowered regressive sales taxes. He once told me, “We’re a poor state, a really poor state, and we can’t just abandon poor people.”
Not exactly GOP talking points. But Mike Foster was never much of a party man, either as a Democrat or Republican.
Foster should best be remembered as a champion of education. He created Louisiana’s Community and Technical College system and the TOPS scholarship program, gave teachers and college professors pay raises, pushed the nation’s first educational accountability law, and steered more than $1 billion into higher education.”
I grumbled a lot when Foster was governor, but he’s looked better and better as time has gone by. One blight on his record was his sponsorship of Bobby Jindal. Foster was responsible for PBJ’s rise to political prominence and his near-miss run for governor in 2003. When PBJ gave his victory speech in 2007, I don’t remember him thanking at length the man who made him. Ingratitude is a cornerstone of the Jindal legend. It didn’t faze Foster; he was a bigger man than his protege.
PBJ did attend Foster’s funeral after which he was quoted as saying:
“This was exactly the kind of funeral he would have wanted. He never wanted to come to Baton Rouge when he was governor. Why would he want to come to Baton Rouge for his funeral? He didn’t like crowds and all the attention.”
That didn’t apply to Jindal himself or to the man who was famously dubbed the Earl of Louisiana. Earl K. Long served three non-consecutive terms as governor. Uncle Earl not only needed the attention, he craved it.
Donald Trump’s recent illness and bizarre conduct have evoked the memory of Earl Long for many Louisianans. Long was famously committed to the state mental hospital at Mandeville in 1959 by his wife Blanche, and nephew Sen. Russell Long. Uncle Earl had given a series of unhinged profanity laced speeches attacking white supremacist state senator and governor-wannabe, Willie Rainach:
“Spotting Rainach in the crowd, Long launched into the salacious details of the murder of Rainach’s uncle, killed by a black man who had caught him in bed with the man’s wife. In one of Long’s most famous remarks, he told the crowd, “After all this is over [Rainach will] probably go up there to Summerfield, get up on his front porch, take off his shoes, wash his feet, look at the moon, and get close to God.” Pointing and shouting at Rainach, he continued, “And when you do, you got to recognize that n—–s is human beings!” When he concluded his tirade, Earl was rushed to the governor’s mansion and locked in a bedroom where he grew violent. At one point, he stood in the smashed bedroom window shouting, “Murder!”
It’s to Earl’s credit that he believed in treating black folks as human beings. In his otherwise brilliant book, The Earl of Louisiana, A.J. Liebling confused Long with a liberal on race. Instead, Earl was a member of an extinct breed: moderate segregationists. He did not believe in racial equality, but he did not believe in cruelty and race-baiting either.
However unhinged Earl Long became at the end of his life, he was a better man than Donald Trump. He wasn’t a malignant narcissist who only thought of himself. He genuinely cared about poor people regardless of their race. He was a kinder, gentler populist before that term was besmirched by the Impeached Insult Comedian.
The Long family’s actions have been criticized by many, but they institutionalized the then-governor out of a genuine concern for his well-being. The Trump family is terrified of the wrath of President* Pennwyise and does nothing as he rants, raves, and holds super-spreader events. They have chosen to enable his lunacy without a hint of concern for the country. Score one for Blanche and Russell Long.
I once asked Earl Long’s cousin Gillis about Earl’s erratic behavior during what could be called the Blaze Starr-Booze era of his life. “Crazy like a fox when sober, just plain crazy when drunk.”
Another thing that Earl Long and Donald Trump have in common is folk hero status. In Trump’s case, it’s only among his supporters but, thanks to Liebling, Jason Berry’s play, Earl Long In Purgatory, and internet quote sites, Earl Long’s folk hero status remains strong. Unlike Trump, he was a genuinely funny man, whose legacy is, on balance, a positive one.
Mike Foster and Earl Long were vastly different men. One was stolid and stable, the other colorful and erratic. They had two things in common: a close relative who was both Governor and a United States Senator (Huey for Earl and Murphy for Mike) and their service as governor. Make that three things in common: they loved the Gret Stet of Louisiana and tried in their own way to make it a better place.
Since Governor Warbucks was something of a prankster, I like to think he would have gotten a kick out of being linked to Uncle Earl. Unlike Earl, however, a song was never written in his honor.
The last word goes to Jay Chevalier: