THE LOUISIANA STATE CAPITOL IS EXTRAordinary. It has a governor buried in the front yard.
At the grave stands his statue. He is a contradiction. He stands rock-still, but he seems to be in motion: one foot forward, his arms thrown back, one hand open. He is cold as stone, but he has a slight smile. It is a knowing smile. Odd things are going on in Louisiana. He would understand.
Few politicians achieve such distinction that they are called by just one name, or a nickname, or their initials. Most have been presidents: Ike, for instance, or FDR. But to this day, two score and 16 years after he was fatally shot as he walked down a capitol hallway, everyone here in Louisiana calls this governor by his first name. It is a plain name, almost comical. Huey.
But Huey Pierce Long stands as tall in my mind as he does atop his pedestal. One comes naturally to this man to seek explanations for the oddities of this place. He embodied its unvarnished paradoxes. He was the Kingfish: feared because he was a populist and a demagogue, a rabble-rouser with a dictator's instincts, a one-gallus Mussolini; but loved--truth is, revered--because he took on Standard Oil and made it pay and pledged to "share our wealth" and to make "every man a king," and because he delivered on his promises: charity hospitals and free schoolbooks and free hot lunches and paved roads and new bridges.
It made no difference, and it matters nothing now, that his honesty was always suspect, that his enemies indicted him and tried to impeach him, that his brother, Uncle Earl, who also became governor, played the horses and ranted and raved and was locked up in a mental hospital and got himself out by firing the administrator and then took up with a stripper. In fact, these accomplishments help. Each makes it all the more likely that the explanation I seek can be found here in Baton Rouge, where both men walked and talked, where they might have left behind some foggy traces of their fulminations and their moon-dog opalescence.
My question is this: What makes Louisiana the way it is?
Here, today, leading the pack in a campaign for governor in what A. J. Liebling once proclaimed "the Gret Stet of Loosiana" are three men who would never have the ghost of a chance of making the race (much less winning) in, say, Maine--or maybe even California. One is Edwin Washington Edwards. At 64, he is a former governor trying to make a comeback. The state's only Cajun chief executive during modern times, Edwards has served for three terms: a dozen years in all, longer than anyone in state history. He has been the subject of a dizzying array of accusations. He has been investigated 16 times, by his own count. In 1985, he was indicted. Twice he was put on trial on charges of fraud and racketeering. The jury deadlocked. Then he was acquitted. He is a renowned gambler and an unrepentant rake.
Another candidate is Charles Elson (Buddy) Roemer III. At 48, he is the incumbent. His father was second in command of state government under Edwards and was sent to federal prison along with reputed Mafia boss Carlos Marcello for conspiring to sell influence in the awarding of state contracts. Although the conviction was later reversed, it so traumatized young Buddy Roemer that he revolted. As governor, he waged war against Louisiana politics, which he denounced as corrupt, and fought with such anger and all-consuming intensity to save the state from itself that he tumbled into a midlife crisis. His wife left him; and now he takes how-to-live advice from a theologian/sociologist--some call him the governor's guru--who conducts attitude-altering retreats. The guru wears a rubber band on his wrist and pops it to cancel negative thoughts.
Still another candidate is David Ernest Duke. At 41, he is a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. He won 44% of the overall vote--and 60% of the white vote--when he tried to unseat Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston in the last election. Research by a coalition against racism shows these things about David Duke, which he variously minimizes or concedes: On one occasion, he wore a Nazi uniform with a swastika armband and picketed William Kunstler, calling him "a communist Jew." On another, he sold racist books at his legislative office. Until recently, he celebrated Hitler's birthday every year. Posing as a black, he wrote a book to trick black militants. Posing as a woman, he helped write a book for women on dating and sex.
Election Day is Saturday. If nobody gets more than half the votes, there will be a runoff in November between the two who get the most. Altogether, this is a campaign the likes of which are not to be found anywhere else on Earth. Why here?