Politicians who tell it straight

Posted Feb. 11, 2011, at 4:25 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 11, 2011, at 8:37 p.m.

In Mark Twain’s recently released autobiography, published 100 years after his death, the revered humorist wrote that his memory was so good he could remember everything about his youth, including stuff that never happened. I thought of Twain’s sage observation when I spoke with an old newspaper friend whose stint cov-ering Maine politics had paralleled mine, and we commenced to swap war stories about the good old days under the State House dome.

It was great fun reminiscing about the classic scorched-earth battles that Independent Gov. Jim Longley waged with the Legislature, and such. But before we rang off, we agreed that as interesting as that experience had been, an even-more-coveted assignment would be to cover the administration of plain-speaking Gov. Paul LePage — a politician who, to the dismay of his staff, seemingly never met the bridge he couldn’t gleefully burn behind him.

Many a retired reporter must surely be sensing the drama likely to unfold during the approaching perfect storm of tough times requiring tough solutions, with the ship of state under the command of a tough-talking governor, and wishing they were along for the ride. If nothing else, the experience would be a swell antidote for cabin fever during the endless Maine winter.

That LePage will liven up the joint during his tenure is a given, considering his tendency to blurt out pretty much what is on his mind at any given moment. But it’s probably not realistic to expect the guy, as a first-termer, to provide the high caliber of entertainment that some of his contemporaries in the southland — that mother lode of colorful political characters — have furnished over the years. The list of Southern politicians who must have been a hoot for reporters to cover is ample, but two names stand out.

One was Big Jim Folsom, governor of Alabama in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a hero to many of his constituents and a tough act for anyone to follow. Said to be no stranger to strong drink, Folsom reportedly once fell out of a jeep while he was inspecting ROTC troops at the University of Alabama — an accomplishment that likely gained him more votes from the voting-age college crowd than it cost him. In recounting the story, Southern humorist Roy Blount Jr. asked, “Would you vote for a man who would inspect ROTC troops sober?”

According to Blount, Folsom was once accused of romantic involvement with an attractive blonde not his wife. Folsom said the whole thing was political, and if his enemies were going to stoop to using such bait, “they’re going to catch Big Jim every time.”

The charismatic populist “Kingfish” — Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and later a U.S. senator — was the inspiration for Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel of Southern politics, “All the King’s Men.” In an introduction to his book, Warren described Long — whose life would end by assassin’s bullet — as “a wit, a stand-up comic, a tale-teller, a master of vituperation and high rhetoric, a master of many ‘lingos,’ a murderous debater.”

In 1935, when Warren was teaching at Louisiana State University, the university threw a huge bash to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding. Seated at the head table among a grand array of high poohbahs, Long was asked to say a few words.

“Huey was in top form, or near,” wrote Warren. “About all I remember is this, my paraphrase: ‘People say I steal. Well, all politicians steal. I steal. But a lot of what I stole has spilled over in no-toll bridges, hospitals, and to build this university.’”

Warren’s introduction to the Huey Long body of legends came from a hitchhiker who had flagged him down one sultry day not long after Warren had arrived in Louisiana to begin teaching. “He told me how Huey would build you a road. How he would build you bridges with no toll. How he was going to fix your teeth free,” Warren wrote. The man praised Long for the deft way he had recently handled a loudmouth heckler. “Then he vengefully spat. ‘That Huey,’ he said, ‘he ain’t [messin’] ’round. He gits ’m tole, and tole straight.’’’

It’s not difficult to imagine a conservative Mainer expressing a similar sentiment about Gov. LePage. And in many cases you wouldn’t have to change the dialect a whole lot.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may contact him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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