Abbott Joseph Liebling’s 1961 book “The Earl of Louisiana” has been on my shelves for a long time. I bought it thinking it was about Huey Long and shelved it when I learned otherwise. After seeing the movie “Blaze” I had the opinion that younger brother Earl was a bit of a fool. If Rachel Shteir had not mentioned Liebling so many times in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show” I doubt I would have bothered to read it at all. I now have a new rule, if a book stays in print for over fifty years I need to read it.
This is not a biography of Earl Long, it is more a memoir of Liebling’s trip to Louisiana to report on the their governor’s mental breakdown. What he found, Louisiana style politics, was so different from what he expected that he stayed on the story even when he had to do it from long distance, covering the British elections. Earl Long, did have a physical breakdown, he was exhausted fighting to stop a bill intended to purge Louisiana’s voting rolls of African Americans. Louisiana, the entire south, was having a resurgence in segregation politics after the Brown V Board decision. Long called the segregationists “grass eaters”, herd animals, and Liebling adopted the practice.
As interesting as it was to have a glimpse into Louisiana politics it was Liebling’s playful use of language that most impressed me. Discussing how every Southern physician seemed to have an opinion on Earl Long’s health and pointing out the partisan divide on the diagnoses Liebling wrote, “Even his own experts, who denied he was demented, said in explanation of his antislavery views that he was beset by arteriosclerosis, several small strokes, oscillatory blood pressure and an irreverent gleam in his eye.” To illustrate the confusing mix of conversations at a campaign office on the night of the election he wrote, “Carried away by the stream of idiom like a drunk on a subway train, I missed a lot of stations.” Liebling had an ear for language. He quoted Earl Long at a campaign stop after opponents started labeling him crazy, “Wouldn’t you rather have a tried and true man, half crazy and half intelligent, than some bladderskite?”
I could go on and on with quotes like that, in places I gave up on highlighting sentences and simply put brackets around entire pages. I remember reviewing another book that had been in print continuously for over fifty years, “How to Lie with Statistics”, this is that good and just as deserving of being read.