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Chapter Sixteen: My First Weekend in Louisiana

 

Weekends are down time in my political campaigns. This is when I thought I might go to a state park and pitch a tent. However, it rained much of the first week. Motel life seemed increasingly attractive. I was staying at the Motel 6 in Port Allen on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. Partly this was because of its central location; partly because of the relatively low price. After the AARP discount, I was paying about $30 a night on weekdays with another $5 on the busier weekends. A room at Motel 6 in New Orleans would run $50 a night - less in the neighboring city of Slidell. If I could find motels in the $30 to $40 price range, my lodging for the month would cost slightly more than $1,000, which was bearable.

While other chains such as Days Inn also had competitive rates, I preferred Motel 6 because of its consistently low prices and its familiarity. I had brought with me a printout from the Internet showing locations and giving phone numbers for all the Motel 6’s in Louisiana. It was convenient to call ahead on my cell phone to book a reservation for the evening. Timely cancellations were no problem. Even with an uncertain itinerary, I could expect to find a Motel 6 in a city not far from that day’s points of interest.

I preferred rooms on the lower level, preferably non-smoking and with one bed because that left room for a table which could also be used as a desk. All Motel 6 rooms have basic cable television. They have coin-operated laundry equipment in a room near the front office. Free ice is available. If one requests a wake-up call in the morning, a recorded voice says: “Hello, this is Tom Bodett calling to tell you you’ve just won $10 million. Just kidding. Actually, it’s time to get up.” In other words, the Motel 6 has many of the comforts that one would find at home.

My style was to buy groceries at supermarkets instead of eating at restaurants. (Toward the end of the campaign, that pattern began to change.) I did not take full advantage of the ice machine until later. I had brought with me a limited supply of laundry soap, a small number of food containers and kitchen utensils, and, most important, a battery recharger for my cell phone. I also had a few religious books and reading materials relating to the campaign. I ate light meals in my room. There was a shower for bathing. I had packed enough clothes for one week’s wearing if a fresh set was worn each day. Weekends would be a time for laundry.

On Friday evening, February 6th, I prepared a load of clothing for the washer at the Port Allen Motel 6. Next to my unit was parked a small truck with a trailer and, on top of the trailer, a motor bike. Its owner struck up a conversation with me. He was a young man from Quebec named Francois who was returning from a bike trip in the Chiapas district of Mexico. He was driving back to his home in Quebec, about forty miles north of Ottawa. Francois had supported the Quebec separatist movement and suspected underhanded dealings when this initiative was defeated. He also owned a portable logging mill from which he made a good living. Quebec, he said, was the “Brazil of the North”. By that, he meant to express not mutual admiration but soul-searching regret that the earth’s last great natural forests were being cut down at such a rapid rate.

Francois ordered pizza. He invited me to share his meal while we looked at photographs taken on the Chiapas trip. While he traveled by himself, he did have regular places to stay. While much of his travel followed the Pacific coast line, he also went into the more dangerous places bordering Guatemala where gas was harder to find and strangers were not always welcomed. I thought this quite courageous for a man not fluent in Spanish. Next to his, my adventures in Louisiana were tame. Yet, the two of us did share a certain spirit. I was on an impossible mission to be elected President of the United States. He had courted danger in the jungles and deserts of Mexico. On the other hand, Francois’ trials were behind him - another 1,500 miles and he would be home - while mine were just beginning. We called it a night when I went to remove my wet clothes from the washer and place them in the drier.

Saturday morning, I organized materials for the campaign. From a directory provided by a public library in Minnesota, I had photocopied pages giving information about Louisiana’s radio and television stations. Some seemed more news-oriented than others. Some radio stations featured call-in talk shows or programs which might welcome interviews with political candidates. I had to identify these on the listing and ignore the others. I went through the photocopied sheets writing down the most promising stations in each city including telephone numbers and contact names. Then I started calling some of these.

Because it was Saturday morning, the majority of calls went through to an answering machine. That was OK. If the recipient was interested in me, he or she might call back next week. The only immediate positive response came from Dave Graichen, co-host of a morning show on station KSYL-AM in Alexandria. I planned to be in Alexandria Monday morning for an interview with the Daily Town Talk newspaper. Graichen proposed that I be at his radio station at 8:15 A.M. A man at another station told me to call the station manager when I came to town. Another said he was only interested in political candidates if they placed paid ads.

I also used my time on that weekend to organize the campaign literature. Starting then, I delivered a standard packet of literature to newspaper offices that I visited. The top sheet was my double-sided statement on “The Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Job Proposals”, already mentioned. Next came a one-sided photocopy taken from the handout at the candidates’ debate in Des Moines which was titled “HEY - there’s a tenth candidate for President seeking the Democratic nomination!” This gave biographical information about me. Then I had another one-sided sheet, “Second Thoughts on Free Trade”, on which appeared an Op-Ed article in the New York Times coauthored by New York Senator Charles Schumer and a Reagan Treasury Assistant Secretary, Paul Craig Robert. I wanted to suggest that opposition to free trade was now in the political mainstream or, at least, had opponents from both right and left.

The bulkiest items in my campaign packet were photocopies of two articles written by me which appeared in the St. Louis Green Party publication, Synthesis/ Regeneration, in the 1990s. One was titled “A Labor and Environmentally Oriented Trading System” and the other “A Search for Trade Standards to Protect Labor and the Environment”. Here I had spelled out my trade proposals in some detail. I now took them off the Internet at www.greens.org/s-r/06toc.html and www.greens.org/s-r/09toc.html. At the bottom of the pile were photocopies of three opinion articles related to the shorter-workweek issue which I published more than twenty years ago: one in the New York Times and two in the Christian Science Monitor.

Saturday morning, I visited the Kinko’s copy shop in downtown Baton Rouge to make sure that I had enough copies of all these materials. It cost me $63 to produce everything in this round of copying. More would come later. I already had several hundred copies of the top sheet. Having neglected to bring biographical materials, I had to search through assorted papers to find the Des Moines handout and then run copies. The most paper was consumed by the two Synthesis/ Regeneration articles, respectively six and four pages in length. Yet, it was important to have the articles to prove I was not just making these issues up on the fly. My campaign was beginning to focus more on trade to the detriment of other issues. I characterized my main proposal as “employer-specific tariffs”.

To combat job loss from outsourcing, I proposed a new type of tariff whose rate reflected an employer’s difference in costs between producing in a low-wage country and in the United States. Roughly speaking, for each type of product which a company produces abroad, the federal government should develop a tariff rate which equalizes the cost of production. It would determine the employer’s cost savings from outsourcing, apply this savings to total product cost, and determine a rate of tariff which, applied to the product as it entered the United States, would neutralize the cost savings from cheap labor. Yes, I was for trade protection; but the tariff should also be employer-specific. Country-specific tariffs invite trade wars. Employer-specific ones are a way for national governments to regulate international business.

Now that I had restocked my supply of campaign literature, it was time for some serious sightseeing. The most interesting attraction for me in Baton Rouge was the Louisiana state capitol. This is one of the few - perhaps, the only - state capitols which does not have a domed roof. Instead, the Louisiana capitol is contained in a 27-story skyscraper which also houses other state government offices. Huey Long was responsible for this building. His fingerprints are on much of Louisiana politics, especially in Baton Rouge. So a visit to the Louisiana state capitol was also a tour of the legacy of Louisiana’s former governor and U.S. Senator whose body is buried in a garden adjoining the capitol building, Huey P. Long.

Visitors to the Louisiana state capitol are told of an exhibit in a lobby behind the main elevators. This is where Senator Long was shot. In September 1935, a disgruntled medical doctor named Carl Weiss fired a bullet into Long at close range. Long died in a hospital several days later. A display cabinet at the site of the shooting contains the assassin’s gun, Long’s death certificate, copies of newspapers from the time, and other mementos of this event. There is even a bullet hole in a nearby marble column, most likely fired by one of Long’s body guards in the retaliatory round of shooting. Thousands of mourners passed by the Senator’s coffin as it lay in state at the capitol. I was surprised to read in the posted newspaper that thousands also attended the assassin’s funeral. The state capitol building was Huey Long’s monument. As governor, he had rammed legislation through authorizing its construction. Even as U.S. Senator, he micromanaged legislation there and was doing that on the fateful day when he was shot.

As a boy, I had the impression that Huey Long was a colorful but somewhat disreputable figure. Politically, he stood for sharing the wealth. In a gift shop atop the capitol building, I bought a booklet of Long’s writing, “Share our Wealth”, and later a video documentary of his life produced by Ken Burns. The idea of confiscating superfluous wealth from multimillionaires and giving it to the poor was certainly not new, but Huey Long pushed this proposal with his customary energy and skill. He built a nationwide “Share the Wealth” society which had hundreds of thousands of members. Had he lived, Senator Long might have been a formidable rival to President Roosevelt in the 1936 national election. In fact, Long published a book shortly before his death titled “My First Days in the White House.”

Some have compared Huey Long to Mussolini and Hitler who were also flamboyant speakers and ruthless wielders of political power. They have called Long a “dictator”. The flip side, however, was that Long was a politician who delivered on his promises. Before his administration, there were only 300 miles of paved road in Louisiana. Long embarked on a massive road-building project. He was first to construct a bridge across the Mississippi river. Governor Long gave free textbooks to Louisiana’s school children. He built a new state capitol and a new campus for Louisiana State University. What’s more, he made big business pay for much of this.

Standard Oil had oil wells throughout Louisiana and much political influence. When Governor Long proposed a five-cent-per-barrel tax on crude oil refined in the state, it so offended political sensibilities that the state legislature began impeachment proceedings against him. By much arm-twisting, Long beat back this challenge. Determined not to repeat the experience, the governor concentrated even more power in his office. He exacted regular donations from state employees. He used the national guard to intimidate political rivals. He printed his own newspaper.

So colorful and strong was this man and so powerful his legacy that even today people are trying to figure him out. While his opponents concede that Long was an intelligent man who did some good for the state, they insist that the political excesses outweigh his positive record. Many others revere his memory. Myself, I am among those who believe that Huey Long was a great man. I am also willing to suppose that the good he did outweighed the bad. To think that one man could accomplish all that Long accomplished, when the powerful forces in society were stacked against him, is quite remarkable. Yet, undeniably, Long’s administration of government also brought many abuses of power and was a threat to the democratic process.

A college professor of mine, Robert Penn Warren, wrote a prize-winning fictional biography of Long titled “All the King’s Men.” We remember Huey Long today through works such as this. As the sun is too bright to gaze at it directly, so Long’s image may be too powerful to be held in our national mind. We tend to blot him out of our memory. A way of comprehending this fact may be, first, to acknowledge that the United States is more a plutocracy than it is a democracy; and, then, to recognize that one cannot remain a loyal and contented member of our plutocratic society while holding a balanced opinion of Huey Long. Long was the arch antagonist of this type of society. He was the purest representative of a thought which runs through our politics even today that a society should be run for the benefit of its people rather than just the wealthy. For many, this is a dangerous idea which must be suppressed. But it was impossible for me not to think of Long and his bold ideas while sitting on a bench in the beautiful, fragrant garden near the massive statute which also serves as a marker for his tomb.

Sunday was a quiet day. No activities were planned for the morning except to place a few long-distance telephone calls. My wife in China had caught the flu. She was planning to take several short trips outside Beijing. I myself had to buy a tooth brush and leave film to be developed in Baton Rouge. In the afternoon, I left that city and traveled to Alexandria where several appointments were scheduled for the following morning. The most direct route to Alexandria was along U.S. highway 190 - reversing my course of last Thursday - and then, at Krotz Springs, to take U.S. highway 71 up through Bunkie. The trip would be about 120 miles. I could save time by taking interstate I-49, but was in no hurry that day. I saw a sign advertising Cajun food on highway 190 but did not stop.

An hour later, in Bunkie, I did stop at a restaurant that had Cajun specialties and wanted to order something. For some reason, this restaurant was not open for business. A crew of workmen was hosing down the floor. So I continued on to Alexandria looking for the Motel 6. The recorded directions assumed arrival from another direction. I was coming up MacArthur Boulevard from the south. Along the way, however, I spotted a retail store specializing in Cajun foods. I ordered a wurst-like sausage called Boudin and then a crispy, tasty chicken dish called Spracklin. They were not cheap.

The Motel 6 was just beyond Super One foods across the highway from a strip mall. The clerk at the desk helpfully gave me directions to the two places I would visit the next day. Radio station KYSL-AM was not far away. Just cross U.S. highway 71, go a block to Texas Avenue, turn right, and go several more blocks. The Daily Town Talk newspaper was located in downtown Alexandria. In this case it was necessary to take Monroe to Bolton, turn right, and then take a left at Jackson and follow it for a dozen more blocks. I spent the late afternoon orienting myself to Alexandria, reading historical markers, and walking about the downtown area. It was the end of a full weekend.

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