A.J. Liebling's Delectable Political Jambalaya

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Turn to the opening sentences of A.J. Liebling's "The Earl of Louisiana," and three things happen. You are dazzled by the wit and acuity of Liebling's prose, you want to keep on reading for as long as he keeps on writing, and you are struck by how deeply the character of American politics has changed in the four-plus decades since "The Earl of Louisiana" was first published. To wit:

"Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texas -- stale and unprofitable. The consumer forgets that the corn tastes different where it grows."

That was 1960, when the first article in Liebling's series about Earl Long, then governor of Louisiana, appeared in the New Yorker. Now, 44 years later, you still can "experience the old-fashioned traditional corn flavor of Golden Bantam," as one seed company puts it, but the old-fashioned traditional corn flavor of Southern politics is as dead as Earl Long himself. Yes, you still can buy a Moon Pie in Ol' Dixie, but the rumpled rustics who inspired Al Capp to create a comic-strip politico called Sen. Jack S. Phogbound long ago vanished, replaced by the blow-dried suburban slicksters who've turned the Solid South into Anyplace, U.S.A.

Even Louisiana is sliding into the monotony of the mainstream -- Louisiana, where, as Liebling fondly wrote, "denials . . . are accepted as affirmations, and it is held a breach of the code for a public man to deny anything that isn't so." Edwin Edwards languishes in prison, with only memories of spectacular gubernatorial malfeasance to console him. The new governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, has an agreeably Cajun-hot name but appears lamentably untainted by scandal. The state's congressional delegation, apart from the amusing W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, provides less local color than an empty bottle of Cajun Power Garlic Sauce.

What a different story it was in 1959, when Liebling journeyed to Louisiana to have a look at the strange doings of its governor, universally known (in the universe of Louisiana) as "old Earl," younger brother of and political heir to the sainted and martyred Huey Long. Earl had assumed the governorship in 1956 for the third time and had been cruising along, fully in control, when suddenly he veered off the track. He made a dramatic if somewhat incoherent appearance on the floor of the state legislature -- he was, in fact, "making a civil-rights speech," to Liebling's astonishment -- after which he was carted off to a mental institution in Texas and subjected to national derision.

Liebling went to Louisiana "thinking of Earl as a Peckerwood Caligula" but soon came to see him as a man of character and conviction, a change that can be charted in the pages of "The Earl of Louisiana." So far as I can recall I first read it in the original installments. I was 20 years old, heavily involved with the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, and obsessed with politics. I bought the book when it was published in 1961, and have now reread it in the Louisiana State University Press edition, which has a useful introduction by the late, legendary T. Harry Williams, biographer of Huey Long and nonpareil authority on all matters Louisianan.

When "The Earl of Louisiana" appeared, Abbott Joseph Liebling was one of the country's most respected journalists, and surely one of the few in that trade who could be called beloved. Born in 1904 into prosperous New York circumstances, he yearned to be a writer and found his way onto a succession of newspapers, arriving at the New Yorker in 1935. Like his close friend Joseph Mitchell, he wrote atmospheric pieces about the city's neighborhoods and characters. His love for seediness drew him toward boxing, and in time he became the foremost American writer on that subject. He wrote brilliant dispatches from Europe in World War II. He loved to eat and drink and wrote vividly about both. He also loved newspapers and for years wrote the New Yorker's Wayward Press column, a sustained exercise in press criticism that towers above all others.

No matter what he wrote about, he was invariably amusing, sometimes hilariously so. He wrote with real grace, real style, real personality. He had many friends, who loved him just as his readers did, but his private life does not seem to have been happy, as is documented in detail in Raymond Sokolov's dutiful, humor-challenged "Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling" (1980). He had two unhappy marriages before finding some measure of contentment in a third, to the writer Jean Stafford. His insatiable appetites left him immensely overweight. He ignored doctors' orders to moderate his habits and died in 1963 of various unpleasant causes.

As happens to all journalists, Liebling has been on the treadmill to oblivion during the years since his death, but he is traveling it rather more slowly than most. In the late 1960s he became a cult figure among proponents of the "new journalism," who mistakenly assumed that he had written "personal" journalism such as they wanted to but who boosted his reputation all the same. Today more than a half-dozen of his books are in print, but unfortunately none of these conveys the full breadth and depth of his interests and accomplishments.

Liebling was in most matters a "liberal," yet it is to the "conservative" H.L. Mencken that he is most appropriately compared. Both wrote prose that often ventured into the ornate, even the rococo, a practice conventionally frowned upon among journalists. Both had great appetites, though Mencken had better control of his. Both delighted in the trashy, the seedy, the sordid, the outre, which is to say that both delighted in politics and took a decidedly humorous, tolerant view of its most egregious characters. Mencken's obituary essay on Warren Gamaliel Harding is a classic of American humor, and "The Earl of Louisiana" is not far behind.

At first encounter "The Earl of Louisiana" is about two subjects: old Earl's descent into what his many enemies chose to call madness, and the two 1960 primaries in which Louisiana Democrats chose their nominee for governor (in those days in the Solid South, the Democratic nomination was, as invariably was said, "tantamount to election"). On both subjects Liebling is, as always, informed and perceptive. His analysis of Louisiana's incredibly complex political landscape is detailed and astute, and he wastes no time in making plain that old Earl was, as his many friends liked to say, crazy as a fox.

But "The Earl of Louisiana" is best read today as an evocation of Louisiana before it fell victim to the inevitable forces of homogenization, as a portrait of a distinctive and unexpectedly endearing man who scarcely deserves the ridicule that has become his lot and -- this above all -- as an opportunity to read a few words from the typewriter of the one and only A.J. Liebling.

He was neither the first nor the last to write pungently and perceptively about Louisiana and its politics. Robert Penn Warren's famous novel "All the King's Men" (1946) is based on the life of Huey Long, and James Conaway's undeservedly neglected "Judge" (1973) is an unsparing portrait of the echt racist Leander Perez, to name just two among many. But "The Earl of Louisiana" occupies a place of its own, because its two voices -- Liebling's and old Earl's -- are in perfect counterpoint.

To get into the rhythm of things, a few quotations are in order. Here, for example, Earl is asked by a reporter "whether he could manage his legislators." His reply: "You know, the Bible says that before the end of time billy goats, tigers, rabbits and house cats are all going to sleep together. My gang looks like the Biblical proposition is here." Here he discusses his libel suit against Henry Luce's Time-Life empire: "The Luce people been going on too long picking on people too poor to sue them, and now they're going to get it in the neck. Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoe store and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them." Here is Earl's "general declaration of tolerance," as Liebling calls it: "I'm not against anybody for reasons of race, creed, or any ism he might believe in except nuttism, skingameism or communism."

That's old Earl, talking sense. Here's Liebling talking Louisiana. In the first extract, he is discussing the state primary system, in which a runoff is required if no one gets 50 percent of the vote in the first primary:

"It is unusual for a candidate to win first time around, and if one does he arouses a certain amount of resentment as a spoilsport. After the first primary, each beaten candidate and his backers trade off their support to one of the two men who are still alive, in exchange for what he will bind himself to do for them in the way of legislation, patronage or simple commercial advantage. Naturally, the runoff candidate who looks more likely to win can buy support at lower political prices than the other fellow, but by trying to drive too hard a bargain he may send the business to the underdog. Many a man has beaten himself that way. A Louisiana politician can't afford to let his animosities carry him away, and still less his principles, although there is seldom difficulty in that department."

Here, as icing on the cake, is an episode at the gubernatorial dinner table:

"One of the women guests, a Northerner, inadvertently sat on a jacket a political gent had laid aside. It was a silvery Dacron-Acrilan-nylon-airpox miracle weave nubbled in Danish-blue asterisks. She made one whoop and rose vertically, like a helicopter. She had sat on his gun, an article of apparel that in Louisiana is considered as essential as a zipper. Eyebrows rose about as rapidly as she did, and by the time she came down she decided that comment would be considered an affectation."

As is made plain by the very next sentence -- "A colored man brought a glass wrapped in a napkin . . ." -- "The Earl of Louisiana" employs the vocabulary of its time and place. Liebling's feelings about civil rights were firm and right-minded, but the N-word was common coin then and there and it appears in these pages with some frequency. My own view is that this is in keeping with the book's accuracy, authenticity and atmosphere, but many may feel otherwise and they are hereby given warning. Still, it would be a real pity if today's prevailing standards of correctness kept readers away from one of the best books ever written about American politics.

"The Earl of Louisiana" is available in a Louisiana State University Press paperback ($15.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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