Attending the National Federation of Press Women conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was an informational experience. We were treated to a keynote address from Peter Kovacs, editor of The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s local newspaper, and a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Walt Handelsman. Also featured as speakers were Jeff Cowart of San Antonio, who talked about Creative Story telling, and Scott Sternberg, an attorney and First Amendment expert who talked about attacks on First Amendment freedoms.
A panel of book authors featured Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia (La) Sentinel and author of “Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi in the 1960s,” Rachel Emanuel, author of “A More Noble Cause: A.P. Tureaud and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Louisiana,” and Leo Honeycutt, former television journalist and author of several books including “Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana: An Authorized Biography.”
Peter Kovacs, who started off the convention on Thursday, June 27 shared with us that his father, then 25 years old, was in Baton Rouge staying at this very hotel when Huey Long was shot. Why was he there? He was a traveling condom salesman. Kovacs went on from that shared glimpse into Louisiana history to talk about the Pulitzer his paper won for a series on jury law in Louisiana that allowed the accused to be sent to prison even if the jury could not find them guilty. It had to do with a now-outlawed law that allowed juries to find someone guilty with only 9 or 10 of 12 jurors agreeing on the guilt, a hold-over from the Jim Crow years.
On Friday, the noon luncheon at the Old Senate building one block away yielded many interesting and amusing stories conveyed by Jay Dardenne. The building, itself, is a National Historic Landmark and received an Excellence for Architectural Award. According to Dardenne, the building was more than adequate to serve as the Capitol building but Huey Long wanted the tallest Senate building and decreed that a new Capitol building must be built, which it was. (Huey Long is buried in the front lawn).
For those of us who have seen Sean Penn play Huey “Catfish” Long in the movies, we may not have realized that he was a very real threat as a Presidential candidate to FDR in the election of 1936, but was assassinated on September 10, 1942, at age 42 in Baton Rouge before his 8 million followers in many other states could band together to put him in office. In his first year in office, Huey Long
paved 8,000 miles of formerly dirt roads, provided for free text books for all Louisiana students, and had placed 23 members on the family payroll. Each employee was required to contribute 10% of his or her pay check to a fund known as the Deduc fund, which was used to support Huey’s chosen candidates in their races. When told this was not kosher, Huey said, “I’ve made them pay it momentarily.”
Ultimately, Huey’s domineering very Trump-like ways caused a move to impeach him. The Senators met in the very room where we had lunch, but they had all been placed in office by Huey and, after deliberating for one hour, refused to impeach him (“We will not vote to impeach.”). They all signed in a circle, so that no one could see who had signed first, forming the famous “Round Robin Signature.” Chief Justice O’Neal of the Louisiana Supreme Court, when asked about the prospect of impeachment for Huey Long, said, “Don’t you think I’d give the thieving son-of-a-bitch a fair trial?”
When Huey was finally gunned down, he was no longer the Governor, but was serving as Senator. On September 8, 1935, Long was at the State Capitol attempting to oust a long-time opponent, Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy. At 9:20 p.m., just after passage of the bill effectively removing Pavy, Pavy’s son-in-law Carl Weiss, a physician from Baton Rouge, approached Long, and, according to the generally accepted version of events, shot him in the torso with a handgun from four feet (1.2 m) away. Long’s bodyguards responded by firing at Weiss with their own pistols, killing him; an autopsy found that Weiss had been shot more than sixty times by Long’s bodyguards. Long died on September 10 at 4:10 a.m. According to different sources, his last words were either, “I wonder what will happen to my poor university boys,” or “I have so much to do.”
Speaker Dardenne shared details of another Louisiana politician, Cat Dusett, who spoke Parisian French and did not speak English well. He once declared he would “win by a landscape” and said, “I talk out of my head.” When asked about his policy on juvenile delinquency, he said, “If it’s good for the kids, I’m for it.” Asked about Civil Rights, his response was, “If we owe it, we ought to pay it.”
Dardenne moved on to humorous stories of a snake oil remedy called Hadacall. (When asked why it was named Hadacall, the entrepreneur and patent medicine salesman inventor said, “I hadda call it something!”) In addition to advertising that the potion could cure cancer and insomnia, it was eventually marketed as an aphrodisiac and Jerry Lee Lewis even composed a chorus in one song, which went like this: “It takes a knock-kneed woman and a bow-legged man to do the Hadacall boogie on a sardine can.”
Walt Handelsman, who has won 3 Pulitzer Prizes for his cartooning and his animated drawings, delighted the crowd with a presentation featuring some of his better-known cartoons. Some cartoons we were not allowed to photograph, but this one, featuring Bill Clinton, earned a second laugh when Handelsman told us that the next day he got a phone call from an elderly woman who wanted to know, “Who is Bill talking to? Is it Monica?”
The caption on the cartoon, (for those who cannot enlarge it on their screens) shows (Bill) Clinton saying, “Well, this is ANOTHER fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”