The Earl Of Louisiana

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"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," comments A.J. Liebling in THE EARL OF LOUISIANA. Liebling first wrote about Earl Long and Louisiana back in 1960 for the New Yorker; the series was turned into a book a year later by Simon & Schuster. Now Louisiana State University has published an updated edition, with a foreword by T. Harry Williams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Earl's older and better-known brother, Huey.

THE EARL OF LOUISIANA paints an affectionate portrait of the rogue who was governor of Louisiana three times and would have won the office a fourth time had scandal, illness and (eventually) death not intervened. "I had left New York thinking of Earl as a Peckerwood Caligula," confides Liebling. "Dispatches in the New York papers had left small doubt that he had gone off his rocker during the May session of the Legislature, and I wanted to see what happens to a state when its chief executive is in that sort of fix."

Earl became notorious for his much-publicized affair with the stripper Blaze Starr, an act that brought his wife's vengeance down on him. When she persuaded the Louisiana legislature to have him committed to a mental institution, Earl sprung himself by using his gubernatorial powers to have the head of the hospital fired.

Liebling began following Earl around right after he got out of the loony bin and started campaigning again. By the time election day came, Liebling no longer thought ill of his subject; on the contrary, his fondness for the man shines through every page of the biography. Though he certainly pinpoints Earl's many flaws (his egomania, love of power and patronage, opposition to racial integration), Liebling comes down squarely in the politician's corner by book's end.

"Earl had a genuine concern for poor people and believed that govenment--and with him this meant the state--should act to improve their lives." Earl taxed the oil companies heavily, using the money to build roads and hospitals, give the elderly generous pensions. He also saw to it that everyone who wanted to work could get a job. He was also approachable, down to earth, funny, bawdy and electrifying as a speaker, a leader with the common touch.

When he died while campaigning, most of the state mourned him, even some of his enemies, one of whom said, "Earl possessed more raw courage and determination than any man I ever knew or read about." (LSU Press, $18.95 ppbk).