The Breakfast Table

Murder, Mayhem, and Huey Long

Dear David,

Glad to hear from you this morning. I envy you out there in the cool, head-clearing wilderness. I, too, was shocked by the front-page picture of the woman with her arm blown off–I wondered if this is why the New York Times starting printing in color. Certainly competes with the tabloids to grab your attention on the newsstand.

Here in the swamps of Washington we are also getting the bombing news, but it’s mixed with a cynical brew of political/personality gossip. Mainly, Scandalgate: the countdown. Everyone is keenly aware that Clinton testifies one week from today, and the tireless speculation continues. Over the weekend a friend of mine told me she spotted another friend–a reporter–hanging from a tree outside the courthouse last week. This seemed to me to symbolize the total degeneration of our much-maligned craft. Reporters have been removed from their beats writing stories that affect people–welfare reform, social security, etc.–to join this ravenous pack of gossip hounds, looking for the latest tidbit on the sex scandal. They’re interviewing Monica’s doctor, friends, enemies, foul-mouthed former boyfriend … Ugh!

What do the rabbis say about gossip? I understand it’s also frowned upon in Judaism to take part in spreading hurtful rumors. When you think of how we treat the living, it’s no wonder that photojournalists show disrespect for the dead. I shudder at how callous our colleagues, some of them very decent people, can become. It makes sense to me that it’s hard to libel a public figure. But how about the collateral damage to civilians when reporters delve into people’s intimate lives? Coming to Washington a year and a half ago, I was struck by how much more distanced and abstract the media are here. When the guards were shot in the Capitol building, I actually heard some discussion of whether this would be “for the best” because now militia-types would see that attacking government hurts real people, and become less violent and hostile. The positive spin on maniacal murder. How out of touch is that?

Anyway, I’m reading the piece in the Times about the family of Earl and Huey Long having a reunion. “Huey Long, the demagogue who dreamed of being President but endeared himself to generations of Louisianans with paved roads, free textbooks and a colossal personality, died in 1935. Earl Long, a beloved but vexing man who once lost his campaign money on a pig hunt and kept company with a stripper, died in 1960. But to say either one is gone would be inaccurate.”

One of my favorite summer reads ever is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, based on Huey Long. I devoured it when I was a kid–remember the summer that went on forever when the narrator fell in love? The awful demise of the decent judge? The line about doing someone in by digging up dirt from their past, because everyone, even the judge, has something in their closet? Political disillusionment was genuinely tragic in that book. It had a lot more weight than the Clinton story. Partly because Long, corrupt as he was, was a genuine populist who preached socialism. Clinton has no such high-flown ideals. He’s dismantling the last bits of the New Deal, doing away with welfare, preparing to privatize social security, proposing a national health-care plan that turns out to mean the entrenchment of the insurance companies, this dippy conversation about race. Puny, phony efforts. And by conservatives, he’s pilloried for representing big-government liberalism. It’s pitiful. For all the trouble he’s put us through, I wish he had been more like Long–railed against the corporations and Wall Street, demanded family-supporting wages, European-style maternity leave, Canadian-style single-payer health coverage … OK, now I’m dreaming. Back to you in the woods, David.

Yours, Ruth