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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,633

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This is the grave of Russell Long.

Born in 1918 in Shreveport, Louisiana….well, I hardly have to tell you that Russell Long was the son of Huey. Can you imagine growing up in that world of personality and politics and then have to deal with the assassination of his father in 1935? Anyway, Long went to LSU, graduated in 1939, stayed and got his law degree from there in 1942. He was in the Naval Reserve during World War II and was in Africa, Italy, and France. He received four battle stars and his service was quite real. No attempts to get out of it for being from a famous family for Russell Long and no pretend service like Lyndon Johnson, for example.

Long came home after the war, practiced law, and went into politics. His uncle Earl ran for governor in 1947 and of course Russell supported that campaign. Russell became Earl’s executive counsel after he won. Then in 1948, John Overton died and there was a special election to replace him in the Senate. You think Russell Long wasn’t going to run for that? Of course he was. He barely won the primary, but once he did, being a one-party state, there was no way he wasn’t going to Washington. He was actually elected one day before his 30th birthday so was barely eligible for the Senate.

Long might have been from a somewhat clownish family with problematic figures, but he was a very serious senator and was very proud of his work, as the freaking novel on his gravestone demonstrates. He would stay in the Senate for nearly 40 years. He never faced a serious challenger again.

Long was a very good senator, especially in the context of the South. He was close to Lyndon Johnson and they worked together on a lot of issues during the latter’s presidency. He became powerful in the ways that few senators do. In fact, in the pantheon of the Senate, Long is an underrated figure, someone who often isn’t talked about the way that Clay or Webster or Ted Kennedy is talked about. But Long was a dominant force. He made it his personal mission to fight poverty and sponsor and shepherd legislation to do that.

It helped that Long became the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee for a full fifteen years, which gave him jurisdiction over the entire social safety net. He was especially passionate about seniors and so when Medicare and Medicaid came down the line, Long was absolutely critical in their creation and funding and of course was also central to ensuring quality funding for Social Security. His other great passion was tax breaks for the middle class and for small businesses, which excites me somewhat less, but whatever. Long’s first major transformative moment was in 1956, when he led the fight to expand Social Security to include disability benefits.

Long also was the legislative force behind the Earned Income Tax Credit. Given the politics around welfare in this country, I can see why the EITC is necessary, but it’s also a ass-backwards way of dealing with poverty. The short version of this is that Americans hate the poor and they hate welfare, so EITC is a way of trying to put a bit more money in poor people’s pockets through the tax system. Of course, we could just give people money, but no, that would destroy the American work ethic. In the Reagan years, Long help get the Tax Reform Act of 1986 through the Senate, which was probably a mistake. That bill is what drastically slashed income tax on top earners, taking the top marginal tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent, a real disaster for the ability to America to tame the super rich, which was predictable at the time. But for Long, an expanded EITC made this worth it and he helped ensure that 6 million poor Americans would no longer pay taxes period through various provisions of the bill. So you can see where this would fit into Long’s politics.

Other key Long legislative accomplishments was the box on the tax form that allows people to donate $1 for nonpartisan funding of presidential campaigns, which looks quaint from today’s perspective, but sure, why not. He also carved out the legislation to create employee stock ownership plans and pushed hard for the Child Support Enforcement Act to force deadbeat fathers to pay their child support. He also stuffed a rider into a tax bill that allowed for the National Football League and American Football League to merge without violating antitrust laws. This was a power play move by both Long and Hale Boggs to force the NFL to grant a franchise to New Orleans in return and Pete Rozelle bowed to the senators and announced the creation of the Saints shortly after the bill passed.

And really, Long would do whatever he wanted in these bills. He was that powerful. One thing he learned from his dad and uncle was to bring home the bacon to Louisiana. He was a king of pork. He personally insisted, for example, inserted a provision in a bill that simply created a new federal district court in the middle of Louisiana. Whether such a thing was necessary or not was irrelevant. Long wanted it and thus it happened.

Even on race, Long was, well, OK for a southern senator of the time. He did sign the Southern Manifesto, which he later regretted, but probably corrected realized that to not sign it would mean the end of his political career. And he responded to the Brown decision by calling for a constitutional amendment liming the tenure of Supreme Court justices (objectively, this is a good idea, but not for this decision). But he also supported Alaska and Hawaii statehood, which the South had held up because non-whites might enter Congress. Then of course there was how all his economic legislation would help Black people. The White Citizens Councils and KKK thought he was a race traitor. He voted to outlaw the poll tax on multiple occasions. And Martin Luther King considered Long’s rise to Assistant Majority Leader in 1965 a great thing since no one could better break up the southern bloc against any positive change on civil rights more than Long.

Long continued this kind of moderate tax policy first work through the Carter administration. He didn’t care for Carter because the president’s green energy policy (his one good policy area) went after Long’s beloved fossil fuel industry, which he would do anything to protect. But they worked together on things such as the Panama Canal treaty.

In 1986, Long decided to step aside. He didn’t have to. He managed to get a Democrat to replace him in John Breaux. He just wanted to retire. He went into lobbying and made money. He died in 2003, at the age of 84.

In the end, Long was not a liberal. He was a pragmatic guy who wanted to get things done in a slow and methodical way that didn’t overturn the apple cart much, but would slowly move the nation forward. For freaking Louisiana, I will take it.

Russell Long is buried in Roselawn Memorial Park, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1948, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Russell is in Winder, Georgia and James Eastland (puke) is in Forest, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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