Last spring, I was wandering around my cousin Ted’s office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He had invited me down to eat some of his famous Silver Queen cream-style corn, and to meet a younger friend of his who had overcome all odds and circumstance to be elected Governor of Louisiana. His friend had won the primary against a large field of much better-known candidates, and then, as they put it politely in the South, beat his Republican opponent, a former United States Senator, like a rented mule. This in a state that had become as red as a sunburn. It was one of the biggest upsets in Louisiana’s long and rich political history.
Ted Jones has lived an interesting, worthwhile life. Raised by his grandparents on a small farm in rural South Georgia, he had, through perseverance, hard work, and a keen mind become a legend in Louisiana, his adopted state. A well known attorney and national expert on tax law, a world class guitar picker and singer, voted into several music halls of fame, he’s also a Mark Twain quality raconteur of life and political history in America from the 1930s to the present day. He has known every President since Truman personally, cooked for generations of Senators at monthly dinners at his apartment in Washington, and is neither a man to cross, nor one who wouldn’t give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
On the walls of his office were hung political memorabilia dating back eighty years. One poster struck me as being as modern as my iWatch. The slogans as powerful in the spring of 2016 as they had been when Huey Long first enunciated them during his barnstorming campaigns for Louisiana Governor and Senator. His then radical programs vaulting him from obscurity to the Governorship and to national prominence in the thirties. The power of his platform in a America suffering the worst Depression in our history, may have taken him all the way to the White House, but for his tragic assassination. A fictional retelling of his life, All the King’s Men, is one of the great American novels, and is the greatest American political novel ever written.
When I saw the poster, we were in the midst of primaries leading to the most divisive Presidential campaign of my lifetime. A campaign that really hasn’t ended, or become less vitriolic, despite a Republican victory. What became clear during election was that today’s Democratic Party is not the Party of FDR, or Huey Long, or even John Kennedy, but one ruled by ideologues bent on victory at all costs, fervently backing radical, divisive issues that many of their traditional constituencies don’t recognize as being what their Democratic Party should stand for.
The eventual Democratic nominee for President summed up her Party in a way that explains why, in statehouse after statehouse, at the county and small city level, that party lost its way and lost the country. When asked her philosophy about the role of government, especially in these divisive times, especially with new radical social issues (mandating transgender bathrooms?) springing (like Athena from Zeus’s forehead for classicists) full grown and fully supported by the party almost weekly …from nothing to everything in a single news cycle, she explained:
“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts (about social issues), I believe you change laws…”
The new Democratic Party defined: no qualms about criminalizing behavior, criminalizing thought, coercing rather than convincing, dividing neighbor against neighbor for sound bites and to win a news cycle. A party gleefully willing to make everyday Americans leading everyday American lives, strangers in the strange land of their 2016 America.
There used to be another Democratic Party, radical in its own right, forced into radicalism by entrenched monied interests, that controlled everything in America as if feudal lords. Especially in the post Civil War south, in Louisiana. Out of a feudalism that created poverty, injustice, and misery, came Huey Long’s radical idea: to use the power of government to help people rather than keep them in their place. To reform a system that was so blatantly evil, so evidently unfair and un-American at its core, that a crawfish could understand what needed to be done. He drove home a galvanizing message to a disunited and scattered electorate that there was only one party, and one candidate committed to helping people, and only one party and one candidate that would help people.
The poster in Ted’s office proclaimed that Party’s platform. If Hillary had run on it she would be President today
…here are the proposals listed on the poster that touched my heart standing there:
FREE TRADE SCHOOLS CENTRALLY LOCATED
FREE HOT LUNCHES FOR POOR CHILDREN
FREE SCHOOL BOOKS, PENCILS, AND PAPER
FREE POLL TAX
MORE BUILDINGS FOR TUBERCULARS
ADDITIONAL FACILITIES FOR FEEBLEMINDED CHILDREN
OLD AGE PENSIONS
MOTHER AID-CHILD RELIEF
FARM TO MARKET ROADS
FULL NINE MONTHS SCHOOL TERMS
FREE HOSPITALS AND AMBULANCES
FREE BRIDGES ALL STREAMS LARGE OR SMALL
Real solutions to remedy universally understood injustices that only a new way of thinking about government could do something about. With the strength of purpose to do it in the face of entrenched, monied, interests. Not socially divisive, certainly economically radical, but American in its fairness, feeling and scope. What the Democratic Party represented for generations, for most of Ted’s lifetime.
The next morning Ted and I met with Governor John Bel Edwards in his office.
I’ve known a number of Governors.
When they tell you they want to have a private meeting with you, it always means…the Governor and a few of his aides. I asked a Governor once what ‘private’ meant to him…he seemed astounded by the question…why, it’s just you and me, Michael…the aides by that time in his career had become just furniture.
John Bel Edwards walked into his office alone.
My first impression was of a highly intelligent, engaging, committed, decisive guy. A guy who had come through whatever it takes to become the Governor of a state, but had remained the same guy. A West Point graduate and Army officer, he carried himself as if were still commanding a company. But, the most impressive thing about the Governor, and one that a cynic would be cynical about until that cynic, like me, discovered it was who he is, was that he really cared about what you were saying, listened, looked at you and not his watch, and asked considered questions about the subjects at hand.
A colleague had come into to town from England, and taken a limo from the New Orleans airport to Baton Rouge. The driver, a middle aged African American woman had spontaneously asked if he had heard about Louisiana’s new Governor? No, tell me about him, he replied. I like him, she said. He’s smart. He’s tough. And, most importantly, I think he cares about people like me. Not that fake ‘I’m running for office’ caring, but real caring. And, I’ve got to tell you, she said, this one’s got the grit to do something good for Louisiana.
The Presidential campaign lurched on. Things got even more bizarre, and the American people threw out the establishments of both parties and went with Donald Trump. Let’s give him a chance and see what he can do.
But, one thing is clear, the American people have, over several election cycles, firmly rejected today’s Democratic Party and its party leaders: the Hillary’s, Nancy Pelosi’s, the Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s, the Chuck Shumer’s win big cities, but are anathema in the heartland.
Yet, what the Democratic Party traditionally represented, and could again, especially in the face of Trumpism and the hard heart of rich Republicans ascendant, is self evident. The Democratic Party of the issues proclaimed on a eighty year old campaign poster. A party with actionable solutions, not shrill complaints, to real, not wedge, issues. A mainstream Democratic party would galvanize a winning Presidential campaign as early as 2020. A ‘Huey Long’ style Democratic party would have mighty arms that could reach down and gather up states and counties and cities in a way not seen outside of Obama’s 2008 win on the national level.
There are no Democratic leaders on the national scene today who represent that sort of Democratic Party.
But, there is one in Louisiana.
I would predict, that if he is interested, with a growing national appreciation that he’s the best Governor Louisiana has experienced in a generation, if his family allows, and if Trump remains Trump and has no Damascene moment during the early years of his Presidency, that the Democrats will win the White House in 2020 with Governor John Bel Edwards as their candidate.
After meeting him, and thinking about the above, I did a little more research on this impressive guy, comfortable enough in his skin to sit by himself without aides in a meeting, talking about all things under the sun, with the confidence and ease as if a life long friend. I discovered that not only had he gone to West Point, but that he was a graduate of the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools. If you visit the Ranger School you’ll pass by this sign at the gate:
‘Not for the weak, or fainthearted.’
The same is true for those who seek political office to try to make their state and country a better place.
I can assure you, only committed, highly disciplined, confident, skilled, smart people graduate from West Point and become Airborne Rangers. As far as I could discover, only one Airborne Ranger has ever become a state Governor. John Bel Edwards would be the first to become a President of the United States.
He has the perfect campaign platform to win in 2020. He learned it at the Academy:
DUTY HONOR COUNTRY