There was something in the sadness and shock that brought back a memory. It is primal, at least for me, in that the story goes back before I was born.
He was a charismatic figure, homespun, with an I’m-just-one-of-you country boy approach. He was nationally known, and he might have become President. He had a populist economic agenda in a time of economic hardship. That hardship was grinding in its effect on ordinary people. He had a corn pone sort of theme song, “Every Man a King”, and a slogan, “Share Our Wealth”.
If he was not a stone cold racist, he did play the role. With a few casual comments to reporters, he began spreading the rumor that a longtime political opponent had some African ancestry. It was made up, but it enraged the man’s son-in-law, a prominent doctor in Baton Rouge. In 1935, Huey Long was shot and killed by that doctor in the capitol building of Louisiana. The doctor was immediately killed by Long’s body guards.
In 1962, a book by Allen Drury was made into the movie Advise and Consent. I think I first saw it as a teenager. One episode reminded me of Huey Long. A US Senator played by Don Murray is blackmailed over a past homosexual incident by a Senate colleague, a rabid political partisan who wants his vote. Instead, the blackmailed Senator commits suicide.
As with the fictional suicide and the depression era assassination, the overriding tragedy is death. But it was compounded in a way that became amplified with time. It is tragic that Huey Long’s assailant regarded a false rumor of a black antecedent to be a potential scandal. It is more tragic that society regarded interracial ancestry as anything other than a proud heritage. It is sad that a political figure could be so confident in the bigotry of the times that he knew the rumor would be damaging and could act on that knowledge.
In the 1960’s, it was tragic that cinema audiences, myself included, would regard a fictional episode of gay sexuality as a plausible fictional scandal.
In both cases, our evolving sense of morality and fair play make the tragedy of bigotry itself more obvious now than it was then.
Former United States Senator John Danforth, a Republican, remains highly regarded here in Missouri. When he spoke at the funeral of fellow Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich, people listened. Mr. Schweich recently committed suicide. Danforth pulled no punches. The whispered rumor in this case was that Tom Schweich was Jewish. The whisperer was the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.
The chairman has acknowledged that he may have casually mentioned that Mr. Schweich was Jewish. He may not have known Schweich attended an Episcopalian church. After all, Schweich’s grandfather was Jewish. He would not have said it in a derogatory manner. It was completely innocent. Kind of like mentioning that someone was Presbyterian.
John Danforth was having none of it. His rebuke was delivered bluntly, as reported by KTVI in St. Louis.
Tom called this anti-Semitism, and of course it was. The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry.
Someone said this was no different than saying a person is a Presbyterian. Here’s how to test the credibility of that remark: When was the last time anyone sidled up to you and whispered into your ear that such and such a person is a Presbyterian?
– John Danforth, reported by KTVI-TV2 St. Louis, March 3, 2015
The overriding tragedy, of course, is a death by suicide. It is accompanied by another tragedy. It is shameful that it continues into the 21st century:
That a political figure would become so confident in religious bigotry that he would think to begin a whispering campaign.
That his cynical assessment would be correct.
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