Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

August 12, 2009


What with HBO's new documentary on Marion Barry, we thought readers might enjoy this.

Washington City Paper, 1990 - With Earl Long and Willie Stark (aka Huey Long) the mechanics of their politics was even more corrupt than that of our mayor; yet in some mystical way they managed to immunize the philosophy the politics served from the corruption. Jack Burden, the journalist-turned-Stark henchman who narrates 'All the King's Men,' says at one point, "Process as process is neither morally good nor morally bad. We may judge results but not process. The morally bad agent may perform the deed which is good. The morally good agent may perform the deed which is bad. Maybe a man has to sell his soul to get the power to do good."

Thus you look at Huey Long's platform of the 1930s and wish the current national Democratic Party could do as well. But those were days when you could see and feel political virtue. A new road, a new hospital, tax relief that made a difference. Today politics has become a giant Nintendo game, exciting and convincing while you're playing, but nothing there when you turn off the set. If we drive around Washington we would be hard pressed to find places where we could point and say, "Look, at least Marion Barry did this." There are no Barry monuments, no Barry unfulfilled dreams, no Barry proverbs to mitigate his memory. Yet before we become too moralistic about it, we should remember that Barry was doing no more than playing by the current rules, which state that social programs only need be promised, wars on social ills need only be waged, and virtue only need be declared. Nothing in politics anymore need be brought to fruition. Marion Barry said he never used drugs; George Bush said he would eliminate them. And perhaps Barry learned from the Bushes of America that it really didn't matter what you said. No one would bother with the final truth. . .

I find myself thinking of the good years. The years in which Barry was one of a handful of people who made self-determination for DC possible, the years in which he was the voice of progress and sanity on the school board and city council. I think of a man who was willing to risk his life for the freedom of others, who was willing to go to jail on the chance it would help others gain a measure of liberty. And like Jack Burden writing of Willie Stark: "I have to believe he was a great man. What happened to his greatness is not the question. Perhaps he spilled it on the ground the way you spill a liquid when the bottle breaks. Perhaps he piled up his greatness and burnt it in one great blaze in the dark like a bonfire and then there wasn't anything but dark and the embers winking. Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that."

On the wall of my office is an autographed bumper sticker from Marion's second campaign for mayor, the last time I supported him in anything. It reads: "Barry -- the way things ought to be." In his last words Willie Stark said, "It might have been all different, Jack. You got to believe that."


Anonymous Mairead said...

But Sam, "All The King's Men" has as little to do with Huey Long as...well, as Obama has to do with socialism.

I think the 1941 eulogy by Sen. William Langer (R-ND of all things)is closer to the mark:
I doubt whether any other man was so conscious of the plight of the underprivileged or knew better the ruthlessness of those in control.

And it was because Huey Long knew how to fight, knew how to fight fire with fire, knew how to combat ruthlessness with ruthlessness, force with force, and because he had the courage to battle unceasingly for what he conceived to be right that he became an inspiration for so many in their own fight for a square deal, and the object of such relentless persecution on the part of his enemies.

The fight he waged was such a desperate one that even in death he has not been immune from attack. So we find that 5 years after his body had been lowered into the grave -- that grave which will forever be a shrine for those who love decency, honor, and justice -- attempts are still being made to besmirch his character.

This is not fooling the farmer, the worker, the small businessman; it is not fooling the child who can read today because of the free textbooks that Huey Long obtained; it is not fooling the citizen who can vote today because Huey Long abolished poll taxes.

These people know from Huey Long\'s life that, as they fight for the better things, there will always be the inspiration that fighting with them in spirit will be that fearless, dauntless, unmatchable champion of the common people, Huey P. Long.

He was "the People's Scoundrel".

August 12, 2009 7:06 PM  

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