RABALAIS’ POLITICAL HISTORY: LBJ’s Serious Beef With Shreveport

In January of 1965, U.S. Sen. Russell Long heard that the Appropriations Committee, when preparing the upcoming congressional budget, had killed his pet project.

Long had wanted to build a new post office in Shreveport, bringing federal jobs and money into the city. When he was told that the cut had been ordered by the White House, the senator picked up the phone and called President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Long and the president, having been freshman senators together, were old friends. When Johnson had risen through the upper chamber’s ranks and became majority leader, the Bayou State’s junior senator had been one of his most reliable votes. LBJ often spoke about his admiration for the late Huey Long, Russell’s father. When he was a young congressional staffer in the 1930s, the future president frequently slipped away from his desk to watch the Kingfish’s tirades on the Senate floor.

In between appointments in the Oval Office, Johnson took Long’s call. Their conversation, which was secretly recorded, is a powerful example of LBJ’s domineering personality and brash political style. (The audio can be accessed here.)

After exchanging pleasantries, the senator explained his predicament. The president,fresh off of the largest electoral victory in American history and days away from his second inauguration,was not in a conciliatory mood. Instead of the friendly chat Long probably expected, he found himself on the receiving end of one of Johnson’s legendary harangues.

The president immediately made it clear that the removal of the post office project in Shreveport was made out of political animosity. Despite winning 44 states the previous fall, he had lost Louisiana to Barry Goldwater by a wide margin. Caddo Parish, in particular, had been a hotbed of anti-Johnson sentiment. Word had gotten back to the White House and it stuck in LBJ’s craw. “Those are some of the meanest, most vicious people in the United States,” Johnson told Long. “Now you help those folks that vote for you and stay with you. You don’t reward Shreveport.”

Long then tried to reason with the president, telling him that getting the post office built had been his own campaign pledge and therefore could hurt his chances for re-election. “I told those people I was going to get it for them,” he said.

The president was undeterred — he would be happy to approve federal projects in Louisiana to help the senator politically, he told Long, but anything in Shreveport was out of the question. When Long mentioned recent job losses at Barksdale Air Force Base, the commander-in-chief said he was considering shutting down the whole installation.

Frustrated, Long started pleading before LBJ cut him off. “I know your daddy must be turning over in his grave,” he said. “He didn’t reward people that way.”

The president knew his history well.

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