Shortly after the cooling of the earth, I was privileged to be given a firsthand look at a Louisiana statewide campaign. It was then that I learned about former Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, who was portrayed by Paul Newman in the movie "Blaze," which allegedly told the story of the married governor's public relationship with the then-famous stripper Blaze Starr. What the movie did not emphasize was that Earl Long, Huey Long's younger brother, was an early champion of civil rights who expanded minority voting rights, expanded the state's school lunch program and raised schoolteachers' salaries.
In 1956, the year Long won the second of his three nonconsecutive terms as governor, as I was told the story, with the advent of television, movie theater attendance had fallen dramatically. Just 10 years earlier, when the U.S. population was just 141 million, an average of 90 million Americans had gone to the movies every week. But movie admissions had fallen by 50 percent.
Wrongly, the Louisiana theater people believed that a state tax on movie tickets was causing the hemorrhage in attendance and that crowds would return if the tax were removed. An old friend of Long's named George, a lobbyist for the movie folks, went to Long and secured his support for repeal of the state tax on movie tickets in exchange for very major campaign contributions from the theater owners. Short version: Earl Long, with full campaign coffers, won the gubernatorial election.
George then schemed to push a repeal of the movie tax, with no help from his governor friend, through the Louisiana Legislature and succeeded by a razor-thin margin — at which point Long announced to the press that he intended to veto this indefensible raid upon the public treasury by rich movie theater owners. George, fearing that he would have to refund his fee to his theater clients, went to the governor and asked him what he should tell his people. Long's blunt answer: "Tell them I lied."
Later, Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh, the legendary speaker of the California Assembly, was famous for talking to his elected colleagues candidly about dealing with the free-spending lobbyists all over the California Statehouse: "If you can't take their money, drink their liquor, (sleep with) their women and then come in here the next day and vote against them, you don't belong here."
But President Donald Trump is cut from a different cloth. He ran as an all-out critic of the so-called carried interest deduction — a tax loophole allowing wealthy hedge fund managers and private equity partners to treat their pay not as regular income but as capital gains. During the campaign, he pointed out that these Wall Street billionaires were being taxed at a rate of only 20 percent, dramatically lower than that owed by, say, a married couple employed as a city firefighter and a public health nurse. Candidate Trump would have none of this: "They make a fortune. They pay no tax. It's ridiculous. ... The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder." He promised at the Detroit Economic Club, "We will eliminate the carried interest deduction ... and other special interest loopholes that have been so good for Wall Street investors and for people like me but unfair to American workers." As president, Trump did not have the guts of Louisiana's Earl Long to say "no" to the big money. Instead, in his landmark tax bill, he folded like a $2 suitcase. He protected the hedge fund billionaires.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.