Gerry Goldstein: Pearls of ‘wisdom’ from those who won’t clam up

Opposing a jobs bill in the U.S. Senate one day in 1935, Louisiana’s flamboyant Huey Long addressed the issue with something of a non sequitur. He told his colleagues that to make a great dinner, one starts with a frying pan and ten pounds of New Orleans oysters. 

“You dry the oysters… and you roll them into a meal which is salted…you fry those oysters in boiling grease until they turn a gold-copper color and rise to the top…then the oyster is cooked exactly right.”

He added for good measure, “People in this part of the country have never learned to fry oysters as well as we have down our way.”

Plodding relentlessly on, Long announced, “Now I come to pot-likker… First you get some turnip greens…”

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In no hurry to conclude his curious talk, Long explained that when one cooks turnips and their greens, “pot-likker” is “the residue that remains in the bottom of the pot.”

Long wasn’t about to cede his time on the Senate floor, because he was engaging in a filibuster – the legislative tactic of blocking a vote by talking the issue to death.

Long on the cover of Time Magazine

And talk he did – for 15 1/2 hours, with his recipes for Louisiana cuisine duly immortalized in the Congressional Record.

Aside from his culinary insights, he provided the senators with detailed interpretations of every section of the Constitution, quotes from the Old Testament, and praise for his own rhetoric, calling his filibuster “one of the greatest speeches that has ever been made in this body.”  (Am I wrong, or does that have a familiar contemporary ring?)

Gathering even more momentum, Long at one point exclaimed to Senate President John Nance Garner, “After having spoken here for ten hours today, I seem to hear a voice that says, “Speak ten hours more! Speak ten hours more!”

So it goes with filibuster, a derivative of the Dutch term for pirate, evolved to refer to someone who’s highjacking legislative procedure.

Former President Obama’s call over the summer to eliminate the tactic, which some view as an impediment to social progress, raises one’s curiosity about how advocates of the device have employed it.

The granddaddy of all filibusters came from North Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond, who used a variety of ploys to yak for 24 hours and 18 minutes in a failed attempt to scuttle the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Among his readings were the entire U.S. Criminal Code, the voting laws of every state, and George Washington’s farewell address. 

Thurmond reportedly took steam baths in advance so his body could absorb fluids during his talk without compelling him to answer the call of nature. Just in case, he had an aide lurking in a nearby coatroom, with a bucket.

The second-longest filibuster came in 1986 from New York Republican Sen. Alphonse D’Amato, who talked for 23 1/2 hours against a military funding bill. 

D’Amato was known for reading the District of Columbia telephone book during filibusters, but in 1992 he threw in a new wrinkle: Critical of a U.S. manufacturer’s impending move to Mexico, he highlighted a 15-hour filibuster by breaking into song and warbling a rendition of the Gene Autry hit, “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).” 

Getting back to the loquacious Huey Long, his ego parallels that of someone currently in high office who insists that his reaction to the pandemic has saved millions of American lives.

A button from when Long ran for President

Such self-congratulation would have been familiar to Long, who during his filibuster declared to his bemused but exhausted colleagues: “There is no telling how many lives have been lost by not knowing how to fry oysters.”

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net), an occasional contributor to whatsupnewp, is a retired Providence Journal bureau chief and columnist.