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The Ballad of Buddy Roemer
Article date: March 20, 1988
Author: John Ed Bradley
How a little, skinny 44-year-old U.S. congressman rose up one day from a crowd of
contenders, talked his own special talk, led his own special revolution, made crowds mad
for change and made himself governor of the legendary State of Louisiana
THE GOVERNOR'S BODYGUARD, HAMILTON Mixon, is an enormous, red-faced man who
wears both his gun and his badge on his belt.
Selfless, devoted to the Revolution, owning a calculated willingness to throw his wide body
down for others-that's Hammy. At Amite High School in the mid-1970s, he played tackle
on the offensive line of the football team and wound up in the state championship game,
losing to some outfit out of Shreveport. But here now in Baton Rouge, in the Great Hall of
the Bellemont Motor Hotel, Hammy marches forward and cuts a crooked gully through a
fabulous, beautifully dressed crowd whispering like insects. And you imagine him as he
might have been so many years ago-Hammy pulling around and looking for field to clear,
throwing elbows, fists, head-butts, throwing whatever the hell it takes to win, including a
wild, rotten air of invincibility that absolutely tames the opponent.
It's December 1987, and this is a post-election fundraiser honoring the little, skinny
politician, Charles Elson (Buddy) Roemer III whom these folks helped bull into the office of
governor of Louisiana. And it is the blood duty of Hammy, a state trooper, to throw his
person in front of any suspicious character who, fried by too many Cajun margaritas or
just plain goofy, tries to lay too heavy and too serious a hand on the man who would be
Now the governor is picking at supper while a handsome, mustachioed booster introduces
him by way of a poem penned only today:
The fellow we're all here to honor tonight
Has been busy these days having the time of his life;
A year on the road in a tough campaign,
With a message like thunder in a summer rain. Victory was sweet but now the real task
begins, And as Buddy says, "This Time Louisiana Wins." In a bold revolution, the budget
Firing the bureaucrats and dumping the duds.
I'm sure in this process he may take a few licks
But imagine what will happen when he starts laying bricks! WILD, THUMPING APPLAUSE.
THEY ARE, ALL OF THEM, Roemeristas-mad about Buddy, mad for change, mad for the
Revolution, mad to make Louisiana great again. The miniature lights in the weeping fig
trees, stationed at the rear of the dais, beat like a million lost hearts. Outside, it's
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nearabouts Christmastime in Louisiana. You'd never know it. The heat multiplies the hair,
calls June bugs to porch lights, brings waves of cloud lightning that smell of cordite. But
inside the Great Hall-and yes, this hall is great-the little, skinny politician has begun to
speak, and everything is new and born again.
"I DON'T WANT Louisiana to be New Hampshire or Massachusetts or Hawaii or Tennessee,"
the leader of the Revolution is saying, his voice breaking as if he were about to cry for all
the pride heaving in his bosom. It's the preacher's blood that's got hold of him, and the
only thing to do now is sit up straight and bite your lip and listen.
"I want Louisiana to be LOUISIANA. We've got some things that CAN'T BE DUPLICATED by
anyplace, by anyone, by anybody. We should not be so HOMOGENIZED, so COOKIE-
CUTTER alike that we look like every other state. I'm proud of the fact that we're different-
our FOOD! our COURAGE! our LANDSCAPE! Louisiana ought to be Louisiana. The world will
take a look and see a state that's different. But we ought to be as sound as the United
States of America, and as long-lasting. "I'll say it as I've always said it-WE OUGHT TO
CLEAN UP OUR POLITICS. I'm a politician. I get far too much credit when things go well.
I'm a LITTLE, SKINNY, hard-headed, 44-year-old man. Just a politician. But I like my
profession. I'm proud to be a part of it. I equate myself when I'm alone to Thomas
Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. I'm proud to share the same profession.
"My GOD, my GOD, how powerful that is!"
Only a few minutes into the speech, and the place comes apart. Hundreds of Roemeristas
are putting their hands together, some clinking their water glasses with knives and forks,
others resisting the urge to scream the fellow's name: "Buddy!" At the center of every
table is a giant bowl of camellia blossoms, and the delicate red and pink petals shudder in
the noisy storm. Now there's a whistle, high and shrill. And another. Somebody near the
kitchen door is hooting like a mad bird.
A savior of the political sort has arrived this day on the bayou.
And there up front, watching him the way a young dog watches the hand that feeds and
strokes it, which is to say with the most impossible longing to do right, Hamilton Mixon
stirs in his seat. IT IS ALMOST TRUE THAT UNTIL BUDDY CAME ALONG WITH his amazing
hypnotic attitude, there really were only two ways of talking if you were a native
Louisianian, although some might argue that New Orleans-speak, or Yat-the citified way of
spinning English with a Cajun flair that Dennis Quaid tinkered with for his horny character
in "The Big Easy"-was a third.
In the heart of the southern region of the Boot known as Acadiana, folks tend to speak
with a muddy, clipped accent, and it is similar, though not very, to the business you hear
on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y. When somebody, generally a non-Cajun redneck from
North Louisiana, says a fellow was "talkin' like dat," he's saying the fellow was Frenchy
and flat-tongued, and this can be taken as complimentary or derisive, depending on who's
North of Acadiana the land turns to stubborn red clay, and most people in these parts
don't "talk like dat." Instead, they tend to drawl and carry on with what sounds like piney-
woods preacher's talk, for this is Bible Belt country. In their voice, one detects a syrupy
thread that corrupts a normal bunch of words and transforms it into a hilly, almost
"Will you get me a loaf of bread?" as spoken by a real-life North Louisiana redneck
becomes, "Will you please run own down to the Jiffy Mart and pick up some brade?"
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Suddenly Buddy Roemer, who grew up on a cotton plantation near Bossier City in
northwestern Louisiana, and who should, simply because of where he comes from, speak a
little like the young Jerry Lee Lewis with a dry throat, has the whole state talking in a
fashion that is neither redneck nor Cajun but just plain Buddy-talking in bold letters and
exclamation points, and most always about reforming a government riddled with
To those Roemeristas who support the new governor, reform is a cheap and inexact word
for what his administration has set out to do. Revolution is more like it, and who cares if
the means toward achieving their goals sometimes resemble an old-time tent revival in
which a fancy man kicks high his holy heels, saves some souls, restores some hopes and
straightens out the sad and lowly twisted. Buddy: We will put our children first! Chorus:
Buddy: We will clean up our politics!
Chorus: Clean 'em up!
Buddy: We will scrub the budget!
Chorus: Scrub it!
Buddy: We will plug life into our moribund education system! Teach our children! Keep
them home when they graduate from college!
Buddy: We will clean up our environment!
Buddy: We will bring in new business!
Buddy: We will save ourselves!
Chorus: Yes we will!
Buddy: We will be proud again!
Buddy: Free at last! Free at last! Louisiana-free at last! THE FUNNY THING IS, UNTIL LATE
SUMMER OF LAST YEAR, only a few months before the gubernatorial election, most people
in the Boot either had never heard of or knew very little about Buddy Roemer. Except for
those in his district, Buddy was just one of three U.S. congressmen whose names and
faces appeared now and then in the newspapers and on TV as challengers to Edwin
Washington Edwards, the white-haired gambling man from Cajun country who had
dominated Louisiana politics for almost two decades and who now was running for
reelection to the office that he'd already held three times.
If the Roemer name sounded familiar, it was in part because Buddy's father, Charles Elson
(Budgie) Roemer II, had been a big man in state politics for more than a couple of
decades and had served as the commissioner of administration during Edwards' first two
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terms as governor. Budgie Roemer was also the fellow who was later convicted of
accepting a bribe from an FBI informant posing as an insurance executive in the federal
sting operation known as Brilab, a crime for which he spent 15 months in a Fort Worth
Around New Orleans, the Roemer name has long been a familiar one because of Buddy's
grandfather. As you drive through the suburbs on Interstate 10, a great painted statue of
a cow rises above the scramble of apartment complexes and nightclubs, warehouses and
fast-food enterprises, and behind it a huge, brightly lighted sign says this: "Walker-
Roemer Dairy." That aluminum animal, standing on a tall pole, its rear end facing the busy
highway in a weird salutatory gesture, has brought plenty of attention to the family name,
although not the kind you would count on to translate into votes come choosing time. It
turns out that Buddy's grandfather, the first of the Charles Elsons, had founded the dairy
business back in the 1930s and made a tidy fortune supplying milk to the hungry children
of the river city.
So how did this relatively unknown conservative Democrat, the kind with which the state
recently has grown crowded, come scrambling out of the hedges, put a spell on voters
with his wild evangelical Buddy talk and undo the South's most visible and roguish
demagogue since Huey Long?
Even before throwing himself into the race, Buddy had to sit back on his haunches and
wait for a number of things to happen. First off, former Democratic U.S. senator Russell
Long had to stay out of the race, as did Dave Treen, the ex-Republican governor from New
Orleans, who probably would have claimed the conservative vote. And for Buddy to have a
real shot, it was also necessary that Edwards run to splinter the liberal vote and keep any
other populist candidates at bay. Once all this came to pass, Buddy then had to distance
himself from his father and convince the voters that he was his own man, squeaky-clean,
and not owing to anybody. By placing a$5,000 limit on contributions to his campaign, by
prohibiting all cash and political action committee money, by not taking out loans and by
reporting all contributions and expenditures, regardless of size, he hoped to send a
message that the office of governor in the State of Louisiana was not for sale. More than
anything, he wanted to look and sound and feel different from all the other candidates,
who in no time had all managed to look alike. One Roemerista said the rest of the field had
begun to resemble worms in a hot tin can, straining and twisting against one another so
desperately that each had become indistinguishable from the other.
Although Edwards was the front-runner in most every poll taken, he was vulnerable. He'd
been investigated by at least 10 grand juries before one indicted him in 1985 on bribery
and racketeering charges. Prosecutors claimed that he was using his influence in and
knowledge of state business and programs to help some of his cronies get hospital
development business. At least half of these alleged deals were made while Edwards was
out of office-in between his second and third terms-and prosecutors said he and his
buddies pulled in about $10 million. Edwards' first trial ended in a hung jury, his second in
acquittal. But the stain of these lengthy and much-publicized legal scuffles surely was on
him. On top of that, the state's self-image had plummeted during his last term, due largely
to hard financial times and high unemployment brought on by a depressed oil industry.
The state was desperate for change. Edwards was, in Roemer's words, a dragon, a symbol
of things gone wrong, and it was time for somebody to do the slaying.
For all but the last three weeks of the race, Buddy was fixed at fifth in the polls-behind
Edwards, U.S. Congressmen W.J. (Billy) Tauzin and Robert L. Livingston Jr. and the state's
secretary of state, Jim Brown. Buddy'd been operating with a campaign war chest that was
nearly bone dry, but then one day he got angry and told all of Louisiana about it. There he
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was in the second week of September, a little, skinny politician in a blue suit that
swallowed him whole, looking right at you from his paid TV ad as if there were some secret
you and he and everybody else in the state shared and it was time now to come forward
with it. The day before, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the state's largest paper, had
endorsed him, saying that "what really sets Buddy Roemer apart from the other
candidates in our mind are his common sense, guts and old-fashioned determination." And
now there he stood with this hollow spit of fire in his eyes and posing in what dearly
resembled a high school graduation portrait, what with the limbo-blue backdrop and his
puffy head of TV hair. In Buddy's voice-so calm, so deceptive, for the secret you and he
and everybody else were keeping-was the suggestion that he had this terrible bone to
pick. And now was the time to pick it.
Had you just slapped his mother? Had you spoken unkindly of his gorgeous wife Patti? Had
you used the Lord's name in vain in the presence of his three children?
Then his mouth opened and he started to talk and something magical happened. He was
tired and angry, even though he didn't look all that tired and angry. This politician who
didn't sound much like the young Jerry Lee with a dry throat or didn't much "talk like dat"
was confessing that he made people mad, but so what. He was mad, too. He didn't like
Louisiana politics. Didn't like Louisiana politicians. And you almost expected him to say he
didn't like you either because you didn't have sense enough to know what was right for
you and what was wrong for you and that unless you put him in the governor's mansion
we'd all be doomed and sorry forever and ever and ever.
And the secret you two shared was finally out, and the awful pain of having carried it for
so long relieved now in the telling: Why put up another damn minute with the way things
are done here? Why pretend this is the way we're supposed to go about running our lives?
The same day on other channels, other men wanting to be governor were airing their
commercials. They were standing in front of the statehouse, looking off at Heaven as if
they'd created it. They were wearing work clothes and hard hats and shaking hands along
parade routes and in front of country stores, rolling back their shirt sleeves, kneeling
conscientiously to meet the eyes and hear the woes of the common man. They were out in
the sunshine with their young sons, fishing by yet another TV bayou or lake and carrying
on like plain ordinary politicians, not like the savior the state was looking, was begging for.
And yes, sir, it wouldn't have surprised you if off in the distance Mr. Plain's grams and
gramps were sitting around a red checkered picnic blanket eating fried chicken and
jalapen~o cornbread and yellow tater salad and washing all the mess down with huge
tankards of root beer. Of course some spastic orchestration was playing while somebody
told you this here candidate was better than all of them there candidates. And, man, it
was so sweet and wrong your teeth hurt.
But Buddy-who now was very tired and very angry-struck a nerve. He had a way of saying
things that made you want to go outside and call your neighbor over to the fence, and
have him punch you square in the jaw for being so stupid for so long-for allowing the
once-great state of Louisiana to become such a mess. Why were we always No. 1 or No. 2
in the nation in unemployment? Why were 4 out of 10 of our students not graduating from
high school? Why was adult illiteracy in the Boot the highest in the nation, more than
double the national rate? Why were our teachers getting paid so little? Why were parts of
the state unhealthy to live in for all the pollution? Why were more people leaving the state
than moving into it, about 40,000 in 1987 alone? Why were people laughing at us all over
the country, making jokes about how crooked our politicians are, and how lowdown and
common we are to elect them?
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"I make some people angry," Buddy was saying, inventing a totally new way for people to
talk in Louisiana, which is the third way and practically about all you hear these days. "I
notice my opponents don't make anybody angry. Doesn't surprise you, does it? They're
politicians. I don't like Louisiana politicians. I like Louisiana." Next, most every newspaper
in the state joined the so-called Roemer Revolution, which historically didn't mean much
but now sounded Buddy's emergence as a thoroughbred, the greatest threat to Edwards.
"Change at the Top," the headlines said: "Buddy Roemer: The Leader Louisiana Needs"
"As Governor, He Can Lead State Out of Pit Dug by Edwin Edwards"
"News Endorses Buddy Roemer for Governor"
In less than a week after Buddy got mad on TV, $200,000 came in the mail. In one day
alone the Roemer campaign received about $96,500, and all within the guidelines he'd set
to show the people that here was a clean and honest man, and not one bought and sold
and already shipped down river. Here was the man who was promising to appoint an
inspector general as soon as he got into the mansion, someone to go around from one
state agency to another, knocking on doors, checking the books, weeding out the waste.
Here was the man who promised to try to bring a major-league baseball team to New
Orleans, the city he would turn into the entertainment capital of the South. Here was the
man who would recruit the best minds in the country to put the Boot back on the right
track, who would, during the early days of operating his transition government, run this ad
in The Wall Street Journal and attract thousands of query letters and re'sume's:
Louisiana will be open for business again March 14, 1988.
Newborn Roemeristas, frustrated by the lack of Buddy-for-Governor bumper stickers and
yard signs, made their own, fashioning them out of poster paper or old plywood or
whatever was flat and you could write on. You'd be out driving on some back road, looking
to waste some time, and there'd be a homemade Roemer sign standing in the tall grass
out in front of a trailer park or old store.
Still other newborns, too lazy or not imaginative enough to craft their own, waited till dark
and scoured the streets looking for signs to steal, and without a twinge of guilt plucked
them when no one was looking and staked them in their own front yards, sometimes only
to have them stolen again by some other newborn Roemerista bent on revolution, bent on
Slaying the Dragon, bent on Buddy.
Looking back, it all seems like the most improbable sort of chain of events, and it might
have been had the people of Louisiana not been so desperate and had Buddy and his big-
league advisers and campaign staff not geared the campaign toward such a cataclysm
about a year before. On Buddy's side was Raymond Strother, the savvy Washington, D.C.,
consultant whose earliest career scores were in Louisiana politics and who, in 1984, had
worked on Gary Hart's presidential campaign. Strother prophesied that in a race such as
this, most voters didn't pay much mind to all the jockeying until the last month or two.
Edwards notwithstanding, the popularity of all the other candidates was restricted to their
home territories, and any early TV advertising they might have done went largely ignored.
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Strother preached that voters didn't wake up to who was running until the last minute,
and that was when you hit them hard. In Buddy's case, it was when you got mad and
started picking that bone. So Buddy, with his amazing hypnotic attitude, took the primary
going away. He got 32 percent of the vote. Edwards finished second, but, most notably, 72
percent of the voters said they didn't want the white-haired man from Cajun country in
office anymore. Edwards, who later would say he chose to "run from a disaster rather than
get run over by it," conceded later that night, avoiding a November 21 runoff that even
he, a Vegas gambler who was never afraid to bet against the odds, recognized as
impossible to win. Turns out Republican Congressman Robert Livingston, the other
conservative, received 19 percent of the vote, a block that probably would have sided with
Buddy in the runoff and thoroughly overwhelmed Edwards.
Moments after the governor's surrender, in the early-morning hours of October 25, state
troopers swarmed to Buddy's side. Then, next noon, enormous, red-faced Hammy showed
up. He was big as a wide-load trailer truck, and throwing elbows when need be, pulling his
sport coat back off the belt to show his badge and gun when need be, and ready to
sacrifice his body for the politician the papers already had taken to calling Kingfish.
It wasn't enough for the people to clap and whistle and to shout Buddy's name anymore.
Now they wanted to touch him. It was like watching your favorite sporting team win the
championship, and running down to the field to celebrate with all the other crazed glory
hogs, who now were tearing away their very own swatches of turf, mementos to stick in a
dresser drawer and cherish always. And so it was that people wanted a piece of Buddy. In
their eyes you saw this: "You grab his tie, honey; I'll go for his shoes."
And: "How 'bout the right hand? Wouldn't the chir-ren get a kick out of holding and
playing with Mister Buddy's hand? We could keep it in that little cookie jar in the kitchen."
They wanted him, all right, they wanted to know how real he was and that he would save
them. And considering that there were so many of them, and only one of him-well, lucky
for Buddy that Hammy Mixon knew a thing or two about throwing a body block. THE
LEADER OF THE REVOLUTION GREW UP METHODIST, thinking, as he toiled some days in
the cotton fields, that being a preacher might not be so bad a life. Every Sunday, he and
Budgie, his mother Adeline and his brother and three sisters got in the car, crossed the
Red River into Shreveport and drove to the head of Texas Street and the First United
Methodist Church, where the legendary D.L. Dykes was minister. The family liked to sit
way up front, in a pew off to the right. When Buddy's mind roamed, he often imagined
himself up there talking to the people, the way Rev. Dykes did, but other times he was a
simple cotton farmer working the 7,000-some-odd acres of the Scopena plantation, which
the family owned. It took a lot of mind for the boy to imagine anyone being simple and
operating such a huge enterprise, but there was something beautiful and elemental about
the fields when everything had been plowed and the rains came and the steam was issuing
off the chunky blacktop in whorls.
Farming was between you and God, Buddy liked to say. And God was good because God
sent water down from the sky, and there was plenty of that in the Boot. Not to flaunt their
wealth or anything, but the Roemers built a tennis court out behind the house long before
people built tennis courts out behind the house; and in the summer they took off to see
the country, traveling for a month or more, out west to the Grand Canyon, and to states
like California and South Dakota, where a gas station attendant might be inclined to look
at a Louisiana license plate as if it were some kind of spooky moon rock.
Of course it is a fine picture he likes to draw of himself now that he's been around and can
reminisce, but a man, even a revolutionary, has to come from someplace. Everybody
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called him Butch until he entered high school and came home one day and said it was
about time they started calling him Buddy. People would take a Buddy more seriously than
a Butch, was his thinking. A Butch tended to look for trouble, while a Buddy avoided it.
This is something he would not remember clearly as governor-elect, mainly because he's
heard and fabricated so many different versions of the story that the memory of it has
been corrupted by the legend. He skipped fifth grade, this smart boy with the incredible
gift of gab. At 16 he graduated first in his class at Bossier City High School, then went off
to Harvard University to study business. He weighed 110 pounds after supper, far less
after chopping cotton all evening. That was 1960, and his idol was John F. Kennedy, who'd
also gone to Harvard. Buddy was proud to be the only Louisiana student at the school from
a farm, and proud to be from Louisiana until Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It would
stick with him a long time, because Dallas was all part of the neighborhood to Buddy. You
should know that some people from Bossier and Shreveport think the capital of the state's
in Austin, and the only place to shop is Dallas, and the beauty of the armadillo is unrivaled
even by the ubiquitous Louisiana possum. Buddy came close to being one of these. And he
was hurt and embarrassed thinking his political idol, the leader he revered most, took his
last breath in a city just over the fence from home. Being in Massachusetts didn't help
His junior year at Harvard, Buddy married Frances (Cookie) Demler, his high school
sweetheart. They moved back to Scopena after graduation, but soon returned to
Cambridge so Buddy could attend Harvard Business School. Even then he'd go on and on
about what a marvelous place Louisiana was, making you think it was some kind of
subtropical Xanadu with mosquitoes. The marriage produced two children-Caroline, now
20 and a student at Centenary College in Shreveport, and Charles IV, whom everybody
calls Chaz, now 17.
But after grad school and time again on the plantation, fulfilling that youthful vision of
himself as a man of the soil, a cotton planter, and working as a banker and with his father
in other family businesses, the marriage peaked then fizzled, and they divorced. These
were days crowded with long walks through the fields, with the cotton heavy and white on
the wind, and a million lost voices screaming in the haze. A man had to move on his
dreams, not sit idle and pine away. It was 1972, the beginning of Edwin Edwards' reign as
governor, a prosperous time for the Boot, and the year Buddy was elected as a delegate to
the state constitutional convention.
It was at the convention that Buddy met and started to court Patti Crocker, the 19-year-
old girl who would marry him six months later and, later still, bear his third child, a son
named Dakota. Patti was extremely shy, yet once you got her talking, you'd never know it.
She had red hair and was tall and beautiful, and she was working as a page.
Buddy was 29, and he confided to her that his lifelong ambition was not to serve in the
statehouse in Baton Rouge, but in Washington, D.C., as a congressman or senator. He was
little and skinny, but he was this, too: all mouth, which made itfun.
Patti was taken by his charm and his rare Buddy talk. It had been her dream as a child to
be a singer, though when she went into a tune it sounded as if there were silt clogging her
pipes. At last she'd recognized her limitations and had given up on that dream. Buddy, on
the other hand, was stubborn and determined not to be moved from the course he'd set
for himself years ago when he sat at home on the plantation listening to JFK debate Estes
Kefauver on the radio. Buddy wanted to go big time, and 1978 was a start.
That was when Democratic Rep. Joe D. Waggoner Jr. of Louisiana's 4th District was
retiring after nine terms, and Buddy made his first run for national office. It was the race
some Louisiana political know-it-alls like to point to as the one that best displayed the stuff
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Buddy was made of, for he lost a race he very well might have won had he been a less
principled man. First, he alienated the influential Shreveport medical society by telling
some of its leaders that the people of their district were suspicious not only of their
politicians but also of their doctors, and that unless they did something first, "there won't
be a damn thing I can do for you." Then, one week before the election, there he stood on
the banks of the Red River, which separates Shreveport from Bossier City, telling reporters
that he was in favor of stopping construction of the Red River Waterway navigation project
until the federal budget was balanced. Because the federally funded project was vital to
the economic interests of many local businesses that depended on port traffic, some
thought Buddy's announcement amounted to nothing short of heresy. Joe Waggoner,
who'd pushed hard for the project, fired a volley of shots at Roemer, then endorsed
another candidate. Some advisers insisted that Buddy tell everybody that the newspapers
were wrong and that they had misquoted him-either that or apologize. Instead he bought
time on the radio and said virtually the same thing he'd told reporters a few days earlier
on the banks of the Red River.
He didn't cower; he didn't reverse his thinking to score points. He'd made his mind up and
he wouldn't be swayed.
And listeners came away from the broadcast thinking this: Either this guy's trying awfully
hard to lose or he's got a lot of guts. Whichever, the boy sure can talk, can't he, now?
A few days later, somebody representing a large block of votes came to Buddy and
promised to endorse him if he matched the money being offered by supporters of another
candidate. In Louisiana, paying for endorsements is no sin; in fact, it almost borders on
tradition. Buddy was already $400,000 in debt, and those closest to him advised that if he
wanted to land in Congress, he'd better own up. Buddy faced this decision: to buy or not
to buy, to be or not to be. The election was only a few days away, and there Buddy went
on one of his famous walksthrough the cotton fields. The night was huge, and crickets
scratched and screamed. Len Sanderson, one of Buddy's closest advisers, was sitting on
the kiddy swing set in the backyard, and he saw Buddy fade to a dark feather in the
distance then disappear. When Buddy finally returned, he said, "I made a decision."
"I'll be third."
He went through the whole Election Day knowing he'd get no better than third, but he
never once mentioned the vote-buying incident. He smiled at the polls and shook hands all
around and tried to make the best of it, but he knew he'd already lost.
Later, the man who won the race, Claude Leach, was indicted on vote-buying charges
growing out of the 1978 election, then acquitted of any wrongdoing in 1980. And though
Buddy never once made a fuss about how noble he'd been giving up the chance to perhaps
purchase the votes that would hand him the office of representative to the U.S. Congress,
or was critical of Leach for being indicted when they faced each other again two years
later, what he learned was that there are a lot of politicians who are smart, but there
aren't that many who have both brains and courage.
And he learned that his amazing hypnotic attitude, his Buddy talk, could woo more voters
than any money could. His Buddy talk could knock their jaws loose and make their bellies
flop. But at the same time, he learned that in the people game you can take them too far
and drop them over the edge and lose them forever. He had this power.
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He'd often talked to Sanderson about this fear that his hypnotic effect on people was too
strong. After speaking at some Knights of Columbus or Kiwanis or Masonic club hall, and it
was midnight or later, they would talk, just two men in a car in the dark, heading home.
Inside him was something saying,"Pull up, Buddy! Pull up!" Because the responsibility was
Wherever people were desperate to be set free of their troubles, wherever they were
facing the mirror in the morning and asking "Am I good enough?"-that's where they were
vulnerable; that's where you could lose them. Elmer Gantry lost them forever, and Willie
Stark lost them forever. And more than a pair of real-life reverends had lost them forever.
And right this minute in some part of the world somebody was losing them forever, God
forbid, and soon now we'll all hear about it, because the papers will tell us about it, and so
will the TV. So he'd rein himself in, Buddy would, and crash his ride with a cheap line or
joke everybody'd heard before. And they'd sit or stand enraptured, making a flood of noise
with their hands and feet, and laughing until the tears welled in their eyes. By then,
though, the danger had passed. And he owed them only the promise to do his best, to
work as hard as his mind and body allowed, and not to forget who he was-"From here on
out, call me Buddy, y'all, not Butch"-and where on this Earth he came from. OVER THE
YEARS, BUDDY'S OLD MAN, BUDGIE ROEMER, HAD become expert at Louisiana politics,
first working as a lobbyist for rural electrical cooperatives, then as a pollster and analyst,
and, probably most effectively, as a campaign manager. He's the fellow who once
designed a TV spot showing a Hereford bull running across the screen every time the
opponent of his candidate said something. A man would speak, then Budgie's bull would
run. The man would say something else, and Budgie's bull would run again. Budgie was a
smart, hot-tempered and egotistical person, a power broker of the old-boy school of
politics who bragged that he never backed off from a challenge and would step outside
with you and resort to blows if you got him mad enough. He boasted that he was "not
afraid of dying and not afraid of anyone," which was, he ventured, "exactly how my good
mother was." These days Budgie likes to say that, way back in 1971, he was the only
person in the whole world who believed Edwin Edwards could win the race for governor.
Then in the next breath he announces that the real and only reason Edwards turned out to
be such a good governor during his first two terms was because Budgie Roemer was his
commissioner of administration, the second most powerful job in state government. Not
long before the 1980 congressional race, Buddy's second try for the office, Budgie called
his son on the telephone and informed him that he, Budgie, would soon be indicted.
Although he maintained his innocence, and still does, Budgie Roemer's accusers charged
that he'd taken a $15,000 bribe from an FBI informant who was posing as an agent with
Prudential Life. The phone call, according to Buddy, was to let him know that the old man
regretted the lousy timing of the indictment and that he hoped the upcoming court battle
wouldn't so muddy the Roemer name that it would hurt Buddy's dream of being U.S.
congressman. "You don't have to say that," Buddy said, "because I'm with you. And
anything I can do to help, I will." Buddy had other problems, but none so great as this
one. Some know-it-alls ventured that he was crazy to run; others advised him to pull out
before he invested too much time, money and effort into something he had no chance to
win. Buddy's previous campaign debt still had not been paid off, and his conscience told
him that his big mouth had been right the first time regarding the federal Red River
navigation deal. Rather than back down and look like a hypocrite, he again said the project
should at least be temporarily delayed. And when people wanted to know what he thought
of Budgie, he said what he would say years later when he was running for governor, that
being: "I love my diddy." Then, after he'd rambled on for a few minutes, he would say:
"But it's my time. It's OUR time."
The people who thought he might have been a blasted heretic fool the first time out
decided he was a man of honor and conviction after all, which, in Louisiana, is the kind of
man you'd like to see in office, but not always the kind you get.
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Then Edwin Edwards, whom Buddy had supported and campaigned for over the years,
threw in his highest endorsement. Claude Leach, meanwhile, was battling to convince the
district that he hadn't been part of a vote-buying scandal, and, though he was successful,
it apparently was too grave a charge for voters to erase from memory.
In the 1980 runoff, Buddy Roemer took it going away-by more than 40,000 votes. So the
little, skinny, hard-headed man got his way and ended up in Washington, and quickly
found himself in trouble with some Democratic leaders of the House. Buddy's rare Buddy
talk was ablaze when he announced, in a 1980 post-election meeting, that they'd all
become too closely identified with archaic liberal dogma, then threatened to vote against
Tip O'Neill's reelection as speaker of the House. Buddy didn't carry out the threat, but he
might have figured a better way to make new friends. One party colleague would later
liken him to a misguided missile; another would say that Buddy was often wrong, but
The Roemers first lived in suburban Virginia, near a busy intersection, and at night the red
and green and yellow traffic lights broke through the windows and reminded Patti of some
kind of magical, 24-hour Christmas blitz. One nice thing about living out of Louisiana's 4th
District was that Buddy could go to the Safeway and shop without somebody coming up
and luring him into conversation just to get a quick fix of Buddy talk. "This old dew melon
is ripe," as spoken by Buddy, could do you in quicker than the five acts of "The Tragedy of
King Lear." It sounded like some poem he'd memorized and practiced delivering, there in
front of the bathroom mirror, for days on end. "Look at those tomatoes, man. Just look at
those babies, big and rade" could send an eternal rush of goose bumps down your spine.
Every other weekend Buddy flew home to visit his district, then early Sunday morning he'd
put on his jeans and boots and some old flannel shirt, hop into his pickup and drive with
his brother Dan to see how his father was making out in the pen. Budgie often said that
his body was in jail, but his mind wasn't. And his mind consisted of about seven tracks, six
more than the average person's. Budgie could be in seven different places all at once,
carrying on seven different conversations, and all while lying on his back on his bunk in a
During his first three years in Washington, Buddy sided with the Reagan administration's
call for budget cuts and supported it as often as any other Democrat in the House but Rep.
Phil Gramm of Texas, who would later switch to the Republican Party. In 1983, while
pressing for a spot on the House Banking Committee, a position that had been denied him
during his first term in Congress, Buddy implied that perhaps now was the time to leave
the Democratic Party altogether. He very nearly jumped sides, but backed down. Later he
would claim, "There was only one thing that kept me from being a Republican-the
Republicans." Buddy got the Banking Committee assignment, and in no time built a
reputation as a whiz in government finance. He did this in part by reading most everything
he could on the subject, which was no unpleasant sacrifice. Buddy was always reading
books. At Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, where the LSU squad plays football against some
of the best schools in the country, Buddy'd pull a paperback out of his hip pocket and read
during a big game, flipping through more chapters between plays and at halftime than
seemed rightly human. There was the time shortly before he was elected governor, a time
when he should have been shaking hands near the popcorn stand or handing out Buddy
fliers to the hooting throngs. After the game in the parking lot, as fans pressed against his
car to peer inside, spooking Patti for all their zeal to get a close-up look at her husband,
Buddy was reading a book by whatever light the tiers of stadium lights gave. Sometimes
at home at the dinner table, even when there were guests over, he'd pull out a book and
start reading. Patti would remind him that his behavior was pretty atrocious, and he'd
apologize and put the thing away. His mind was on the book, though, you could tell. And
Page 12 of 14
when the guests were gone, he'd go back to it and curl up on the sofa or in bed and read
until he got his fill.
Patti decided this fault of his went back to his strict childhood, when Budgie prodded him
out of bed every morning at 4:30 and sent him out to work the fields. Reading was a
luxury; it's what people with all the time in the world did.
When his mind was overworked, or when he'd been under a lot of pressure at the office,
he'd often go through 30, 40 books in a couple of months, reading the first 50 or 100
pages or so but never finishing a one. Often he'd get all the way to the last chapter and
quit on it, just put it away disgustedly and wonder at the mind that could conceive such a
mess. On those occasions when the more he read, the less satisfied he was, all he needed
to do was pick up a historical work on Indians or a chapbook of poems by Robert Frost and
he'd feel better. Or maybe he'd go out and meet with a group of Washington Post
reporters and editors and play poker deep into the night, and clean them up, and feel a
little better. He was almost as good at poker as he was at talking, and that was great.
Twice he lost about $1,000, but several times he walked away with even more than that.
It was seven-card stud they played. In 1986 he won $8,706 at this friendly game, more
than enough money to give Patti and the kids a rich and memorable Christmas.
Edwin Edwards, too, was a gambler, though one more inclined to take his business to the
casinos in Las Vegas than a newspaperman's house in Georgetown. During the campaign
before this last one, Edwards said that the only way he could get into trouble was if the
press found him "in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."
Of course this was great color for the national press, but at home a lot of people were
embarrassed. Louisiana was growing tired of being depicted as backwater, dumb and no-
account; and a wild cry for change was being heard as far north as Washington, where
Buddy Roemer and two other able congressmen had lent an eager ear to it and were
plotting strategies to bring the Boot out of its uncertain political past and into 1988.
Years ago the state had endured Huey Long's Share-the-Wealth fanaticism; and neither
did it, for the most part, particularly enjoy hearing reports of his meetings with the New
York press while dressed in green silk pajamas and lying back in a fancy hotel bed. Then
along came Uncle Earl Long, the very late governor whose wife committed him to a Texas
sanitarium for a variety of wretched indulgences. Uncle Earl once ordered the driver of his
limo and the rest of his entourage to pull over at a roadside fruit stand so he could get out
and buy 44 cases of cantaloupe. And he often was seen cavorting with the most famous
stripper of the day, Blaze Starr, who once accompanied him in a flashy pink Cadillac on his
way to the state institution at Mandeville.
Now, in 1987, the state was leading the country in a number of wrongs. The
unemployment rate, a post-depression record, was at nearly 15 percent, almost double
the national average. Louisiana also had the highest cancer rate in the nation, and its
fiscal affairs were in such a mess that bankruptcy loomed on the horizon. Gov. Edwards'
plan to ease the state's economic woes included implementing a state lottery and
legalizing casino gambling in New Orleans, proposals that were agreeable, almost smart,
to many, but downright blasphemous to others, most notably those of the fundamentalist
North. Some of these people feared that if Edwards had his way, New Orleans would turn
into a Cajun Babylon, lost and irredeemable.
Buddy had encouraged his district to support Edwards back in 1983, when Edwards was
vying for his third term, and he says he kept his fingers crossed, hoping for the best. He
was going to give the white-haired man one more try, but then he says Edwards let him
down and let his district down and let the state down. He says Edwards never flew up to
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Washington to meet with the Louisiana congressional delegation, never responded to
memos Buddy sent him, never followed up on requests for personal, one-on-one meetings.
"THIS IS NOT HIS STATE TO BE TOYED WITH," Buddy would declare in a burst of anger.
"IT'S OUR STATE. OURS! IT DOES NOT BELONG TO EDWIN EDWARDS." And his voice
would crack. And his eyes would fire.
And somebody would mumble, "I know it, Buddy. I know it."
And Buddy'd say, "THEY WILL KNOW US BY OUR REPUTATION."
And somebody'd say, "Us, Buddy? Louisiana? You sure you're talking 'bout us?"
And Buddy'd say, "That's right. US! They will know US by OUR reputation."
At times Buddy Roemer-now officially a candidate; in fact, the first to sign up for the race-
dipped into periods of self-examination and saw himself as some tragically doomed hero.
As a boy he'd dreamed of being a national leader, not a trouble-shooter in the most
troubled state there ever was. Out and about, say up in Shreveport, he'd chat with his old
preacher, and the Rev. D.L. Dykes would tell him that once he straightened out the state
and showed the rest of the country what he could do, then they'd look toward the White
"You'd make a great president," the grand old man once told him. And Buddy thanked him
a million times, ever so humbly, before moving on with his mission, which was to spare
the Boot further agony-yes, to save it. Buddy was chosen; he knew he was. Len
Sanderson, assisting him as they moved the campaign from town to town, would say,
"Roemer, you can't play Hamlet anymore. This is not Shakespeare where you're holding a
skull and deciding man's fate."
Then he'd give Buddy a hard time for being so very well prepared to lead the world to
peace and prosperity but also to sacrifice himself for it. Buddy'd sit there smiling, his eyes
closed, and lean his head back. "I gotcha," he would say. "I gotcha." And go back to
whatever book he was reading.
This was Louisiana, after all. This wasn't New Hampshire or Massachusetts or Hawaii or
Tennessee. It was Louisiana, the Boot.
God save Buddy.
God save the Boot. IT IS SOME WEEKS BEFORE MARCH 14, the day he officially takes
office and the governor-elect, dogged by the wicked process of transition, wakes up
sweating. It is well past midnight. He is scared. He has been crying.
He speaks into the darkness, "Okay, Buddy, let's get it straight, what you're going to do."
And then he gets it straight: He'll put the children first, and the rest will follow. Everything
begins with the children, with educating the children. Then he'll bring businesses in and
give the people jobs. He'll clean up the environment, run off those companies who won't
play by the rules and who keep polluting. He'll liberate Louisiana from political corruption.
He'll change the way people think about themselves. He'll make them believe in
"No," he says, "You won't do it. We'll do it."
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It is 2:30 in the morning. Patti stirs. He doesn't mean to wake her, but he's got to get it
"Can this be done, Buddy?" he says. "Can you do this?"
He gets out a pencil and pad and starts writing, writing all that the Revolution'll do for the
state of Louisiana. Already Edwin Edwards has predicted that Buddy'll be disastrous.
Already Edwin Edwards has declared his intentions to run for governor three years from
now and win. But it is late and he is awake and Edwards is out in Junction City, Tex., on
the ranch he owns, sleeping.
"Well, Roemer," he says to himself. "Can you? Can you do it?"
And he gets mad. He's suddenly angry.
The children, he tells himself. His voice breaks.
And he writes that down: the children. Then he writes down everything else he thinks to
remember, a long, miserable list. He writes for half an hour, then reads it all over, then
reads it again.
He'll sleep and wake to find these notes to himself on the floor near his bed. Then
enormous, red-faced Hammy'll arrive. And Buddy'll say, "Let's go, my man."
And off they'll roar, revolutionaries, into the dim, unexcellent morning. -
John Ed Bradley. "The Ballad of Buddy Roemer." The Washington Post. Washington Post
Newsweek Interactive Co. 1988. HighBeam Research. 6 Apr. 2009