Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

State Sen. Joe McPherson and Howdy Doody time in Baton Rouge



Few things were more comical than former state Sen. Joe McPherson at his most frustrated. A self-described country boy with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair and a push-broom mustache, McPherson hails from Woodworth, a community of roughly 1,000 people just south of Alexandria. He returned there after terming out in 2012.

  When the Upper Chamber would stumble into its afternoon routine, pausing so members could introduce the Louisiana Swine Festival queen or their insurance agent's cousin from Dry Creek, McPherson eventually would make his way to the mic. "Heeeerrreee we go," he would twang. "It's Howdy Doody time!"

  A graduate of the rural acting academy, he motioned in one speech to the sides of the chamber. "Howdy Doody to you and Howdy Doody to you. Howdy Doody to everybody!"

  McPherson was funny even when scolding colleagues for wasting time. (He wasn't above it all; in questioning another's use of time, he once paid for and distributed bumper stickers emblazoned with "Jindal for V.P.")

  Another comedic complainer was former Sen. Robert Barham, now secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Barham had caught the fury of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco for switching parties, and he spent his final years noting the topography, temperature and political climate of Siberia, where he claimed the "Queen Bee" had exiled him.

  Although he halfheartedly tried and failed, McPherson couldn't end the time-honored practice of senators indulging in a little Howdy Doody time. If anything, it has expanded in his absence. Lawmakers in this year's abbreviated session (which ends June 6) have already competed against each other in a football game, a basketball matchup and a bowling tournament. All proceeds went to charity, but some might argue that their time and effort was borrowed from taxpayers.

  They've advanced bills creating a barbecue cook-off for West Baton Rouge, exploring bass fishing as a new high school sport, adding "I'm a Cajun" to Louisiana-issued identification cards and slating money for film festivals.

  Not that there's anything shameful about these competitions and causes. They're a part of the legislative process and our collective culture. Yet they're hard to swallow when, in the final two weeks of the session, there's no making sense of the budget, which ignores the long-term funding needs of higher education and health care.

  If and when a budget passes, Gov. Bobby Jindal may very well blame lawmakers for sending him a terrible document. A few lawmakers may in turn blame Jindal for introducing one. But not all legislators will challenge the governor. They've heard of Barham's Siberia and they are in no hurry to visit. Senate chairmen and vice chairmen were called into meetings last week and likely will fall in line, along with their colleagues in the Upper Chamber, where Howdy Doody time was first recognized for its political benefits.

  These are troubling political times that don't relate well in the self-celebrity world of social media, where Googling "Howdy Doody" and posting a few videos takes less effort than typing "Jindal health care budget" and reading for an hour or two.

  Back in the real world, the health care issue has become fueled by unexpected and increasing costs related to the administration's ideology-driven push to privatize public hospitals and to refuse Medicaid expansion. Education is being funded with change found under sofa cushions while the courts overturn one administration program after another.

  Jindal's failed tax plan, which was supposed to be the session's focus, was probably the biggest Howdy Doody of the year. It sidetracked everybody. Most lawmakers focused on Jindal's sideshow instead of the ailing budget, although the House Appropriations Committee met for weeks before the session convened April 8. More lawmakers should have joined them.

  Finally, we're all Howdy Doodies for not getting more riled up. Distractions are easier to swallow than policy and budget numbers.

  The distractions may be even more welcome in coming years, when the state runs out of dedicated funds to plunder in order to prop up higher education and health care. A speech from the strawberry queen will be a nice respite from the debt that's stacking up. A bill declaring Bayou Pigeon the official garfish capital just might one day be enough to soothe nerves in the face of increased outmigration.

  We'll practically need around-the-clock Howdy Doody, which, if Google is to be trusted, was nothing more than a marionette — and a fitting metaphor for Louisiana lawmakers. We all know who pulls their strings.

— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.

Add a comment