Russell Long was my colleague, my partner in Congress, my teacher and my friend. And he was a great champion for so many millions who never knew him.
Someone once observed that “the greatest truths are the simplest, and so are the greatest men.” This was Sen. Russell Long (D) — a simple man who loved his family, his God, his country and his state, Louisiana.
He was a man who always answered the call of duty and, to quote Russell, “did the best he could as God gave him the light to see.” Russell was a Senator in the past century, but his vision, his ideas and his views on how government should work will last as long as history is recorded.
As a boy of only 16, Russell watched his father die from an assassin’s bullet, and then dutifully accepted the call to fulfill and complete his father’s unfinished work. Anyone who knew Russell understood how much he loved his dad and how much his father’s legacy meant to him.
Some might have regarded that legacy as an awesome and unwelcome burden. Russell sometimes strained under the weight of high expectations and the harsh reviews that historians and journalists wrote about his father. But he never forgot that he was Huey Long’s son. And so he dutifully dedicated his life to the work his father had begun. One result was the body of law that created employee stock ownership plans.
Those of us who knew him understood this was Russell’s most passionate work and, to him, a modern version of Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” program. Just as his father was a champion for the poor and dispossessed, so did Russell become one of the most effective advocates of the belief that every American has a right to share in the great wealth and opportunity of the United States.
Just as he answered the call of duty when it came to his family legacy, Russell also answered the call of duty when it came to serving his country. In 1942, during the darkest hours of World War II, Russell volunteered to serve in the Navy.
He distinguished himself in battle as the commander of a landing craft in the Mediterranean Sea during the allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy and southern France. Russell was truly among our greatest generation — a man of courage, valor, faith and compassion, a true American hero.
Then, in 1948, when Sen. John Overton (D) died, Russell followed his father and mother into the Senate. He was sworn into office alongside other men elected that year — giants like Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kerr and Paul Douglas. In a body that had disdained his father, Russell — only 30 years old — began a remarkable 38-year career during which he worked tirelessly and effectively on behalf of the poor, the elderly and average Americans who wanted to achieve the American dream.
If there are 100 Senators, there are 100 Russell Long stories — from Uncle Earl to father Huey to Russell’s theory of fair taxation summarized by his immortal words: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”
Russell served Louisiana in the Senate at a time when giants walked the halls of Congress and debated the great issues of the day on the Senate floor, before television demanded short sound bites of sanitized information.
Johnson, Humphrey, John Kennedy, Dick Russell, Everett Dirksen — these were the colleagues he worked with, and they respected him, admired him and loved him.
Everyone in the Senate, at some point, got the Russell Long treatment — an arm around the shoulder and a passionate “my colleague, I need you on this.”
It is impossible to list all of his legislative achievements, but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that few people in our nation’s history have had more of an impact on our nation’s laws than Russell Long.
Tens of millions of elderly people have had their lives saved by Medicare, the health care system that Russell and Johnson crafted in the Senate in 1965.
Millions more handicapped people today have a better quality of life because Russell, in 1956, thought it was important to expand the Social Security system to include the disabled. It was the first major expansion of Social Security, and it would not have happened if not for Russell’s tenacity.
Millions of poor working Americans today have Long to thank for the Earned Income Tax Credit, an idea he developed and passed into law in the early 1970s. Then and now, the EITC remains the cornerstone of our nation’s effort to give the working poor a better chance to provide a decent standard of living for their families.
Russell also cared deeply about our American system of government and, in the wake of the Watergate scandals, worried that Americans might lose faith in the system he had fought to protect. He pushed through legislation to change the way we finance presidential campaigns and established the tax form check-off system that has guaranteed the integrity of our presidential election system for more than a quarter-century.
During my 14 years in the House, I watched Russell closely. I admired him, learned from him and felt privileged to say I had served with him in Congress. And I remember how excited I was when Russell finally realized that I was a Congressman and not a young staff member!
But it has been my service on the Finance Committee — the committee he chaired for 14 years — that has taught me so much about the genius and skill of the man who dominated the Senate for so many years.
It was because of men like Russell that the Senate worked so well during the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
With Russell, his colleagues were neither Republican nor Democrat, they were Americans who were elected to make government work — and Russell made government work.
All of us who knew him will carry Russell Long stories with us for all our lives, and we will be richer for those experiences.
And we will remain grateful for the life of this simple man who dutifully answered the call to greatness.
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) is a member of the Finance Committee.