ENGSTER: Louisiana Loses a Great Ambassador

My friend Gus Weill died last month with limited fanfare. Weill outlived most of his contemporaries, but he was a remarkable force of nature. His rich life spanned 85 years, starting on March 12, 1933, eight days after Franklin Roosevelt took office as president of the United States.

From the fireside chats of FDR to the volatile tweets of President Trump, Weill’s time on the planet was substantial enough to fill the shared experiences of three or four average men. For those who had the pleasure to know him, we can state with clarity that there was nothing average about this son of a Lafayette mule salesman.

Weill was a prolific political advisor who employed James Carville, Raymond Strother and Roy Fletcher. In a career that included 350 campaigns, Weill weathered the rough and tumble world of elective politics with a blend of intelligence and humor. His mantra to a plethora of Louisiana and national politicos was “Never argue with a fool.”

The wins for Weill included the 1964 gubernatorial election that catapulted John McKeithen from the Public Service Commission to the governor’s mansion. McKeithen hailed from the hamlet of Columbia, a beautiful North Louisiana town of fewer than one thousand people. Yet, he defeated the popular former mayor of New Orleans Chep Morrison by a handsome margin.

With Weill whispering pearls of wisdom in his ear, McKeithen had fun continually mispronouncing Morrison’s given first name of deLesepps and ridiculing his opponent’s receding hairline. Big John finished his campaign pitch with the famous close, “Won’t you hep me?” dropping the L from help and endearing Louisiana Protestants who were reluctant to make Morrison the state’s first Roman Catholic governor.

McKeithen appointed Weill as executive assistant, and the kindred souls were running the state with unparalleled energy. When they weren’t luring a vast collection of plants of Louisiana, they were frequently present to monitor practices directed by LSU football Coach Charles McClendon.

McKeithen used the power and majesty of the governor’s office to help recruit some of LSU’s greatest players, including Tommy Casanova and Bert Jones. His trusty sidekick, Gus Weill, found McKeithen’s obsession to be good politics in a state where LSU is the flagship university and Tiger Stadium is center stage.

In the first six years of McKeithen as governor, LSU won the Cotton Bowl (beating unbeaten Arkansas), the Sugar Bowl (beating unbeaten Wyoming) and lost to national champion Nebraska 17-12 in the 1971 Orange Bowl. The 1967 Tigers were ten points short of a perfect season; the 1969 LSU team was four points from perfection; the 1970 Bengals were 13 points from being 12-0 and national champions.

LSU football took a downturn shortly after Weill left Louisiana during McKeithen’s second term and moved to New York to work with the famed film director Otto Preminger. When Weill returned to Baton Rouge, he opened a world famous political consulting firm in Baton Rouge and became a ubiquitous figure as host of Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s “Louisiana Legends” and as master of ceremonies for inaugurations of a generation of Bayou State politicos.

Weill’s client list was eclectic, ranging from the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart in his time as a patron of prostitutes to the wildly successful rapper Master P to his alma mater of LSU. When the Ole War Skule faced a dreadful budget crisis in the mid-1980s, it was Gus and his wife and partner LeAnne who flooded the Capital region with bumper stickers, reading “LSU, a Great University.”

As the 80s closed, the Weill firm employed a student worker named Chris Wayne Jackson. The LSU basketball wizard spent his mornings assisting the master of public relations and his afternoons dazzling the masses with his genius on the court. Weill recalls traveling with Jackson to his home in Gulfport and watching in amazement as the lad who would become Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sank 50 straight free throws under the cover of darkness on a tattered goal in his front yard.

After a controversial Sports Illustrated cover story, “Crazy Days at LSU,” Tiger basketball Coach Dale Brown consulted with Weill for other words to define his concerns about the NCAA that went beyond Brown’s ‘Gestapo bastards” moniker for the group. The coach suddenly started quoting the notable novelist Philip Roth, author of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” a book unlikely to be part of Coach Brown’s library.

Through the decades, it was a rite of passage for embattled public officials to walk up the steps at Weill’s Perkins Road office and seek advice from a man of the world who was keen to the whims of public opinion. Gus penned eight prominent novels and a book titled “The Weill Side of Louisiana Politics,” but he took many secrets of the rich, the famous and the infamous to his death. Those who poured their hearts out to Weill can breathe easily that the gifted man of letters rejected offers to write a final book about the men and women who inhabited his orbit.

Weill’s days for most of his life began before dawn as he meticulously positioned himself at his Underwood typewriter. He died at 4:30 a.m., the time he cherished as he was unleashing his vivid imagination to the printed page, composing a body of work that will outlive anyone reading this column.

Gus was fully aware of peaks and valleys in news cycles and knew the end of the week was the best time to reveal an unflattering story about a client, hoping unsettling news would be buried by Monday morning. His friend and protégé’ Ann Edelman recalls Weill stating, “Nothing good ever happens on a Friday.” Weill died on Friday, April 13, likely winking as his vast heart produced its final beat.

Weill worked as an Army Intelligence officer in the 1950s in Germany and learned early in his adult life of the fickle nature of public sentiment. Less than a decade removed from the reign of Adolf Hitler, nobody in Germany remembered much about the evil man who terrorized the world and almost took it over.

Weill was a student of mankind who retained his compassion for others through a number of crises, including the death of his son, Gus Jr., in 2004. There will never be another like him, and Louisiana should be thankful that its native son lived through the Great Depression, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK and 9-11 and held court through a few generations as a voice of reason to his state amid tragedy and triumph.

Gus loved LSU and the people of Louisiana with the same passion he gave to his writing and to his friends and clients. When we recall his distinctive gravelly voice and remember his prescient words, we will treasure the gift of his immense talent and the vast reservoir of kindness that Weill displayed every day of his life.

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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