Joe Waggonner

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Joseph David “Joe D.”
Waggonner, Jr.

U.S. Representative for Louisiana's
4th Congressional District
In office
December 1961 – January 3, 1979
Preceded by C. Raymond Heard
Succeeded by Claude Anthony "Buddy" Leach, Jr.

Member of the
Louisiana State Board of Education
In office
January 1961 – December 1961

Member of the
Bossier Parish School Board
In office

Born September 7, 1918
Plain Dealing
Bossier Parish
Died October 7, 2007
Shreveport, Louisiana
Resting place Plain Dealing Cemetery
Political party Democrat
Spouse(s) Mary Ruth Carter Waggonner (married 1941–2007, his death)
Religion United Methodist

Military Service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy

Naval Reserve

Rank Lieutenant commander
Battles/wars World War II and Korean War

Joseph David Waggonner, Jr. (September 7, 1918 – October 7, 2007), known as Joe Waggonner, was a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives for Louisiana's 4th congressional district, who served from late December 1961 to January 3, 1979. He was active in what was later known as the Boll Weevil Democrats, who sometimes supported Republican positions on fiscal and foreign policies. A confidant of Republican U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, he hosted in 1974 Nixon's first public appearance after the resignation amid the Watergate affair.


Waggonner was born in Plain Dealing to Joe Waggonner, Sr. (June 11, 1873 – March 9, 1950), and the former Elizzibeth (unusual but correct spelling from grave marker) Johnston (November 23, 1882 – December 24, 1957). He graduated from Plain Dealing High School and in 1941 from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston in Lincoln Parish, at which he was a member of Kappa Sigma and became a lifelong advocate for his alma mater. During World War II and the Korean War, he served in the United States Navy, attained the rank of lieutenant commander, and thereafter remained in the Naval Reserve.

On December 14, 1942, Waggonner wed the former Mary Ruth Carter (February 1921 – May 3, 2017), a native of Minden in neighboring Webster Parish. The couple resided in their later years in Benton, the parish seat of government of Bossier Parish, and then in the last years the more populous Bossier City. The couple had a daughter and a son.[1]

For his livelihood Waggoner operated a wholesale petroleum distribution company in Bossier Parish.

Political life

In the 1950s, he was from 1954 to 1960 a member of the Bossier Parish School Board and the board president from 1956 to 1957. In 1959, Waggonner was an unsuccessful primary candidate for the since disbanded position of Louisiana state comptroller, having run on the strongly segregationist intra-party ticket headed by state Senator William Rainach of Claiborne Parish. Victory in the race went to another Democrat, Roy Theriot (pronounced TERRY OH), the mayor of Abbeville in Vermilion Parish near Lafayette. Waggonner ran on the intra-party ticket headed by segregationist gubernatorial candidate William Rainach, a state senator and a former state representative for Claiborne Parish.

Shortly thereafter on July 23, 1960, Waggonner was nominated in the Democratic primary to the Louisiana State Board of Education, now the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. He won the seat for the Third Public Service Commission District, a configuration since disbanded that then included twenty-eight north Louisiana parishes. Waggonner unseated the incumbent, C. Raymond Heard, and was then unopposed in the November 8 general election, in which John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon. In this campaign, Waggonner posed as a more determined segregationist than his opponent.[2] One of his advertisements proclaimed: "For: Our Youth and Segregation; Against: Federal Aid to Education."[3]

As Kennedy defeated Nixon, Waggonner, David C. Treen, and Leander Perez of Plaquemines Parish, were among the ten presidential electors for an unpledged slate in Louisiana. Nixon won the 4th congressional district, but Kennedy took a strong plurality in the balloting statewide.[4]

In 1961, Waggoneer in his only year as a member of the state Board of Education, was chosen as the president of (1) the Louisiana School Boards Association and (2) the United Schools Committee of Louisiana. He had also been instrumental, along with William Rainach, in the founding of the White Citizens Council in the late 1950s.

Defeating Charlton Lyons

Waggonner was initially elected to the U.S. House in a special election held on December 19, 1961,[5] to succeed Democrat Thomas Overton Brooks (1897–1961), who had won won his thirteenth and final term in Congress by defeating the Republican businessman Fred C. McClanahan in 1960. Waggonner defeated Shreveport oilman Charlton Lyons, who like Waggonner's former intra-party opponent for state comptroller, Roy Theriot, was a native of Abbeville. Waggonner carried the backing in the special election of the conservative Shreveport Journal, edited at the time by George W. Shannon. Lyons subsequently ran for governor in 1964 against Democrat John J. McKeithen, that time with Shannon's editorial support.[6]

When Brooks died in office in the first year of his last term, Waggonner filed in the special election to succeed him. Already, Waggonner had announced his intention to oppose Brooks for re-nomination in the 1962 Democratic primary. Waggonner's decision was spurred by Brooks' congressional vote to expand the House Rules Committee to permit Speaker Sam Rayburn, who would died in office shortly after the passing of Brooks, to add new liberal members to the panel and thus stymie conservatives in both parties on the committee.

Both Waggonner and Lyons were segregationists and conservatives. Waggonner polled 33,892 votes (54.5 percent) to Lyons' 28,250 ballots (45.5 percent). Plain Dealing banker John Jones Doles, Jr. (1923–2004), the son of a former state senator, served as Waggonner's campaign manager. Waggonner received majorities in six of the seven parishes in the district, having lost only in Lyons' Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport.

Seventeen years in Congress

In 1968, Waggonner easily turned back an African American primary challenger, Leon R. Tarver, II,[7] later president of the historically black Southern University System in Baton Rouge. Tarver's family operates a Shreveport mortuary. His brother, Greg Tarver, a former Shreveport City Council member, is a long-term state senator for Caddo Parish. Over the years, Waggonner had only token opponents. He did not seek a tenth term in 1978.

On April 5, 1966, Waggonner commented on the House floor about the establishment the previous year of Rhodesia, which in 1979 after fourteen years of existence became Zimbabwe and was thereafter taken by communists.

Three generations ago, a group of resourceful white men went into the jungle of what is now Rhodesia and carved a civilized land by the sheer force of their brains and management ability. The lesson of history was crystal clear then as it is now: the natives were not capable of producing any semblance of what we call civilization. Now that the white man had led them out of savagery, the Socialist left-wing camp is up in arms to turn the country back to them. This is, of course, a not too subtle way of building a Socialist bridge from democracy to communism.[8]

In 1968, Waggonner spoke against the legislation introduced by Moderate Republican U.S. Representative Robert McClory of Illinois, which designates the third Monday of February as what has become "President's Day," rather than the traditional February 22 holiday in honor of the birth of George Washington. Waggonner told the sponsors of the bill: “You have further commercialized and made further meaningless something that has the respect of the people of this country.”[9]

After 1969, Waggonner struck up a friendship with President Nixon, who was elected the previous year over the Democrat Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and the Independent George Wallace of Alabama. He became a liaison between Nixon and the House Democratic majority. Through this relationship, Waggonner was able to procure public works projects for his 4th district, including the attempt to establish year-round navigation of the Red River between Shreveport and Alexandria.

The Republican/Southern Democrat coalition

In Congress, Waggonner often supported a Republican-Southern Democrat coalition on various issues. These conservative Democrats were later known as the "Boll Weevils." Waggonner was fiscally conservative and opposed many of the federal social programs as well as civil rights legislation in 1964,[10] 1965,[11] and 1968.[12] He took a "hawkish" position on the Vietnam War.

Waggonner said that he spent much of his time in Congress trying to convince liberals of the error of their politics. "The trend to socialism is not accidental, but reflects the attitude of the majority, or it would not be the prevailing trend. I spend all of my time talking to the liberals in Congress, doing all I can to persuade them of the rightness of our views, not to conservatives who already share our philosophy."[13]

Waggonner opposed the efforts to impeach President Nixon prior to the resignation over Watergate matters. While leading southern conservatives in the U.S. House, he wielded power with Nixon that was often reserved for the Speaker or a key committee chairman. He was an influential member of the House Ways and Means Committee and a key player the Republican president needed to get legislation passed in the House. Waggonner later revealed that he also had close contacts with Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, neither of whom had carried the 4th congressional district in the 1960 and 1964 campaigns.

On August 8, 1974, Waggonner prepared a special list of House and Senate lawmakers who were among a shrinking band of Nixon supporters. The lawmakers met that night with a "visibly distraught" Nixon, who told the group that he would resign on Friday, August 9, at noon. Waggonner recalled that Nixon said, "'I am sorry I have let you down."

In April 1994, Waggonner flew to Yorba Linda, California, to attend Nixon's funeral. Indeed, he had maintained communication with Nixon long after both had left Washington, D.C. Nixon's first outing after his resignation was a trip to Shreveport for an event that the Waggonners hosted at their home, remembered Rene Gibson, a former Waggonner staffer, as reported in The Shreveport Times on the occasion of Waggonner's death.

In the 1964 gubernatorial primary runoff and general election, Waggonner endorsed Democrat John J. McKeithen who, like Waggonner in 1961, was opposed by the Republican Charlton Lyons. Waggonner objected to the strengthening of the Republican Party in Louisiana on the premise that Louisiana, unlike other southern states, had a "two-party" system because of its Long and "anti-Long" factions. Nevertheless on several occasions, Waggonner supported Republican candidates, including the 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole, long-time U.S. Senator for Kansas, who twenty years earlier had been Ford's vice-presidential choice in the 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. In 1981, Carter's successor as president, Ronald W. Reagan, who had campaigned for Charlton Lyons for governor of Louisiana in 1964, appointed Waggonner to the 15-member National Commission on Social Security Reform, headed by the economist Alan Greenspan.

Arrest in 1976

In 1976, Waggonner was arrested for soliciting an undercover police decoy posing as a prostitute. He was released because at that time lawmakers enjoyed immunity from prosecution for misdemeanor offenses. After the Waggonner case, the law was changed to allow congressional members to face misdemeanor charges with the exception of parking violations.[14]

His chosen successor, "Buddy" Leach

Several candidates ran for the seat that Waggonner vacated, including two state representatives, Claude Anthony "Buddy" Leach, Jr. then of Leesville in Vernon Parish and Loy Weaver of Homer in Claiborne Parish. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer, III, son of Governor Edwin Edwards' commissioner of administration, Charles E. Roemer, II, entered the race, as did a lone Republican, Jimmy Wilson, a former state legislator and former mayor dof Vivian in northernmost Caddo Parish, who had recently switched parties. Waggonner endorsed Leach, who ultimately defeated Wilson in the general election by a margin of 266 disputed votes. He also criticized President Gerald Ford, a Moderate Republican for coming into the district to campaign for Wilson. However, Leach was unable to cement his hold on the 4th district and was unseated in the 1980 general election after a single term by Democrat, later Republican, Buddy Roemer. That 1980 House election was called the "battle of the Buddys" waged between the two wealthy Democrats.

Waggonner's seat remained in Democrat hands for nine years after his retirement, when a Democrat-turned-Moderate Republican, James Otis "Jim" McCrery, III, then from Leach's Leesville but a Shreveport native, won it in another special election held on March 8, 1988. (McCrery retired in January 2009 and was succeeded by the Republican John Fleming, a conservative physician from Minden. When Fleming stepped down in 2017, the seat went to still another conservative Republican, Mike Johnson of Benton in Waggonner's Bossier Parish.

For a time the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana in Shreveport was named for Waggonner, but his name was removed when a new courthouse was subsequently constructed. Instead the Joe D. Waggonner Lock and Dam on the Red River bears his name.

Last years

Waggonner was a member of the First United Methodist Church of Plain Dealing but later attended the First United Methodist Church in Benton.

Daughter Carol W. Johnston (born December 1945), a former educator, told The Shreveport Times that her father was "a strong Christian. As long as he was physically able, he never went to bed without getting on his knees to say his prayer. Everything he did was the result of following what he thought was the example of Jesus."

Waggonner's son-in-law, William Thomas "Billy Tom" Johnston (1938-2021), was a Bossier Parish cattleman, farmer, homebuilder, and former parish registrar of voters, in which capacity he was the chairman of the trustees of the Louisiana Registrar's Association. As a young man, Johnston was offered a chance to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals organization but instead entered the United States Army. He was a pitcher on an army baseball team and worked to qualify for the Military World Series but was honorably discharged before the competition was held.[15]

Son Joseph David Waggonner, III (born February 1949), an architect in New Orleans,[16] said that his father was "a real man. ... He really liked people and cared about them." David, as he is known, was twelve when Waggonner was elected to Congress. He joined his father in Washington in the summer of 1962.

In 2007, Waggonner had a stroke and suffered from heart problems. He was hospitalized for several weeks prior to his death at Promise Specialty Hospital in Shreveport.

Services of forty-five minutes in length were held on October 9, 2007, at the Brown Memorial Chapel of Methodist-affiliated Centenary College, another institution of higher learning which Waggonner supported. Centenary President Emeritus Donald Webb officiated, with assistance from the Reverend Lynn Malone of the First United Methodist Church of Benton. Webb quipped that Waggonner had insisted thirty years earlier that Webb preach Waggonner's funeral, and Webb said he often hoped that Waggonner would outlive him and thus relieve Webb of that responsibility for which he felt "inadequate." Webb called Waggonner a "balanced man who could see both sides and bring them together." Reverend Malone said that Waggonner was the "ultimate patriot who loved his country." Waggonner himself requested the reading of that familiar passage from Ecclesiastes about there "being a time for everything under the sun."

He is interred at the Plain Dealing Cemetery, along with his wife, parents, and a brother, Willie Waggonner, the sheriff of Bossier Parish from 1948 to 1976.


  1. Mary Ruth Carter Waggonner. Retrieved on June 29, 2020.
  2. Minden Press, July 25, 1960, p. 1.
  3. Waggonner advertisement, Minden Press, July 18, 1960, p. 5.
  4. "GOP Eyes Louisiana Hot Congressional Election Tomorrow, The News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), December 18, 1961, p. 2.
  5. LA District 4 - Special Election Race - Dec. 19, 1961. Our Campaigns. Retrieved June 13, 2021.
  6. "Shreveport Journal Endorses Waggonner," reprinted in Minden Herald, December 14, 1961, p. 8.
  7. LA District 4 - D Primary Race - Aug 17, 1968. Our Campaigns. Retrieved June 13, 2021.
  8. Lake, Anthony. The "Tar Baby" Option: American Policy Toward Southern Rhodesia, 1976, p. 119.
  9. John Fonte (February 18, 2018). Make Washington’s Birthday Great Again. Retrieved on June 28, 2020.
  11. TO PASS H.R. 6400, THE 1965 VOTING RIGHTS ACT.. Retrieved January 30, 2021.
  13. "Says Waggonner, Missionary Work Among Liberals Is Necessary", Minden Press, June 3, 1963, p. 1
  14. Jeffrey M. Eliot et al (1984). The Congressional-Presidential Political Dictionary. Google Books. Retrieved on June 28, 2020. 
  15. William Johnston obituary. The Shreveport Times (February 21, 2021). Retrieved on February 23, 2021.
  16. Joseph D. Waggonner. Retrieved on June 29, 2020.

External links

  • Profile at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress