Huey Long

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Huey Long (1893-1935), nicknamed "Kingfish," was a powerful American politician in the 1920s and 1930s, who built a ruthless Democratic machine in Louisiana as governor (1928-32) and U.S. Senator (1932-35). A populist who fought the rich, and promised "Every Man a King," he was preparing to run for president—either in 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt presumably would step down, or perhaps to challenge FDR's reelection in 1936 in alliance with radio priest Charles Coughlin. But Long was assassinated in 1935 by the son of a political enemy. Although universally stereotyped a "Fascist," Long shunned ideology of all sorts, and his dictatorship by patronage, far from being alien, was typical (if not more extensive) of what many American machine politicians have attempted. Pernicious and impracticable as was his Share-Our-Wealth plan, its objective of plenty for all, without "brain trust" or dogma, was as intrinsically American as was the title "Kingfish."

Early Career

Huey Pierce Long, Jr. was born in Winnfield, Louisiana, in the piney woods region that had a strong Populist heritage. His father, a farmer, owned a medium-size farm, lived plainly but comfortably and sent six children to college. The family background was culturally meager and was most strongly marked by pious Baptist evangelicalism and by a Populistic animosity toward the wealth and sophistication of the planter class and of "evil" New Orleans. Huey became a salesman after completing his public schooling and married Rose McConnell in 1912. There was something of the confidence man about Long at every stage of his career. As a traveling salesman, whether promoting a cooking shortening called "Cottolene" by staging somewhat fixed baking contests (one of which was won by his future wife), or selling a patent-medicine nostrum called "The Wine of Cardui," Long sometimes seems a figure out of Southwestern humor, a kind of second cousin to Mark Twain's Duke and Dauphin.

After finishing the three-year program at Tulane Law School in less than one year, he was admitted to the bar of Louisiana in 1914. He practiced law in Shreveport for the next few years, having secured deferment from military service during World War I.

In 1918, Long narrowly won election to the Third District seat on the three-member Railway Commission (renamed Public Service Commission after 1921). Both as member and as chairman (1922-1926), Long gained fame by his vocal battles with "the interests" which, he asserted, controlled state government, e.g., the Standard Oil Company, telephone companies, and other public utilities.

Governor

In the 1924 primary for governor, which was dominated by religious issues focusing on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan (south Louisiana has a large Catholic population), Long ran third in a three-man race. The Klan collapsed in the late 1920s, so that the 1928 contest revolved around those economic and class issues on which Huey's strength rested.

Long secured an easy victory in the gubernatorial primary in 1928, defeated the opposition's attempt to impeach him in 1929, and midway in his term of office (1930) won his race for the U.S. Senate. However, just as he had promised, he did not take his senate seat until January 1932, by which time his hand-picked candidate, Oscar K. Allen, had won the Democratic nomination for governor. Senator Long maintained his control over Louisiana state government until his death in 1935.

In Louisiana, Huey Long symbolized the rise to political power of lower-class whites. State government had been previously dominated by business interests and the New Orleans political machines. Going beyond mere symbolic gratification, Long pleased his followers by securing many material benefits, including free textbooks for all children in the public and private (religious) schools, construction of a network of free roads and bridges, increased expenditures for public education, and elimination of the poll tax.

Many Southern demagogues attacked the African Americans (who were not allowed to vote); this was called "playing the race card." Long never played that card, and made sure that blacks received a share of the benefits. At the same time, the level of taxation was increased markedly, much of the increase being borne by consumers directly through sales taxes. Long built a virtual personal dictatorship in Louisiana -- the first (and last) in any American state--through the partisan administration of benefits, punitive actions against his opponents, and manipulation of the election laws. In 1934 he ordered state police to confront the New Orleans Democratic Party because Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley had a formidable opposition machine. Long drew back and no shots were fired. In 1934 he reorganized the legislature to put control in the hands of his allies. He transformed local government by giving the governor power to appoint local judges, election officials and tax assessors.


Senator

In the U.S. Senate, Long broke with Roosevelt in August 1933, conducted several spectacular filibusters against New Deal measures, and developed his own rival program --"Share Our Wealth"--by which poverty would be eliminated by confiscating the wealth of the rich and redistributing it equally to everyone. Long, relying on rapidly growing membership in his "Share Our Wealth" clubs and his large radio audience on NBC, was in position to run for the presidency in 1936 or 1940.[1] On Sept. 8, 1935, Long was shot and fatally wounded by Dr. Carl A. Weiss, Jr., in the state capitol at Baton Rouge. Long's bodyguards killed the assassin on the spot; Long himself died on September 10th. Although Dr. Weiss was a member of a prominent anti-Long family, his motive probably was personal, not political; he believed that Long had sullied his family's honor.

Legacy

Huey Long made important innovations in campaign technique, including sound trucks and radio commercials. His more lasting contribution was to the state of Louisiana rather than to the nation. He created a public works program unprecedented in the South, with a plethora of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and state buildings.

He set in motion two durable factions within the dominant Louisiana Democratic party--"pro-Long" and "anti-Long," each diverging meaningfully in terms of policies and voter support. A family dynasty emerged: his brother Earl Long was elected lieutenant-governor in 1936, governor in 1948 and 1956. Typically anti-Longite candidates would promise to continue popular social services delivered in Long's administration and criticized Longite corruption without directly attacking Long himself. Huey's son Russell Long was a U.S. senator from 1948 to 1987. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Russell Long shaped the nation's tax laws in a conservative fashion, with hardly any trace of his father's populism

Boisterous, scurrilous, and profane in speech; ruthless, violent, and unprincipled in action, the Kingfish was widely denounced in middle class circles and Democratic Party as a sinister ignoramus and buffoon. Dumb he was not; he showed disciplined intellectual performance of the highest order and was probably emotionally sincere in championing the cause of the underdog. His temperamental antagonism toward the socially privileged led to his ostentatious defiance of every propriety, knowing it was a sure-fire method of attracting the kind of alienated supporters he wanted.

He won in politics because of forcefulness and originality, and his perception that the governmental practices of Louisiana had become obsolete. He kept most of his promises and built roads, bridges, schools (including LSU) and other improvements which Louisiana needed. Flagrantly corrupt, he was primarily a coalition builder who used corruption to buy supporters. His improvement program was administered with relative efficiency. His success was in proportion to the weakness and confusion of his enemies, who were chiefly petty office-seekers, more decorous, but scarcely more ethical, than he. He was essentially a spokesman of a long-standing agrarian discontent that was much amplified and extended by the social and economic conditions of the great depression period.

Long in American literature

Political historians, and--especially--novelists have explored the strange dictatorship Long created. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), by a Nobel-Prize winning novelist, portrayed a genuine American dictator on the Hitler model.[2] Starting in 1936 the WPA, a New Deal agency, performed the theatre version across the country. Written with the express purpose of hurting Long's chances in the 1936 election, Lewis's novel outfits President Berzelius Windrip with a private militia, concentration camps, and a chief of staff who sounds like Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Lewis also outfits Windrip with a racist ideology completely alien to Long and a Main Street conservatism he also never embraced. Ultimately, Windrip is a venal and cynical showman who plays to the conformist resentments Lewis diagnosed in Main Street and Babbitt. Perry (2004) argues that the key weakness of the novel is not that he decks out American politicians with sinister European touches, but that he finally conceives of fascism and totalitarianism in terms of traditional American political models rather than seeing them as introducing a new kind of society and a new kind of regime. Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people's desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler's National Socialism.

Hamilton Basso wrote two novels looking at Long, Cinnamon Seed (1934) and Sun in Capricorn (1942). Basso was a slashingly witty critic of the moonlight and magnolia romanticism of the Old South that dominated the Southern mind before 1920. Like many proponents of a New South, he wanted modernizers to take over. Cinnamon Seed's Harry Brand incorporates more details from the historical Huey Long than any other fictional portrayal does, and much of the novel is so lightly fictionalized that only a single letter separates the characters and places from their real-life counterparts.[3] Brand is a representative of the grasping and vulgar kind of new leadership which has rightly understood that the values of the Old South are played out but has replaced them with nothing but ambition and cunning. He is a greedy climber, not a demonic leader of the masses, and in fact he is ultimately not much more than an obnoxious and sticky-fingered lout, the kind who spits tobacco juice on the marble floors of his predecessors and pockets the ashtrays. In portraying his Long figure this way, Basso finds himself between the stools, critical of the spent aristocrats who cannot imagine a modern South, but disgusted also by the figures who represent the wrong kind of newness, the kind of modern South that comes to be if its development is left to default.[4]

John Dos Passos’s Number One (1943) looks not at the politics of mass brutality whipped up by manipulative demagogues, but at the gradual ebbing away of Long's idealist convictions under the pressure of a thousand expedient compromises and betrayals in the name of institutional necessity.[5]

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer prize-winning All the King’s Men (1946) is the centerpiece of American political fiction. Warren’s spellbinding Willie Stark, almost as much philosopher as politician, bears the least resemblance to Long though for almost six decades Stark has been Long’s best-known fictional embodiment as a novel and well-received 1949 movie (it won three Oscars, including best picture and best actor as Broderick Crawford played the Long role.).[6]

The novelists portray Long's rise to power as a justifiable popular reaction against the selfish policies pursued by the dominant economic interests prior to 1928. They speculate the degree his extremism reflected an overreaction to his enemies, or sprang inevitably from class conflict in the state. They all try to explain why Long enjoyed majority support in Louisiana, both during and after his lifetime.


See also


  1. The Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith (1898-1976) was Long's national organizer; in the late 1930s Smith became a prominent enemy of Jews, but he was not openly anti-Semitic during his time with Long. Glen Jeansonne, "Gerald L. K. Smith: from Wisconsin Roots to National Notoriety." Wisconsin Magazine of History 2002-03 86(2): 18-29. Issn: 0043-6534 Fulltext online
  2. See the full text at [1]
  3. For example Basso uses "Tillson" instead of "Wilson", "Janders" rather than "Sanders", "Gwinn Parish" for "Winn Parish".
  4. Perry (2004)
  5. Perry (2004)
  6. Perry (2004); Bloom (1987)