by T. Harry Williams
Knopf, 876 pp., $12.50
To a number of discriminating souls in his day, Huey Pierce Long was an unspeakable vulgarity. In fact, people of social and political gentility frequently could not even bring themselves to utter his name, referring to him, as if briefly lifting something vile between two fingertips, as merely, “That man….” A Louisiana judge during Long’s governorship sputtered once in desperation that the man had “a malformed or diseased mind,” and when Long was in the Senate, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, delivered the memorable epithet that the gentleman from Louisiana suffered from “halitosis of the intellect.”
A dumpy figure, as plain and pudgy as a potato, he had an Emmett Kelly face under a kinky scribbling of damp rusty hair, with a nose like a radish bulb and an oddly straight mouth like a hinged slot of a ventriloquist’s dummy. His garb, even after he reached the United States Senate, ran toward white suits with pink neckties and orange handkerchiefs, fawn-colored silk with lavender shirts, and brown shoes trimmed in white: a dish of fruit ambrosia. He had served an appropriate political apprenticeship as an itinerant drummer of lard substitutes, Never Fail kerosene home oil cans, products of the Faultless Starch Company of Kansas City, and Black Draught laxative from the Chattanooga Medicine Company, with an interlude for study at Oklahoma Baptist University and another to get a law degree. He seemed, indeed, as common and elemental as a scrawled line of bus-station-washroom graffiti.
The recently published biography of Huey Long by T. Harry Williams of Louisiana State University’s history department—the first comprehensive documentation and description of the man—is a momentous book on several counts. Not incidentally, it is an important exercise in a fairly new medium of research, the collection of oral history—significant, as Williams indicates, not only because political negotiations and machinations through the facilities of the electronic age are largely trackless, but because speech recollection is closer to the heat of what happened than are paper transactions. Huey Long was formidably researched, and lumbers a bit under the load: 295 witnesses, plus journals and documents. Such a heroic task of ingestion allows for little literary buoyancy—but what has emerged is an epic that transcends the somewhat ponderous style of its scribe: a tale which suggests that the great politician, the tribal leader, could be a protagonist for an American tragic literature.
Tragedy has always been implicit in the politics of this nation. There is really only one thing to be in this country, and that’s President of it: virtually no classroom or schoolyard or Scout troop in the land turns up an exceptional youth who is not a potential President to his family and his tutors and finally to himself, and it is probably the lingering sadness of numberless men in executive suites that they are not.
Huey Long has all the engines of tragedy—there is power, farce, blood in the tale. Huey’s was …