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Huey Long

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 a fevered season of Caesarian politics, with the secret movements of private military forces; courthouses, airports were occupied by armed irregulars. Long’s simple tireless will and ingeniousness caused spectacular melees in capitol chambers, where legislators sprinted across desktops and got clipped by the blades of ceiling fans, and inkwells and pastepots flew over milling fist-fights.

But Huey himself was a mystery, indefinable even to himself. Dozing once on a bed in a hotel room while reporters around him were speculating on who or what he was, he suddenly grunted, “Oh, hell, say I’m sui generis and let it go at that.” Williams calls him at one point “a remarkable deviate.” Huey himself remarked, as if regarding society around him in mild bemusement, “They think I’m so smart. Maybe I’m not. Maybe it’s just that there are a lot of dumb people in the world.” Whatever he was, he seemed uncontainable and rampant, some incidental unprogenitored byblow of the race, with no estate but his own extravagant humanness, loosed for a while among his kind. He considered himself one-up on most others he encountered: when he began his skirmishes with Roosevelt, he offered, “I can take him…. He’s scared of me…. His mother’s watchin’ him, and she won’t let him go too far…. He’s livin’ on an inherited income. I got nothin’, so I don’t have to bother about that.” Even during his salesman days, he was furiously dispatching letters, out of the blind oblivion of his anonymity, to senators in Washington, because “I want to let them know I’m here,” and during the rhubarbs that attended his political advent in Louisiana, he would lunge to his feet, slap his chest, and bellow, “Blame it all on me! Me! Huey Long!”

From the first, he had a kind of unabating omniverous curiosity about his surroundings, about the people who crossed his vision, like those ageless nameless sexless derelicts one sees in train terminals and post offices inspecting the floor for cellophane cigar wrappers and empty matchbooks, which they daintily pluck up, examine, and pocket. Almost from his infancy, collections of people inordinately exhilarated him: he seemed a compulsive street-corner and marketplace habitué. When a circus parade came through his hometown of Winnfield, Huey, who was then twelve, “ran out on the street got a stone and threw it at one of the animals….’He would do anything to attract even unfavorable attention.’ ” Later, when he was governor, at such public festivals as LSU football games he could not resist running out on the field with the team, palavering with the referees, scurrying along the sidelines during the game, and trotting back into the dressing room with the team during half-time.

But at the same time he displayed a strange queasiness at personal contact with individuals; it was as if he were enamored of humankind in general but disconcerted by them in the particular. Williams reports, “He seemed…to have an aversion to any kind of close contact with men. Many who knew him have said he had the limpest handshake they ever felt.” His appetite for women was, at best, fitful. Williams cites one incident when “on a train trip Huey was invited to the car of a man he met and…later he attacked his host’s daughter. When his companions reproached him, he said, ‘You gotta try, don’t you?’ ” He purportedly maintained a desultory liaison with his secretary, but Williams quotes one of Huey’s aides as insisting. “[He] had no time for women—no time to sleep.” On the whole, it seems he had about the sexual attention-span of a sparrow—quick, hot, distracted, fleeting.

The fact is, declares Williams, “Huey was oppressed by time.” The normal implacable constraints of mortality seemed to fill him with a kind of abject fury; he generally slept only four hours out of every twenty-four, and he was possessed of a savage unflagging energy which propelled him along usually at a subdued gallop, feet flinging out to each side in a splayed manner. “They say they don’t like my methods,” he once allowed. “Well, I don’t like them either…. I would do it some other way if there was time….”

In this respect, and some others, Long seems uncannily to have prefigured Alabama’s George Wallace, though Wallace is built on a somewhat diminished and meaner scale. They have the same kind of political vitality, and there has been the same pattern to their careers, including certain central traumas—for Wallace, his failure to get the Alabama legislature to allow him to succeed himself, which nearly extinguished him; for Long, his impeachment crisis, which pitched him into “a state of mental paralysis…a kind of melancholia,” but which, like Wallace, he survived, though it left a new grimness and coldness in his nature. They are even strikingly alike in their impatience with the business of having to eat: Huey, says Williams, “usually…consumed whatever food was put before him, almost literally not seeing or tasting it, merely because it was there,” while one of Wallace’s old associates reported, “He never knows what he’s eating because he’s too busy talking—it could be filet mignon he’s eating, it could be a hamburger, it could be the end of his tie, he don’t know.”

Both share the same incidental sense of family—Huey met his wife Rose, a small neat dark-eyed girl who was a stenographer for an insurance agency, when he was presiding at a cake-baking contest during his days as a salesman, and after a somewhat erratic courtship of two and a half years (he once retrieved the ring he had given her because, he notified her, he’d come across another girl he might marry instead, and he later returned the ring to Rose with the explanation that the girl hadn’t looked the same when he saw her again), they were finally married by a conscripted Baptist preacher in the Gayosa Hotel in Memphis. After that, he did not seem to notice her to any great extent.

As for his own people, says Williams, “he was not close to his family, and he even disliked some members of it…. He announced on one occasion, ‘there ain’t enough dignity in the bunch to keep a chigger still long enough to brush his hair.’ ” Of one of his brothers, who later became a spectacular governor in his own fashion, Huey is quoted as muttering, “You have to watch Earl. If you live long enough, he’ll double-cross you.” (And he did, at least once.)

It is particularly eloquent of Huey that he liked to promote the jew’s harp as carrying “naturally…the music of the soul to the world.” Of course, that was because it carried the music of his soul—a brisk spry flat twanging homely warble. Actually, Williams quotes one source, Huey (also like Wallace) “couldn’t tell one note from another. He did not play the piano or any instrument. He couldn’t. He had no voice for singing.” But, like some kind of aesthetic Caliban, he was entranced, swooningly obsessed, by the sound of realms he could never reach.

One old acquaintance told Williams, “Music…was the soft, tender part of him. He liked music that was soft,” and Williams adds, “He liked to be surrounded by music…. When he could get anyone to play for him, he would sit on the bench or on the floor and listen with rapt attention…. His favorite composers were Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg, and his favorite songs were ‘Harvest Moon,’ ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ and ‘Look Down that Lonesome Road.”’ A bandleader remembered, “When he was dancing in the Blue Room and I’d play ‘Harvest Moon,’ he was in heaven. He would look dreamy and blissful and look at me as if to say thank you and dance with his eyes half closed.”


Williams surmises that, with Huey, the means eventually consumed the end. “…the politician who wishes to do good may have to do some evil to achieve his goal…. It is…the course that Long, faced with a relentless opposition, felt he had to follow…. But in striving to do good he was led on to grasp for more and more power…and finally the means and the end became so entwined in his mind that he…could not tell whether he wanted power as a method or for its own sake.”

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