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Huey

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.”

II

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.”

But at the same time, Williams insists, “Huey Long believed in the things he said. He would always believe in them….” He was, at times, given to abrupt spurious flushes of compassion—though the late A. J. Liebling, in his exquisite report on Huey’s brother Earl, recounted that Huey once tipped a theater-ticket girl in the Hotel New Yorker three cents for getting him four tickets to a show sold out a month in advance. Williams reports, “Once he and a friend passed on the street a poor woman and her ragged brood of children. He went on a few steps and then stopped. ‘That breaks my heart,’ he muttered. He went back and gave all the change in his pocket to the woman.”

More expansively, he announced to a student convocation at LSU once that he had arranged for a special train to carry them up for a football game with Vanderbilt—“ ‘If you don’t have the money, we can arrange to lend it to you,’ he revealed…. Pulling out a wad of bills, he invited those needing help to come up and get their money and sign an I.O.U. A mob of students engulfed him, and he soon ran out of money…. He sent a courier to his hotel suite to bring out more money, in a suitcase. He dispensed finally three thousand dollars and then…returned to the hotel. But many students followed him there and clamored for their share, and standing in the door of his suite he handed out another thousand dollars.”

He came from a family that belonged to the marginal and uncertain lesser gentry of north-central Louisiana, a household prosperous and respectable enough but still outside the circumference of what passed for the local aristocracy—marooned in that windless social latitude between the desperate and the noble. Williams speculates, “He came to realize—and it’s impossible to say what effect the knowledge had on his inner self—that patrician Louisianians would regard him as a hillbilly or a hick, as somebody who did not quite belong.” For whatever reason, he chose to pitch his tent among the desperate—

For generations they had been sunk in poverty and ignorance, resigned to the drabness of their lives, even to the realization that their rulers did not fear them. Now suddenly a champion had appeared to them, one who promised to lead them to a better life, one who, even if he did nothing else, would give them vicariously the exciting satisfaction of insulting the great ones who ignored them.

It was as if Huey had long before sensed their eagerness, had been relishing their excitement when they would discover him, and when at last they found each other, they exulted together: it was a kind of mutual celebration: “‘How many of you have holes in your socks?’ Again there was a forest of hands. Huey took off one of his shoes—and sticking out of the sock was his big toe. The crowd exploded in applause. This man was theirs.”

Louisiana, like other deep Dixie states, had long been presided over by an alliance of home-grown squires and immigrant industrial corporations (in Louisiana’s case, Standard Oil), with the added brawn in that state of the New Orleans machine. They constituted a hierarchy, says Williams, that was “smug, satisfied with things as they were, devoted to the protection of privilege. Its leaders were gentlemen in frock coats, string ties, and wide hats, and they gave the state a kind of government like themselves—dignified, usually honest, though sometimes discreetly corrupt, and backward-looking.” It was, all in all, a “government of gentlemen…government by goatee.”

Huey was regarded by this company as a squalid, clamorous toad. He monumentally affronted the more decorous reformers in his state, men who, says Williams, “saw the need for change but not enough to satisfy existing needs. They sow the seed, but bolder men have to do the harvesting.” (It is also Williams’s not inconsiderable contribution to point out that “those who write about Long, like other chroniclers of the American scene, have been unknowing victims of the genteel tradition. They saw that Huey’s opponents were gentlemen, and from their observation they predicted a mode of conduct. Cultured, gentle people do not do evil or corrupt things—therefore, the Louisiana conservatives could not have done anything immoral. Huey, on the other hand, was not a gentleman. He was a crass popular leader….”)

When the unmentionable became the inevitable and Huey was waiting to be inaugurated governor, this coalition of gentlemen briefly thought they might be able to assimilate him. It was soon obvious that was hopeless. From then on, they fell into solemn rumblings about the approach of Russian Communism, with an editorial headline in one Shreveport paper bugling, “Louisiana Must Not Let Bolshevism In.”

But before it was over, Huey had built an extensive road and bridge system in what had been probably the most skimpily paved state in the union, had improved free hospital services, introduced free textbooks, amplified appropriations to schools, initiated free night schools for adults, imposed a debt moratorium, established homestead exemption laws, and abolished the poll tax. At the time, this was all no mean feat, and while he had been inert to other needs—most notably, welfare legislation—Huey contended these were issues “you cannot change people on…. They must change…themselves.” Observers during those days reported that “the people do not merely vote for him, they worship the ground he walks on. He is a part of their religion…. They reach out to touch him as he passes…. They have felt the hand of Huey.”

Long’s instinct was that “any issue of religion or race was an artificial one in politics,” and, to him, the old obsessions of Southern politics amounted to simple distractions. He privately proposed to his aides, “You can’t help poor white people without helping Negroes. It has to be that way,” and he later declared to parties beyond his state, “A lot of guys would have been murdered politically for what I’ve been able to do quietly for the niggers.”

Actually, however oblique Long may have regarded the issue of race to be, he was not above exploiting it—more often than Williams, who may be unduly industrious in his apologias for Huey, seems comfortable with. On one occasion, Long announced that one of his antagonists had “begun his career as an operator of a Negro saloon and dive,” and as a senator, he resisted a federal anti-lynching law with the rather brutish remark, “We just lynch an occasional nigger.”

Whenever the matter arose, he presented himself as a segregationist and white supremacist—which, by mere political and social reflex, he unquestionably was. (He once startled Roy Wilkins, who was then a newspaperman, by beginning an interview, “Let me tell you about the Nigras…,” his pronunciation lapsing before long into “nigger.”) Williams explains indulgently, “The privileges that Huey wanted to extend to Negroes…for his time…were large, almost revolutionary…. He would carry the Negroes as far as he safely could at the time…. He would not attempt to extend the suffrage to them because if he did, he would fail as a politician, and everything else that the Negroes had won would be lost.” And Williams cites the recollection of a black laborer in Louisiana: “He walked the land like Jesus Christ and left nothing undone.”

As for the Klan, when one of the principals of that particular distraction announced once from Atlanta that he would venture into Louisiana to campaign against Long, Huey collected some reporters around him and began, “Quote me as saying that that Imperial bastard will never set foot in Louisiana, and that when I call him a sonofabitch I am not using profanity, but am referring to the circumstances of his birth”—and went on to vow that if the Wizard did enter the state he would leave with “his toes turned up.” What’s more, declares Williams, Long had a rare indifference to the old romance of the Confederacy—“unlike other Southern politicians of his time, [he] did not oratorically employ and exploit…audiences of rural poor with the magnificent irrelevancy of how their grandpappies had charged up the slope at Gettysburg…. [He] talked about crucial economic issues of the present.”

He seemed almost as impatient, if somewhat more subdued, with international affairs. When he reached the Senate, he proposed once, in regard to a treaty providing American adherency to the World Court, “I do not intend to have these gentlemen whose names I cannot even pronounce, let alone spell, passing upon the rights of the American people.”

But Williams offers the notion that “Huey was the first Southern politician since the great Virginians of the eighteenth century to have an original idea.” His vision, finally expanded into the national theater, was his celebrated “Share Our Wealth” program—which finally puts him in a magnitude beyond Wallace. Economic formulations have been irrelevant to the Wallace phenomenon, which has been more a matter of racial and class peevishness, and Wallace himself seems innocent of any true economic sense: though gutteringly Populist, he showed a quiet solicitude as governor for corporate interests in taxing rates. Anything like Long’s offensive against the nation’s structure of economic privilege has never really occurred to Wallace.

As Williams explains that offensive:

The federal government would impose a capital-levy tax that would prevent a family from owning a fortune of more than five million dollars…. The government would impose an income tax that would prohibit a family from earning more than one million dollars in a year…. From the revenue derived from these taxes the government would provide every family in the country with a “homestead” of five thousand dollars…. The government would further guarantee that every family would receive an annual income of two thousand to three thousand dollars, or one third of the average family income…. It would also give pensions…to the aged…finance the college education of youths of proven ability…and pay generous bonuses to veterans…. It would limit the hours of labor to thirty hours a week and eleven months a year, thus increasing the need for workers. And it would purchase and store agricultural surpluses, thus balancing farm supply with demand.

It would be hard to exaggerate the apocalyptic implications of such a proposal for the American elite at that time. The shudders reached even the White House. But before the end of 1935, there were records of Share the Wealth clubs in every state, some 27,431 of them with a total membership of 4,684,000, including a number of Negro units.

III

There is something secretly exhilarating about Huey’s jubilation in power—suddenly checking a raucous pow-wow of other politicians by bellowing, “Shut up, you sonsofbitches, shut up! This is the Kingfish talking!” or leading the LSU band through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras and raising his baton at policemen, “Stand back—this is the Kingfish!” But Williams concludes, “…he had become obsessed with the conviction that he could not do what he had to do without reaching for more power. He could not tell, himself, whether he would ever have enough.”

In Louisiana, at least, he posed the prospect of “the most daring and dangerous concentration of power” ever to occur in the American political system. Cities were clapped under martial law—in New Orleans, the carrying of firearms by anyone but police was prohibited, newspapers could print nothing that “reflected on the state government or its officers,” and gatherings of “two or more people” were forbidden. He even appropriated the courts of his state. Before he was done, he had snuffed out the last vestiges of any opposition in Louisiana—the state literally belonged to him. And when he went on to the Senate, he left in the office of governor a crony of his appropriately called O.K.

It seemed the system had not anticipated him, could not confine him. Power became as easy and casual and intimate to him as his own breathing. An old friend of his who flinched during the impeachment challenge approached him once during that crisis and urged him to resign. Long, who was sitting on the edge of a bed paring his toenails, pointed to a clipped nail on the floor and said, “Bozeman, I wouldn’t give the value of that toenail now for a sonofabitch like you.”

Regarding Huey as the apotheosis of the American demagogue, Williams contends, “…the original concept of the demagogue has little validity for the American scene…in a country as extensive and varied as the United States….” This is, at best, a dubious assertion. Huey simply occurred in the pre-television age, an epoch that seems as remote from our own now as the Paleolithic Age, in which presences, personalities, the reality of events carried for shorter ranges, were shortly extinguished like matchflames reaching the limit of oxygen, and beyond that were detectable only as carbon prints on newspaper pages, canned static inside small wooden boxes. But television was like an explosion in the atmosphere, old physical laws vanished, and one can now be everywhere at once. If Huey’s presence was much of his political vitality, who can say what he would have managed if he had had the medium of television?

Even so, he soon became a national specter. The reasoning was, as Williams notes, “American capitalism in the 1930’s was in crisis. This middle class, always a potential fascist group, demanded to be saved. There arose out of the middle class Huey Long, who claimed to know the will of the people better than they did, who would save the people by whatever means he had to use, and who would admit no check on himself except their general approval. He would hope to achieve his goal by conventional democratic methods but would inevitably have to resort to more drastic methods, and so by stages would become the fascist head of a fascist nation.”

It was a prospect that seemed to unsettle even Huey to a degree—he strenuously insisted, “A man is not a dictator when he is given a commission from the people and carries it out…. A perfect democracy can come close to looking like a dictatorship, a democracy in which the people are so satisfied they have no complaint.” Inevitably what was happening in Europe at the time was invoked in appraisals of Long, and he was quick to declare, “I don’t know much about Hitler—except this last thing, about the Jews. There never has been a country that put its heel down on the Jews that ever lived afterwards. Don’t liken me to that sonofabitch. Anybody that lets his public policies be mixed up with religious prejudice is a plain Goddamned fool.”

Still, Long began gathering together a national third-party movement with his Share Our Wealth plan as its vision, his calculation being that it would wreck the Democrats in 1936, with or without him as its candidate, and after four years of Republican luffing, he would inherit the helm. Roosevelt’s scouts brought back word that “if Huey himself ran he would poll three to four million and maybe six million popular votes. Moreover, his support was…nationwide. He would, in fact, attract as big a percentage of the votes in the industrial centers of the East as he would in rural areas, and in a close election he could tip the balance to the Republicans.”

Initially, Huey had thought he might be able to captivate Roosevelt, but they were as mutually repellant as two magnet-poles. Roosevelt began to fancy that Huey was an incipient fascist leader, and proceeded to undermine him in Louisiana with patronage appointments, while Huey, in a Senate speech, suggested the administration was seeking to crucify him for its own ineptitudes and the disorder of its programs—“What is it? Is it government? Maybe so. It looks more like St. Vitus dance.”

Huey offered a prospectus for his own administration—an immense public works program sustained by a ten-billion-dollar appropriation, a central bank, railroads under “absolute government control” with the option of nationalization, heavy federal aid to the states at all educational levels, a vast public health enterprise, and finally a Federal Share Our Wealth Corporation to administer his economic program. It is Williams’s notion that Roosevelt’s tax message of 1935, regarded as the signal of his turn to the left, was occasioned “primarily because of the threat posed by Huey and the Share Our Wealth movement.”

IV

All his life, Huey seemed to have a highly developed sensitivity to preserving himself intact, to avoiding any risk of physical sabotage. He chose not to serve in World War I, he announced, “because I was not mad at anybody over there.” Williams notes that “a normal masculine emotion never appeared in him—that occasional red rage which makes a man want to fling himself at the throat of another man.” But he seemed to sense how profoundly and impossibly he outraged those around him, and was always tensed for the eruptions he knew he had to provoke. “He thought…his enemies were lying in wait to beat him up,” says Williams. When these encounters came, his responses were usually less than swashbuckling. In a hotel scuffle once in New Orleans with another somewhat amply proportioned politician, Huey’s head, in the words of one female bystander, “was visible occasionally, but most of the time it was lost in J.Y.’s stomach.” He was prone to “hit at” his antagonist, and then scurry off.

But the death scene that closes Huey’s tale has a lurid grandeur about it. Huey had briefly returned to Louisiana to manage, unofficially, a special session of the legislature; it was a swampy Sunday night in September, 1935, and he was leaving the house chamber, stalking down a marble corridor with his entourage of bodyguards and minions, when a lank dark frail man in a white suit and glinting eyeglasses stepped from behind a pillar and shot him under the ribs with a small pistol. Immediately, Huey bawled and went trotting off blindly toward some stairs, while his assassin—Dr. Carl Weiss, an ethereal young man of aristocratic rectitude (“Right with him was right,” his mother later declared, “right above everything.”) with a facility in music, painting, mathematics, and mechanics—was virtually shredded by the guns of Huey’s guards.

Sometime later, in the hospital operating room where Huey had been taken, one bystander remembers, “I thought, what a scene—here was a man maybe dying, and that room was full of politicians.” If the witnesses Williams cites are to be believed, Huey would rouse from periods of unconsciousness and “talk wildly, as though he saw visions beyond the hospital walls. He saw people out there, the poor people of America, a mass of faces, staring at him, needing him, wanting to give him power so that he could help them….” And when he expired, it reportedly was with a last wheeze of the old desperation as the implacable adversary he had raged against all his life—time—finally closed in on him: “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.”

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