He was never the accommodating, cautious young man that aspiring politicians so often are. He didn’t graduate from high school, let alone from college. He was very adept at his first career as a traveling salesman, selling, among other things, laxatives and a patent medicine, “Wine of Cardui,” which was supposed to stimulate the blood. He dropped in and out of various institutions of higher learning. Once, Hair tells us, he lied his way into the University of Oklahoma law school for a semester, claiming he had a high school diploma. When he was 17, in 1910, while on the road drumming a lard substitute, he set up a promotional pie-baking contest in Shreveport. Among the contestants was Rose McConnell, who became his sweetheart, and two years later married him. Huey told Rose that he would be President one day, and even then, according to Williams, “he would write frequent letters on any pretext to United States senators,” because “I want to let them know I’m here.”
At the same time, he was leading a life entirely out of keeping with the grandeur of his ambitions (although in 1912 he made $125 a week plus expenses, remarkable for a nineteen-year-old). During one bad stretch, he lived on a park bench in Memphis. He was regularly out of work. He was arrested twice while he was on the road on one of those occasions he spent a night in jail in Shreveport on charges of carrying a concealed weapon and “raising a rough house” in a whorehouse.
In 1914 Long, now a married man of twenty-one, decided to settle down. He enrolled in the Tulane law school, but dropped out at the end of his first year. Still, he was able to pass the state bar examination, and he moved back to Shreveport and started a practice, mostly representing injured laborers suing their employers for damages. He and his older brother, Julius, briefly formed a partnership, but Huey was unable to work with anyone. Shortly after Julius’s departure he wrote his sister-in-law:
My offices are pretty now…. I have large nice rugs on all three floors…. Only the name “Huey P. Long” adorns these offices. I am governor, mayor, king and clerk. No…other authority has a right even to be heard.
In 1918, at the age of twenty-five, Long was elected to the Louisiana Railroad Commission (later named the Public Service Commission), the state board that regulates public utilities. There he found his political base, and established his public style: floridly dressed in a loud silk shirt and a rumpled linen suit, and sporting a diamond stickpin, he delivered wildly vicious and often extremely funny invectives against particular local opponents, and attacks on the rich and powerful generally. People loved his style, his materialism (which demonstrated that somebody like themselves could make it), his insolence and humor, and the naked hatred of the rich which they all felt but did not dare express. These strapped farmers also shared Huey’s conspiratorial view of the world.
Long shrewdly found his target in Standard Oil, by far the most visible example in Louisiana of the money power, whose refinery in Baton Rouge was the leading industrial plant in the state, and economically dominated the capital city. In addition Standard was a major oil driller, its lawyers and lobbyists simply ran the state government on issues affecting the company, and its ruling family, the Rockefellers, could readily be used (and often were) to personify the predatory rich. In Long’s hierarchy of evil J.P. Morgan came next, and third came the press, particularly the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the organ of the business establishment.
In the early days Long practiced old-fashioned politics in its purest form, traveling from town to town and speaking unamplified and at considerable length to a crowd that had come to be entertained. He would add specific material directed at the community itself—usually a reference to the local tycoon.
Now, Mr. Gilbert, I don’t want your vote. There is no reason why you should vote for me. You are a rich man. You own all the land around here. You have all these poor devils working for you…. I’m trying to help these poor fellows that you are giving a raw deal.
From his chairmanship of the Public Service Commission, he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1924 and immediately began preparing to run again. During the 1928 campaign he promised free textbooks, then considered an impossible extravagance in Louisiana, where the hard-up citizenry had to buy them, or, as often happened, forgo them and never learn to read; and new roads and bridges, at a time when the Mississippi River could be crossed in Louisiana only by ferry, and the highways were so poor that, according to Hair, it took six hours to drive the fifty miles from Opelousas to Baton Rouge. Also, the state was still suffering from the effects of the disastrous flood of 1927. Huey, then aged thirty-four, won easily. Immediately on taking office, he delivered on his promises: he passed a bond issue to pay for new roads, and to buy the free textbooks he increased the “severance tax” levied on companies extracting natural resources, principally oil. The companies, which had underestimated Long, expecting him to turn docile after inauguration, fought back.
When the US Supreme Court struck down the severance tax increase in March 1929, Huey called the legislature into special session and introduced a new bill that would impose a five-cents-per-barrel tax on oil refiners—meaning, primarily, Standard Oil. During that session Long’s enemies—a blend of sincere conservatives and Standard Oil lackeys—joined to kill off the new tax bill, then tried to impeach the governor on charges that he had used state money for his personal petty cash account (which was in fact true). A period of wild politics followed. In one famous episode, an anti-Long legislator leaped across the desk tops of the State House chamber toward the podium, until he was felled bleeding from a blow to the head by an opponent, and the entire chamber broke out in a general melee. After more than a month of maneuvering, Long brought the impeachment crisis to a close by managing to get a majority of the state senate to sign a pledge, known as the “Round Robin,” that they would vote with him, no matter what.
Those who subscribe to Robert Penn Warren’s portrait in All The King’s Men of Long as an idealist turned ruthless by experience point to the impeachment crisis as the watershed in his political life. Both Hair and Williams disagree. “Those who think the impeachment did not change Huey are probably right,” says Williams judiciously, and Hair makes a strong case that Long was just as ruthless before as after impeachment. Only shortly after taking office, he set up a Bureau of Criminal Identification that was, in effect, a personal secret police force, and acquired his retinue of bodyguards, one of whom carried a sawed-off shotgun in a paper sack. He tore down the state capitol and the antebellum governor’s mansion (using convict labor for the latter, so as to offend traditionalists), and built grander new versions of both, while continuing to live in hotel suites in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, surrounded by cronies and effectively estranged from his wife and children. After the impeachment crisis, he forced the resignation of any members of state boards and commissions who he suspected were not absolutely loyal to him, and appointed his cronies in their places.
From the beginning Long understood the political importance of mass communications, which was one reason for his war with the newspapers. As the Public Service Commissioner, he distributed his own “circulars” to his constituents. He instructed his printer on the type of paper to use: “Don’t use any of that damn smooth stuff. Use some that they can use on their backsides after they get through reading it.” In 1930, his ambitions widening, Long started a statewide newspaper called Louisiana Progress, which exclusively printed Long propaganda and was financed by mandatory deductions from every state employee’s salary. Later that year, Long ran for and won a seat in the US Senate. It was highly unusual, of course, for someone to be governor and senator at the same time, and in Long’s case the situation was even more complicated than it would appear because his lieutenant governor, Paul Cyr, had joined the anti-Long forces. Fearing that if he left Louisiana Cyr would take over (he refused to go even to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to dedicate a new Mississippi River bridge), Long left his Senate seat vacant for more than a year, waiting for Cyr’s term to expire, until the 1932 Louisiana elections, when a distinguished-looking toady from Winn Parish, O.K. Allen, became governor.
Meanwhile, Long continued to extend the normal bounds of acceptable political behavior. During the 1930 Senate race, his Bureau of Criminal Identification kidnapped Sam Irby, a State Highway Commission employee who had threatened to go public with what he knew about the Long machine. When in 1931 Paul Cyr announced that since Long had been elected to the Senate, he was no longer governor, Long rushed back from New Orleans to the capitol, and, according to Williams, “ordered that strong detachments of state policemen be placed around the [governor’s] mansion and the capitol and machine guns mounted at all possible points of entry,” to ward off a presumed take-over. In the 1932 governor’s race, one parish reported a unanimous vote for O.K. Allen, even though Allen’s main opponent had a brother and several other relatives living there, a result doubtless influenced by the presence of armed thugs at the polling places.
Long ran for the Senate to establish himself in national politics. At the 1932 Democratic convention he had greatly helped Franklin Roosevelt, by delivering Louisiana’s uncommitted delegation to him and fighting off a conservative attempt to seat another, anti-Roosevelt delegation. Afterward Long was rewarded with an invitation to lunch at Hyde Park, where Sara Delano Roosevelt was heard to whisper, “Who is that awful man sitting on my son’s right?” But a close, working relationship with the President was not possible. As Williams somewhat grandiosely puts it, “Each was so constituted that he had to dominate other and lesser men. Neither could yield to the other without submerging himself and dimming his destiny. And instinctively each recognized the other’s greatness, and feared it.”
Early in the Hundred Days, Long began to oppose FDR openly, on the grounds that the administration was not adequately responding to the Depression—that it should restructure the American economy through taxes on wealth, cash grants to working people, and currency inflation. As soon as the Congress recessed, in June 1933, Roosevelt retaliated by summoning Long to the White House to tell him that from now on federal patronage in Louisiana would be distributed by the administration directly, not through Long. From then on Long consistently fought New Deal programs in Louisiana. The WPA and other programs for the poor and unemployed, which meant so much for the rest of the country, were caught in the crossfire between him and FDR: the administration refused to let Long control them but had trouble finding anyone else in Louisiana with the force to get them going.