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The Not So Great Dictator

Long’s real aim in Washington was not to legislate or to govern, but to build himself up as leader of all the millions of hard-up Americans who considered the New Deal too slow and too tame. He passed not a single bill in the Senate, but contributed more verbiage to the Congressional Record than any other member. He closed down Louisiana Progress in 1932 and the following year went national with the weekly American Progress. He also published a lively, boastful autobiography, Every Man a King, and mailed out 70,000 free copies of it; he accepted speaking engagements all over the country; and, in February 1934, he bought a half-hour of national radio time to announce the establishment of the Share Our Wealth Society, a loose organization that was intended to lay the ground for a third political party.

The stated purpose of the Share Our Wealth Society was to promote Long’s economic program, under which every American family would have a guaranteed income of “not less than $2,000 to $3,000 per year,” the work week would be shortened to thirty hours, and every worker would get a month’s paid vacation. All personal debt would be forgiven, education through college would be free, and everyone over sixty would get a pension. In addition, every family would get a $5,000 cash grant—the equivalent, Hair says, of $50,000 today. To finance these benefits a confiscatory tax would be imposed on the rich: 100 percent on all income and inheritance over a million dollars, and on all net worth over three or four million.

With American Progress, Every Man a King, the popular “Every Man a King” song (“With castles, clothing, and food for all / All belongs to you”), Long’s regular radio addresses, his speeches, the avalanche of mail that went out from his Senate office, and copious newspaper publicity, Long became a national celebrity. His message was never delivered in the leaden Marxist rhetoric of the left, which is one reason why it was so popular. Gerald L.K. Smith, the young director of the Share Our Wealth Society, later the founder of the America First Movement and a notorious Nazi sympathizer, crossed the country promising a “real spending money, beefsteak and gravy, Chevrolet, Ford in the garage, new suit, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus Christ, red, white, and blue job for every man!” In the spring of 1935, 7.7 million people belonged to the more than 25,000 Share Our Wealth clubs throughout the country.

Long’s plan was either to run for president himself in 1936, or else have a proxy run, who would take away enough votes from Roosevelt to win the presidency for an ineffectual Republican; then, with economic conditions even more desperate, he would gain the White House in 1940. These plans were far from secret: in 1935, Long wrote a book called My First Days in the White House. But it was published posthumously.

It is too much to say that Huey Long’s assassination was inevitable, but assassination talk was in the air. Hodding Carter, then running a paper in Hammond, Louisiana, called for Long’s murder in an editorial. In August 1934, five rifle shots were fired into the New Orleans house where Long had installed his family. In August 1935, Long announced dramatically in the Senate that in New Orleans the previous month, a group (which included the mayor of New Orleans and a US congressman), had met in a hotel to discuss his murder—he knew because his people had bugged the meeting. That same August, a group called the Minute Men was secretly organized; it had ten thousand members, who planned to march on Baton Rouge, seize the State House, and kill Long if necessary. “There was a bunch of talk about killing Huey Long every time that anti-Long men got together. It was some of the wildness in the air,” Williams was told.

One cause of the wildness was that Long had been steadily eliminating democracy in Louisiana. In November 1934 Governor Allen called a special session of the state legislature to introduce forty-four bills aimed at increasing Long’s power. A new state “civil service commission” would control the appointment of all municipal police and fire chiefs. Authority to regulate public utilities was stripped from municipalities and given to the state. Vacancies in local offices would henceforth be filled by the governor. Within twenty-four hours, all forty-four bills had passed both houses of the legislature.

The next month, at another special session, thirty-five bills were introduced on opening night. One took the power to hire teachers away from local school boards, and gave it to the state—meaning to Huey Long. Another took away from the parish sheriffs the power to appoint their own deputies, and another vested in the state appointive power for all local policemen and firemen. At the next special session, in April 1935, Long made it impossible for New Orleans, a stronghold of the anti-Long forces, to receive federal money by forbidding municipalities to get outside loans or grants without the state government’s approval. He took over the power to appoint poll watchers and other election officials. At a special session in July, Long gave the Civil Service Commission the power to hire all local government employees throughout the state, and denied the city of New Orleans the power to levy local taxes. In September Long called yet another special session at which he proposed forty-two bills, including one that ordered a mandatory jail sentence for anyone who violated Louisiana’s states’ rights—meaning, according to Williams, that “any federal appointee who performed any act or disbursed any money for an alleged political purpose could be hauled into the state courts.”

Long had given himself total control over all government hiring in the state, over all law enforcement, and over the electoral process. He had in effect abolished local government in Louisiana, and was trying to abolish the federal government’s role there too. He was beginning to restrict freedom of speech and of the press as well; he passed a special tax on newspapers and even got the power to censor movies.

There was an increasingly paramilitary aspect to Louisiana politics. In December 1933 in Hammond, a federal judge deputized a thousand armed men to stop a blatantly rigged election (only one candidate, who was pro-Long, was eligible to run) that Long had set up to fill a vacant congressional seat. In July 1934 Long sent a delegation of fifty national guardsmen to New Orleans to take over by force, at night, the office of the registrar of voters. They put in machine-gun emplacements and dug in for a period of weeks. In September another two thousand national guardsmen were sent to New Orleans under cover of darkness, supposedly to ensure the fairness of an upcoming election. In January 1935 in Baton Rouge, Long fired all parish employees, and the anti-Long forces, locally organized as the Square Deal Association, retaliated by occupying the parish courthouse. Long brought in eight hundred national guardsmen, some carrying machine guns, who kept Baton Rouge under martial law for seven months. A Long spy infiltrated the Square Deal Association, and claimed that this organization, too, was plotting Long’s assassination.

Thirty years later, Huey Long’s son Russell was the man who first suggested to Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney, that he look for a conspiracy behind the John Kennedy assassination. It’s not surprising that Russell Long’s thoughts should have turned in that direction, but Huey Long’s assassination, on September 7, 1935, was probably not the work of any of the various plotters. What seems to have actually happened is in a way even stranger.

One state judge openly opposed to Long was still sitting in Louisiana, Benjamin Henry Pavy of St. Landry Parish, and Long was proposing a bill that would have gerrymandered Pavy’s judicial district out of existence. He was also exploring other means of getting rid of Pavy. One of them, according to persistent rumor, was threatening Pavy that unless he stepped down, Long would revive an old rumor that there was Negro blood in his family.

When word of Long’s intention to use this technique on the Pavy family reached Judge Pavy’s son-in-law, a young doctor named Carl Weiss (Hair believes, and his view is generally accepted), Weiss decided to preserve the family’s honor by taking matters into his own hands. On the evening of September 7, a Sunday he had spent quietly with his wife and infant son, Weiss set out for the capitol carrying a pistol. 1 Hair points out that Weiss must have known he was committing a murder-suicide, and it reveals much about the respectable classes in Louisiana at the time, who were thought to be less racist than the rednecks, that Weiss felt his family would be better off if he were dead and their whiteness unquestioned. Long’s last words before his encounter with Weiss’s bullet, shouted at a longtime political opponent in the legislature, were: “You remind me of an old nigger woman.”

Hair sees race as an important theme in Long’s career. In this he is being somewhat present-minded, for in Louisiana in the 1930s nearly all whites simply accepted segregation as a given and examined their racial attitudes far less closely than Hair in retrospect does. Williams, more accurately reflecting the range of political debate during Long’s career, barely mentions race in his book. Still, now that we’ve been awakened, it’s difficult to ignore the racism that pervaded Long’s Louisiana, for it was a part not only of his death, but of his life as well.2 In 1920, as a young lawyer, he turned down the chance to represent several black employees of a lumber mill who had been beaten by the mill’s owner. Later in his career, Long several times slurred his opponents by accusing them of maintaining friendly and respectful relations with Walter Cohen, a black leader in Louisiana of the 1920s and 1930s. Campaigning for A1 Smith in 1928, Long said, “We believe this is a white man’s country and are not willing to turn it over to the negroes.”

Race-baiting was very much a part of Long’s repertoire of inspired vituperation. I was raised on tales of his attacks on the owners of the Times-Picayune, “Kinky” Howard and “Shinola” Phelps. Hair points out that Long did virtually nothing for blacks, because they couldn’t vote for him (Earl Long, years later, was the first southern governor to promote black voter registration). Certainly he was shockingly insensitive about the problems of people at the very bottom. “Picking cotton is fun for kids anyway,” he once said.

Long’s main achievement as a governor was public works, and the public jobs that go along with them. As a national figure his achievement was completely different, since he had no power or tangible accomplishments; he was more an influence, a force.

Hair admits that by attacking Roosevelt for not doing enough to fight the Depression and positioning himself to run for president, Long forced Roosevelt to respond with more active legislation than he would have done. The Second New Deal of 1935—which created Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Works Progress Administration—was, Hair says, in part “a political maneuver to blunt the attacks of Huey Long.” Long voted against most of this legislation himself; his last speech in the Senate was a filibuster against Social Security. Still, his influence on the Roosevelt administration may be his most lasting legacy.

While he was alive, he also influenced the administration in moving toward a more ruthless politics. FDR felt the need, as Long liked to say, to “fight fire with fire” in fending off Long’s challenge, and, Hair tells us, “there is no doubt” that the White House ordered the resumption of a dormant IRS investigation of Long—who habitually traveled with large sums of cash of unknown provenance—in order to harass him out of office.

A story in my family suggests that Roosevelt at least considered adopting Longian tactics to combat Long. My grandfather, Monte Lemann, was a lawyer and New Deal supporter in New Orleans. In 1935 he was summoned to the White House to discuss the possibility of cutting off federal spending in Louisiana as long as Long ruled the state, to encourage voters to defeat the Kingfish and O.K. Allen. Surely this would have been unconstitutional. My grandfather addressed a group that claimed to be seriously considering it, including FDR, Felix Frankfurter, and senators Pat Harrison of Mississippi and Joe Robinson of Arkansas, the majority leader. In 1961 my uncle interviewed Frankfurter about the meeting, and he had this to say:

Your father went on for about thirty minutes, discussing Huey Long’s strengths and weaknesses, the sources of his support and his present political posture, and concluded that to deprive Louisiana of federal funds would play right into Huey’s hands. Harrison was convinced and so were the others.3

Hair devotes a good deal of The Kingfish and His Realm to establishing that Long was, personally, a bad man. He was deficient as a son, as a brother, as a husband, and as a father. He was coarse when dining in restaurants, and in a couple of notorious incidents he was said to have urinated in men’s rooms on people who displeased him.4 He took control of the election process so absolutely that his constituents were, in effect, disenfranchised. His larger vision, the Share Our Wealth plan, was completely unworkable, since there weren’t enough big fortunes to tax away to pay for it.

The important historical question about Long, however, is whether there was a fit between his achievements—the textbooks and the roads and bridges—and the moral offensiveness of his methods. In its judgment of Long, at least, Williams’s biography, rich and authoritative as it is, seems inferior to the more prosaic The King-fish and His Realm. Williams excuses Long by saying he believed his later excesses were justified, rather than that they were justified. But the ironic question A. J. Liebling raised still seems central: How was it that every other state was able to provide free textbooks and build roads and bridges without routinely declaring martial law, putting machine-gun emplacements in government offices, and eliminating local government? Williams, writing in a slightly more sentimental era, artfully creates the impression that the conservative business establishment in Louisiana—that gang of Dekes and Kappa Alphas—was uniquely malignant, perhaps justifying Long’s methods to some degree. Hair performs an essential service by arguing otherwise.

The name Long had magic for the voters of Louisiana for a good half century after Huey’s death, as the careers of Senator Russell Long, Governor Earl Long, and Congressmen George, Gillis, and Speedy Long would suggest. But true Longism—that is, Huey’s dictatorship—depended on his presence, and didn’t survive him. After Long Louisiana settled into its corruption, but it was democratic. There is a tendency in Louisiana politics that began with Huey’s governorship: high taxes on business, an unusually large public sector, by southern standards, and colorful, anti-establishment leadership. The current governor, Edwin Edwards, belongs to this line, although it doesn’t dominate Louisiana politics. Every so often a segregationist or a pro-business “reformer” wins an election.

Long himself was an extraordinary natural politician, but he was not the inventor of a replicable political formula. Williams is not far off when he says that what Long illustrates is “the role of the great man in history.” A man of Long’s energy and talents in a sleepy state like Louisiana was probably unstoppable, except by a bullet. In the United States in this election year, there is no one like him, and to the extent that the issues facing us are soluble at all, they will be solved in the usual prosaic—and more healthy—ways.

  1. 1

    There is some dispute about the assassination. Weiss’s family has always maintained that he didn’t kill Long—that he happened to be caught in the crossfire of another assassination attempt. The family recently had Weiss’s body exhumed and an autopsy performed to try to prove its point. Some Long loyalists believe Weiss was connected to a larger conspiracy. There is also the view that Long was actually killed by a stray bullet from one of his bodyguards, not by Weiss.

  2. 2

    Of course the most obvious racial motif in Long’s career is that he took his nickname, the Kingfish, from a character on Amos ‘n’ Andy.

  3. 3

    Stephen B. Lemann, memorandum of a conversation with Justice Felix Frankfurter, May 30, 1961.

  4. 4

    A monograph could be written on this last issue alone; Long always denied the urination charge, which transfixed the nation after a 1933 incident in which Long got into a fight in the men’s room of a Long Island country club, but Hair appears to believe it.

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