• Email
  • Print

The Not So Great Dictator

The Kingfish and His Realm: The Life and Times of Huey P. Long

by William Ivy Hair
Louisiana State University Press, 406 pp., $24.95

1.

A.J. Liebling opened his wonderful book on Earl Long, The Earl of Louisiana (1961), by recounting his two meetings with Earl’s older brother, Huey Long, in New York in the early 1930s. Huey favored doing business in bed in his hotel room dressed in silk pajamas, a habit he probably had picked up during his years as a traveling salesman in the rural South. While his eight bodyguards looked on, he spent the time telling Liebling jokes and bragging about the bridges and roads he had provided the people of Louisiana, “which,” Liebling remarked, “we had had in New York since before he was born.” “Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly,” he wrote. “They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch.”

Liebling would have been surprised by the growth of Huey Long’s reputation away from the patch. While the other grand dukes of southern politics between Reconstruction and World War II—Big Jim Folsom, Eugene Talmadge, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, Theodore Bilbo—are largely forgotten today, Long is considered a serious figure in national political history. By the time Liebling wrote The Earl of Louisiana Long had already inspired novels by Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren, and more recently he has been the subject of T. Harry Williams’s classic full-length biography; of two important subsequent historical studies, by Alan Brinkley and, now, by William Ivy Hair; a record album by a rock star (“Good Old Boys,” by Randy Newman), an off-Broadway play, and a television documentary by Ken Burns. Not only has Long continued to be an object of great fascination with the passing years, he has also seemed increasingly benign. Williams’s biography, published in 1969, effectively overturned the conventional view of Long as a local oddity or a homegrown fascist.

Long is unusual, too, among the numerous populists, leftists, utopians, redistributionists, and leveling politicians of twentieth-century America for having been remarkably successful. Not for Huey the yearly lecture at Town Hall after losing the election with 15 percent of the vote. He beat his opposition, and he ran a state. It is also unusual for a southern politician to maintain a steady concentration on economic issues. In his biography of Tom Watson, C. Vann Woodward identified the typical progression of southern populists in the first half of the twentieth century: like Watson, they started out attacking the big commercial interests and pleasing the rednecks, and, then, when that became perilous, found they could be just as popular if they attacked blacks instead. Long never stopped attacking the big commercial interests.

Since 1968, the Republican Party has made “populist” appeals to working-class white voters which are in fact racial. Now that the Democrats are struggling to get these voters to concentrate on their own economic interests, Huey Long’s career might seem to provide useful lessons. But the urge to find a contemporary political message in Huey Long’s career should probably be resisted; he was pretty much on the mark when he told a group of reporters who asked how to categorize him, “Just say I’m sui generis.” What was remarkable about him was the extraordinary political power he was able to amass for himself in the poor, backward Louisiana of the Depression. It is difficult now to imagine any American politician’s having the degree of control over the apparatus of government that Long had over the state of Louisiana during the Thirties.

T. Harry Williams’s biography of Long is still the authoritative one. Nine hundred pages long, vividly anecdotal, and immensely detailed (the bibliography lists more than two hundred people whom Williams interviewed), it is a dramatic recreation of Long and his times: even the minor characters are fully three-dimensional. Although William Ivy Hair was a student of Williams at Louisiana State University, his purpose seems largely to rebut Williams’s sympathetic interpretation. One small example may suggest the enormous gulf between the two books. On early influences on Long’s thinking, Hair writes, somewhat reductively:

Huey found little time for reading. But he still flipped through the weekly magazine familiar to his childhood home, the Saturday Evening Post. An article in its September 23, 1916, issue, “Are We Rich or Poor?” caught his attention and made a lifelong impression. Based on figures from the United States Industrial Relations Commission, it claimed that only 2 percent of America’s people owned 60 percent of the national wealth. This vivid statistic further stimulated Huey’s journalistic and political ambitions.

Williams is vastly more generous:

He…was, in fact, for his time and place, an exceptionally well-read man…. It is certain that he read the following works and authors—the Ridpath multi-volumed History of the World; Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, Longfellow, and Balzac; Scott’s Ivanhoe, Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, and Hugo’s Les Miserables; the lurid novels of the Reconstruction period by Thomas Dixon, The Klansmen and The Leopard’s Spots; the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus; Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo; the poem “Invictus,” by William E. Henley; the autobiography of the sixteenth-century Florentine artist, Benvenuto Cellini; and biographies of Napoleon and Julius Caesar.

But however bloodless Hair tends to be, and however skeptical of Long’s motives, it’s worth noting that both he and Williams see the main interest of Long’s life and career in his person, not in their revelations of class or ideology. Their only disagreement on a matter of historical substance (rather than of judgment) is in their view of Louisiana before Long took over.

To Williams Louisiana was essentially oligarchical, run by “gentlemen in frock coats, string ties, and wide hats,” who, while feathering their nests, kept the state in a condition of appalling backwardness. As late as 1928, Louisiana had only 330 miles of paved highways, and it perpetually ranked last or next to last in literacy. Only someone as rough and as brilliant as Long, Williams suggests, could have broken through the opposition of the ruling class to relieve the desperate economic plight of the people.

Hair sees Long more as a post-Reconstruction politician who moved easily into the corruption, violence, despotism, and intense racism that characterized the state. The Kingfish and His Realm opens with a vivid recreation of “Louisiana, 1893,” the year of Huey Long’s birth, which attempts to demonstrate the state’s historically weak attachment to democratic politics and government. All southern states after Reconstruction embraced vigilantism to some extent, but Hair reminds us that Louisiana went so far as to commemorate annually an 1874 skirmish against occupying federal troops by a “White League” made up of such leading citizens as Edward Douglass White, later Chief Justice of the United States, and John M. Parker, a governor of Louisiana during the Progressive Era, friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s, and, in Hair’s words, “the only Louisiana politician with national respectability.” Parker was also a leader of an event that could have taken place only in Louisiana, because no other southern state had so large a foreign-born population: in 1891 after eleven Italian immigrants were found not guilty of murdering New Orleans’s chief of police, a group of law-abiding citizens lynched them.

Hair spends much more time than Williams did on race relations in Louisiana, in part, perhaps, to imply that Long was a creature of his environment, and had absorbed the standard heavy dose of white racism. Racial lynchings were common in his youth and were often reported by Louisiana newspapers in a jocular tone; the headline of a country weekly in 1904 read: ANOTHER NEGRO BARBECUE. In 1896, when Long was three years old, 45 percent of the black population of Louisiana was registered to vote. Four years later, after the enactment of Jim Crow laws in the state, black registration was 4 percent. Conditions for blacks worsened economically as well as politically. With the sharecropper system the big sugar cane, cotton, and rice plantations were more prosperous in the early twentieth century than they had been during slavery.

As a native Louisianan, I think that both Hair and Williams are somewhat off the mark here, and that Arthur Schlesinger came closer when he wrote years ago, in The Politics of Upheaval, that “Louisiana was in many respects a colonial region, an underdeveloped area; its Creole traditions gave it an almost Latin American character.” During the early nineteenth century, New Orleans was one of the five biggest cities in the country, and it attracted people who wanted to make a lot of money fast. Many of the lavish plantations that line the lower Mississippi River were built by people who had been in Louisiana for only a few years. But with the advent of the railroads, the city lost its strategic economic position. Before the Civil War, New Orleans was being relentlessly Americanized, but after the war that process seemed to reverse itself; while other southern cities embraced the national ethic of business development, New Orleans remained dominated by its traditional culture: languid, Latin, Catholic.

For well over a century Louisiana has lagged behind the rest of the South. Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines are based in Georgia, but Louisiana has never had any substantial homegrown industry. It is, however, rich in natural resources, and, like a banana republic, it has come under the economic and political control of outside interests. The “aristocrats” that Williams writes about tended to be lawyers for the oil, sugar, timber, or shipping companies, not dynastic planters or the owners of businesses. Northern Louisiana, Huey Long’s home territory, is substandard farmland, which was largely settled after 1850 by people drifting in from Mississippi and Tennessee. Economically and culturally it is similar to the rest of the South, except that since the state government was run by out-of-state corporations, north Louisianans got even less of the fruit of their labors than their brethren in the other southern states.

2.

Huey Long was born in Winn Parish. In north-central Louisiana, a place known for its tradition of dissenting politics. The Winn Parish delegate voted against secession in 1861. Winn was, according to Hair, the “storm center of the 1890s Louisiana People’s Party,” and it was represented by a Populist in the state senate. In the second decade of this century the local newspaper was Socialist. The town of Winnfield—the trading center for the surrounding small farmers and stockmen, which boasted seven brick buildings and a lumber mill—had a Socialist municipal government. The Long family raised livestock on several hundred acres of land and owned a commodious two-story house, which made them part of the local gentry, such as it was, although far below the social and economic level of well-to-do city folk. While Winn was Populist or Socialist, the Longs were never involved with any political party but the Democrats.

Huey Long’s background, then, was a little like Lyndon Johnson’s: by virtue of his family’s stature locally he was an important person in Winn Parish, but at the same time he absorbed its sense of dispossession and combative politics. Hair and Williams agree that Huey Long had extraordinary natural gifts. Williams claims that he walked at nine months, and as an even younger infant, under his own power, could crawl off the front porch, cross the yard, unlatch the gate, and creep down the road toward town. As a boy he was extremely smart and articulate, but unruly and a poor student. In high school he “formed a secret society,” according to Hair, whose goal was “to run things.” He entered a state-wide high school debating contest in Baton Rouge and told the woman in whose house he boarded, “Mrs. Harris, you have been mighty good to me, and when I get to be Governor, United States Senator, and President of the United States, I am going to do something for you.”

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.

3.

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.

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.

  • Email
  • Print