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


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…

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