Few figures in American life have been as mythologized as Huey Pierce Long. He was a Louisiana senator and governor, which is like saying that Henry Ford was a really good mechanic. He was a man impossible to describe merely by his honorifics. He certainly was a boon for writers. T. Harry Williams (pictured below) got the 1969 Pulitzer for this bio. Robert Penn Warren got one for his 1947 novel, All The King’s Men; and that book in turn spawned a 1949 film starring Broderick Crawford and Joanne Drew as well as a 2006 version with Sean Penn and Jude Law.
Why the fuss? Viewed from one angle, he was just one more in a tradition of flamboyant southern politicians in the tradition of Alben
Barkley, Lyndon Johnson, and Sam Rayburn. However, you don’t have to dig too much deeper to understand that even in such august company as that, Huey was unique.
For one thing, he wasn’t just a politician, he was a one-man crusade. Some seek power. Some have ideals. Some are adept at manipulating opinion, others and manipulating the political process. Seldom, if ever, have these qualities been embodied in a single individual. Born in rural northern Louisana in 1893, he became a lawyer without graduating from high school. He became a master salesman before he was twenty-one. He early on perceived that he had a gift for understanding people and their needs. Before long, he parleyed this ability and his photographic memory into a political career. Early on, he developed a plan for a career that started with a governorship, proceeded to the U.S. Senate, thence to the White House. Parallel with political prominence, he saw himself building a better life for the commoner and for bringing down the wealthy–individuals and corporations alike. Particularly Standard Oil
He made it to governor and to the senate. He had achieved national prominence and was well on his way to making a bid for the presidency–or at least making a lot of trouble for FDR–in 1936 when he was gunned down in the lobby of the Louisiana state capital in 1935 at age 43.
He was hated–reviled–by the have’s and by the institutionally powerful men in Louisiana because he challenged their very right to the money and power they held, challenged, indeed the very system of class and patronage that had defined their society for generations. He wasn’t an advocate for racial reform–desegregation or voting rights–beyond asserting that even the niggers deserved a good job and a decent family life. But everything else was up for grabs. This man who took his nickname from the Amos and Andy Radio show’s lodge president wanted to limit income, share the wealth (even founded a “Share Our Wealth” society that had hundreds of thousands of members nationwide.), theorizing that the wider the distribution of money, the greater the prosperity for all.
He was called a Fascist, a Communist, a dictator. What he actually was is confusing. He was certainly corrupt to a certain extent. And certainly some of his followers were very much so. But no more corrupt, probably, than any other politician in the South of that period. He ran much of his organization on cash, demanded contributions from state employees, wielded power through patronage. Yet, all of these things were staples of the times. The fact is, it seems to me, that he was just much, much better at placing folks who believed in his ideas and were beholden to him in positions all the way from your parish sheriff to your state supreme court justice. And those Longites got him votes and delivered favorable legal rulings. If you have the ballots and judiciary controlled, what more to you need? Oh yeah, occasionally the National Guard, but he had that covered as well.
He supported FDR in the beginning, was a key player in getting him the 1932 nomination. But he soon broke with him because his reforms were, to his mind, penny ante trivia that allowed the same bankers and corporate chiefs who had always been in charge to remain on top, and in 1936 he meant to come after him guns blazing. He was a compelling orator on the stump and a mesmerizing figure in any room he entered. However, for all his sincere commitment to lifting the masses from their misery, there was this about him: He always had to be first. Always. He would walk behind no one. Rather than working with people, he worked people over (not physically).
Too bad for him, his family, and for history he had to go so young. You can’t help think that the depression and even WWII might have been different if he’d stayed around. Different for sure, but better? Who can say?