Huey Long and the Burden of History
Every individual is a blend of struggling motivations, except perhaps for the garden variety sociopaths that seem to occupy many places of power these days. Most of us, however endeavor to exhibit the noble of our character as we try to calm the howls of ego that so often derail the best of intentions.
Perhaps no historical figure exemplifies this strange dichotomy better than Louisiana’s Huey Long. Progressive internet sites have revisited the man and his words in recent weeks. His evaluation of wealth disparity echoes from the halls he delivered his thunderous speeches from during the roaring 20’s and the Great Depression. You can even view some of his more rousing talks with a simple search- the films exist. Long served as governor and Senator for the state of Louisiana, advancing a radical populism unheard of in our present time. An unabashed supporter of wealth re-distribution when obscene levels were met, his speeches and early deeds did quite a lot to restructure feudal Louisiana society. Long even coined the use of the 99% well before Occupy found that to be a unifying theme.
But that was only part of the story.
I became fascinated by Long many years ago after reading Robert Penn Warren’s gorgeous work “All the King’s Men”. Though he denied that the character of Willie Stark (or Willie Talos-the last name used in the latest edition to reflect the author’s original surname choice) was a complete character study of Long, the common themes and trajectory of the story are undeniable. Stark was a graft machine with initial honorable intentions. Penn Warren was actually a scholar at Louisiana State University, an institution lavishly funded and advanced by Long. This did not stop Robert Penn Warren from providing a nuanced look at end justifies means politics and the ripple effect of the smallest deeds. The book is a blend of compelling narrative from one Jack Burden, a man with a genteel southern aristocracy background who succumbed to working for Willie Stark (the stand-in character for Long) as a procurer of dirt on opposition. A student of history who wrestles with cause and effect, and the cruel nature of time. Stark, like Long, resorted to any means necessary to achieve his goals, including blackmail and bribery. Much like the IMF/World Bank! But at least Long never seems to have resorted to violence.
“All the King’s Men” has a lush southern poetry underneath the story of political ambition and base instincts. I was left from the book with an indelible feeling that the ripples of actions long gone cause flows far and wide-this when I first read it in college 20 years ago. The ultimate “burden” of history, of actions and the need to not hide in the past, but to seek redemption in the present—I can’t say enough about the intricate love I have for this book. The work is layered, but certainly has a place for one wishing to explore the political world of Long’s 1930’s Louisiana.
Long was extremely skilled in the use of dirty tricks to achieve his desired goals. The quaint thing is, many of his ends were decidedly for the little guy, who never really had a champion in Louisiana politics prior. At one point, Long tried to place a surcharge on the refineries in the state so he could use the revenue to provide free schoolbooks. This got tangled up in court, and Long became enraged. Fall was coming and by god, he wanted those schoolbooks to be there for the kids. He decided that he would simply take out a loan for the books, and would pay it back after he got the desired ruling on the petro tax. The banks told him that it would be illegal to give the state a loan with the later payment depending on an undecided court case. The banks had already found some of their loans to the state to have been illegal. Long seized on this, saying if you’ve provided us with illegal loans, then I guess it’s illegal to pay them back! I’ll use that money. If only the big banks of today could be treated like this!
Long had other achievements like doubling charity hospital beds, providing literacy training for thousands, repeal of a poll tax, and the eventual establishment of those free textbooks for children. Long was fairly typical for his day in race relations, but did not stoop to outright racial turmoil generation to achieve goals of division like most of his southern political counterparts.
It serves to remember this odd combination…a man so intent on assisting the poor, but with the complete and total assurance that graft was acceptable to achieve this end. Long made the national stage as Senator, even forming an uneasy alliance with FDR. This later fell apart, much due to ego, and Long became a huge impediment to New Deal legislation–even causing retaliation from FDR towards his home state. Other politicians were more discreet with their patronages, Long was so much larger than life that he didn’t seem to feel the need for superficial niceties.
“Kingfish” by Richard D. White is also a worthy read that delves into the events of the Long reign. The most enjoyable aspects of the book involve the slips of character study one is able to flesh out about the man. My favorite anecdote from the book relays what transpired after a local political boss warned Huey that he would have difficulty procuring votes in the Catholic south of the state (Long was from the more Baptist north). Long responded by starting his speeches for the rest of the day with:
“When I was a boy I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday and I would hitch our old horse up to the buggy and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would hitch the old horse up again, and I would take my Baptist grandparents to church.”
Later that night, the political boss complimented Huey as they headed back to Baton Rouge. “Why Huey, you’ve been holding out on us. I didn’t know you had any Catholic grandparents.”
“Don’t be a damned fool,” shot back Huey. “We didn’t even have a horse.”
How can you not love that?
“Kingfish” is full of similar tales from the quick-witted Long. For all his failings, Long is on my short list of individuals that I would very much like to have met in person. His outrageous personality enraged and enthralled. When pushed why he had such nepotism in his administration-he said he had no regrets—he’d have more relatives on the payroll if so many weren’t already being housed and fed at the State Penn.
In this age of charlatans with no redeeming features and no desire for any decent end goal, a study of Huey Long is fascinating. From even a flawed source such as Long, uncomfortable truths were being discussed long ago. The machinery of Long’s apparatus was very much into a mode of simple self preservation towards the end of his years, but he was still talking about a more egalitarian America even then. In 1935 he was planning to run for president to further advance those ideals- to deny the rights of an oligarchy to lord over America.
In 1935, Huey Long was murdered in Baton Rouge by a young physician- his wife’s father was about to be removed from his job by Long’s apparatus.
We will never know where a Long presidential candidacy would have taken us. Would talk of the 99% not have laid dormant for so many years? Would the hijacking of rural populism by the Republican party not have been achieved? Would the Democrats have become such milquetoast corporate enablers? We now have clownish candidates without even the benefit of Longesque biting humor or any semblance of assistance for 99% of us. I suspect that we would be in a very different place today if that flawed messenger had not been killed barely past his 42nd birthday. Yet another burden of history.
Kathleen Peine writes out of the US Midwest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org