Saturday, December 17, 2011

Huey Long: Man of the People or Dangerous Autocrat? Or Both?

Perhaps no one politician in the 20th Century held so much power in one state than governor, and later Senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long (1893-1935) , held in the early 1930's.   

Long rose to power as the Railroad Commissioner of the Bayou State, when he was elected in 1918, only three years after he was admitted to the bar to practice law. He set about reforming and creating new regulations for public utilities and campaigned for taxes to bear on the mighty Standard Oil Company. He also set about to do battle with the "old regulars" in the do-little Democratic Party machine that was based in New Orleans. 

When elected Governor in 1928, he went to work raising taxes on the rich for  new public projects: 2,000 miles of new paved roads in Louisiana, free textbooks for school children, a major improvement to the Louisiana State University and major public works projects for charity hospitals and proper facilities for the mentally ill. 


Long also was a grafter and a leader  who once said to a legislator "I am the law now," in Louisiana.  He expected every pubic employee in his state to  contribute ten percent of their respective earnings to his "De-duct Box", a personal cache of money in the millions that  he planned to use to buy votes and slander his enemies through a newspaper he expected all good public workers to subscribe to. He  planned a national campaign for President in 1936, in an alliance with the future anti-semite and pro-fascist speaker, Catholic Father Charles  Coughlin, a demagogue figure from Michigan who was the Rush Limbaugh of his day.       

Long also proposed a major wealth redistribution that, at least to many , would cure the excesses of the Depression.  With so many out of work, his "Share the Wealth" ideas  broadened Long's appeal to millions all over the country that, like those in the backwoods of Louisiana, had felt oppressed  for far too long. 


Long was no shrinking violet when it came to backroom deals: (the following is an excerpt on Long's entry from Wikipedia:)



"On occasion, (while governor)  he even entered the legislative chambers, going so far as to sit on representatives' and senators' desks and sternly lecture them on his positions. He also retaliated against those who voted against him and used patronage and state funding (especially highways) to maneuver Louisiana toward what opponents called a Long "dictatorship". Having broken with the Old Regulars and T. Semmes Walmsley in the fall of 1933, Long inserted himself into the New Orleans mayoral election of 1934 and began a dramatic public feud with the city's government that lasted for two years.

"In 1934, Long and James A. Noe, an independent oilman and member of the Louisiana Senate, formed the controversial Win or Lose Oil Company. The firm was established to obtain leases on state-owned lands so that its directors might collect bonuses and sublease the mineral rights to the major oil companies. Although ruled legal, these activities were done in secret and the stockholders were unknown to the public. Long made a profit on the bonuses and the resale of those state leases, using the funds primarily for political purposes.[37]

"By 1934, Long began a reorganization of the state government that reduced the authority of local governments in anti-Long strongholds New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria. It further gave the governor the power to appoint all state employees. Long passed what he called "a tax on lying" and a 2 percent tax on newspaper advertising revenue. He created the Bureau of Criminal Identification, a special force of plainclothes police answerable only to the governor. He also had the legislature enact the same tax on refined oil that in 1929 had nearly led to his impeachment, which he used as a bargaining chip to promote oil drilling in Louisiana. After Standard Oil agreed that 80 percent of the oil sent to its refineries would be drilled in Louisiana, Long's government refunded most of these tax revenues."

There is more than a whiff of fascism in all this.


On the far left, both the Socialist and Communist Parties opposed this income scheme as just a manipulation of a failed capitalist system that had brought about the Great Depression. His fellow Democratic politicos abandoned the somewhat loutish but brilliant "Kingfish" when he turned against Franklin Roosevelt's  "New Deal" and promoted his "Every Man A King" book.  Millions of regular people bought his ideas and its clear that his challenge to Roosevelt as a third-party candidate might have swung the election to the Republican candidate in 1936.   By 1940, given the GOP's lackluster track record on economic fixes in those days, Huey Long might have been the President of the United States.           

Upon his death at 42 from an assassin's bullet in September 1935--by a young surgeon named Carl Weiss, who was upset that his father-in-law was going to lose a judgeship thanks to Long's maneuvering--the point became moot. 


What would have become of the country had he lived?   Would be have helped the nation--some say he already had by pushing FDR toward Social Security and more public works projects--or would he have destroyed the Constitutional "separation of powers" in pursuit of a Caesar-ian dictatorship that would have unleashed revolutionary ferment in the country?    

I.F. Stone, the late prominent progressive journalist, thought Long was not a positive force but more of a Greco-Roman tyrant  (i.e., a manipulator of public policy for his own gain) ,  rather than a legitimate reformer who empowers the people.  On this I agree. But he certainly made enemies,  like political bosses and big oil companies, who were worthy opponents to any reformer in one of the poorest states in America..


Even today, while Long's legacy is controversial, its safe to say many of his ideas  have a modern resonance in  the times we live in  today.      


  1. Thanks for posting this on Huey P Long, I had never previously encountered him so both the text and the video helped to create an image of him and an impression of what he meant for US politics and its relationship to government, an interesting character indeed Doug. To me quintessentially American, Huey was a performer, a court jester for a while and then a perceivable threat to the status quo that had to be disposed of in the time honoured way, the assassin's bullet.

    Why is it I wonder, that only people with good ideas ever get assassinated in America?

    If you want to survive the US presidency you must nurture public disapproval, because if you get close to being popular and forget what you're there for and whose interests you are required to serve, you will be surgically removed by a specialist in the black arts.

    That's what I think happened to poor Huey, who reminded me of a morph of W.C. Fields and Mohammad Ali, a pioneer of celebrity politics, a stand-up act taking pot shots at every interests group whilst being seduced into becoming an interest group himself.

    I was also reminded of the role of the Maverick in American political culture, the always craved for, but never quite arriving 'third party', the charismatic guide in the wilderness that will lead America out of the corporate corruption in which it is deeply embroiled and save the day. Ron Paul is the present incumbent on the right I think and Dennis Kucinich is batting out of left field for the same distinction.

    The exception that proves the rule!

    And to me that is what Huey Long seems to have been, unlike his communist adversaries (who unsurprisingly failed to transpose a strategy for revolutionary industrial proletarians, to the cotton picking apartheid of 1930s Louisiana) and unlike the socialists whose 'constituency' he is credited with appropriating, Huey assumed America to be a democracy and therein lies his downfall, hoisted on his own petard it seems to me as a first impression.

    I think he would have made a fascinating if scary president if he had survived the assassins, I suspect now Britain would be a restive part of a Greater Germany in collusion now with France, but wait a minute that has happened anyway except the Mob has got its enforcers here too of course, making us neither fish nor fowl, neither fully in and of the EU, but not yet the 51st state of America either.

    If President Long had been in power in the late 1930s the whole capitalist world would be fascist by now, but hang on a sec....well I'll be damned, despite the rhetoric there was no choice then either, even if Huey had outgunned the opposition.
    There is is still no choice today for exactly the same reason, those Louisiana communists need to get their act together big time, the time is right again perhaps?

    All power to the Baton Rouge Soviet!

    Joking aside thanks for this informative and as you say topical review of a past attempt to escape the straightjacket of US power politics and stand on convictions. This is one of the most dangerous acts in the world with a 100% mortality rate thus far Doug, but hope springs eternal......thanks for facilitating this crucial discussion!

  2. "Quintessentially American" is a excellent summation of Huey Long,AA, performer par excellance and mover-and-shaker as well. And, yes, another figure who shakes things up, only to dispatched by that lone assassin.

    The problem becomes that there are so many factions who might want to kill someone who sets himself apart that it's rather more difficult to follow any one track back to a conspiracy. The number of establishment figures who wanted Long to depart this mortal coil would have filled half the Baton Rouge Social Register!

    Seriously, I wish I could answer for myself why this happens so often to leaders with ideas that transcends the norm. Some die I'd wager from conspiracy; some just because we have so many damn guns. It's interesting to me that, from other sources, Long , like JFK, Malcom X and ML King, knew he was destined to die by violence.

    The U.K. seems much kinder to its maverick politicians. You have to be a fat grouse to get shot out of the sky your way.

    I think fusing dear old W.C. Fields and the larger-than-life Muhammad Ali into one persona fits Senator Long well by the way. He ceetainly wasn't the first populist up-and-comer to go into politics and take on special interests---and find himself co-opted. Just the most flamboyant maybe.

    It's likely too he had an idea America was best governed as a democracy.

    But our Constitution is set up, perhaps not entirely by accident, to be a functioning duopoly of slender choices. Hence the pining for a Libertarian like Paul or a true Progressive like Kucinich.

    The only third party figure who ever had a real chance at the White House was, ironically, Teddy Roosevelt--the former Republican President and progressive standard-bearer for the "Bull Moose Party" in 1912. He, too, by the way was shot by a lone assassin during that 1912 campaign, just before giving a speech in Milwaukee. You guessed it--a lone assassin fired at him.

    "Theodore Rex" took a slug in the chest--the bullet stopped somewhat by some papers in his coat. It must not have hit anything vital. He delivered the speech anyway, apologized for the brevity of his address, then went to the hospital. His doctrine of "the strenuous life" paid off.

    Teddy finished second in that election, overcoming his Republican rival in popular votes but losing to Woodrow Wilson.

    The failures of any type of socialist politics in the harshly segregated/agrarian Depression South is a worthy subject for me to go into at a later time when I'm more versed on the matter. Huey Long's brother and one of his sons, Russell, both went on to be governor and US Senator, respectively, although the one I'm most familiar with, Russell Long, was pretty much a pal of the oil interests as far as I recall and carried little of the fire (or conviction) that his father bought to public oratory.

    One thing is certain--the only "Red Tide" that is a force in Baton Rouge is coming from a sports rivalry. This will occur in January ,when Huey's university, Louisiana State, and its football team, the LSU Tigers, will play the University of Alabama's "Crimson Tide" in the Bowl Conference Championship Game to decide which of the two teams will be Number One in national college football. Huey would be proud of that ,although he might be a but taken aback by the desegregated alumni.

    Thanks for bringing a reflective and fresh perspective on "The Kingfish", AA.