Long before there was Donald Trump, there was Huey Long. Richard Luck recalls the populist politician whose career ultimately ended in tragedy, rather than the presidency
He came from out of the Louisiana Bayou, Huey Pierce Long Jr. Had he been born in another age or another locale, he may have become little more than a character akin to Boss Hogg, the down-home heavy who was for ever giving Bo and Luke a hard time in The Dukes Of Hazzard.
But because of where he lived, because of when he lived and because of who he was related to, Huey Long found himself in so powerful a position that, when he was asked to write his memoirs, he plumped for that most modest of titles My First Days in the White House.
Long never made it to Pennsylvania Avenue. He did, however, make it to the Oscars… in a sense. The Robert Rossen film, All The King’s Men – adapted from a Robert Penn Warden novel – told the story of a provincial politician very much in the Long mould. It won the 1950 Academy Awards for Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge) and Best Picture.
Penn Warden’s book was adapted for the big screen a second time in 2006 by Steven Zaillian, this time with Sean Penn playing the Long-alike Willie Stark. As excellent as Rossen’s movie is – and Zallian’s version isn’t – fictionalising the life and times of the man who was known as ‘the Kingfish’ is a tricky task since so much of Huey Long’s existence sounds like it was drawn directly from the realms of fiction.
He was born near Winnfield, Louisiana, in 1893. The seventh of nine children, the young Huey experienced the same privations as all those who had the misfortune to be born in the poorest parish of one of America’s poorest states.
Little wonder he felt motivated to improve his family’s lot, and even less surprising still that he and his townsfolk blamed their station in life upon the Pelican State’s bigwigs who’d been filling their bellies in Baton Rouge while the rest of the region starved.
Convinced that a career in the law would give him the opportunity to make a good living while sticking it to The Man, Long applied to Louisiana State University. Though admitted while still in his teens, he spent four years working as a salesman so he could afford board and tuition. A bright lad – he was expelled from school for being a smart arse – Huey took and passed the bar exam within a year on enrolling in LSU.
And who was the first organisation he decided to stick it to? None other than the Standard Oil Company whose iron grip upon the state’s economy would be something Long spent the rest of his career trying to loosen.
With his hatred of big business and his love of the little man giving him his first taste of national fame, Long’s road to high estate next saw him win a place on the Louisiana Railroad Commission in 1918.
Still only in his mid-twenties, it was while working for the LRC that Long cultivated the personality and approach that would see him take high office. Never short of a thing to say, the Kingfish – a nickname lifted from the anything-but-politically correct radio sensation Amos ‘n’ Andy – was big on gimmicks and razzmatazz.
Marrying radio broadcasts and brochures with endless public appearances, it wasn’t long before Long was the most well-known man in the Pelican State. Fame, and infamy, lay just around the corner.
Though his first run for governor in 1924 ended in heavy defeat, Long’s growing popularity made him a good bet in the 1928 gubernatorial elections. Sticking to the simple formula of championing the underdog while railing against elites, he came to power courtesy of the biggest landslide in the state’s history.
Within weeks of taking office, he’d sacked every state government official who’d opposed him and installed trusted friends and family members in their place, on the understanding that a percentage of their wages would be funnelled into the governor’s electoral fund.
Every bit as illegal as it sounds, Long’s salary-skimming, together with the way he strong-armed legislation through the state house, lead to calls for the Kingfish’s impeachment.
In particular, the Republican opposition objected to the five-cents-a-barrel tax he’d imposed on Standard Oil. Pointing to the massive building projects he’d got under way as well as the measures he’d brought in to improve childhood and adult literacy, Long relished having another chance to stick it to the barons. And on the occasions when his good deeds didn’t win politicians around, the governor simply bribed or blackmailed them.
The eventual collapse of the impeachment proceedings left Long determined to raise not only his profile but also his political sights. To this end, he launched his own newspaper – the Louisiana Progress – in 1930.
It soon became the unofficial rule that if you wanted to do business in Louisiana, you first had to buy advertising space in the Louisiana Progress.
Not surprisingly, such a move didn’t play well everywhere and Long was soon obliged to use some of his ill-gotten gains to pay for personal protection.
His list of enemies grew longer still when, in 1931, the governor of Louisiana won a seat in the United States senate. With the Great Depression continuing to bite and Long’s adoration of the underdog in step with the politics of the party’s dominant figure Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was sure to prove a hit in Washington. But could he legally hold both posts simultaneously?
Louisiana’s lieutenant governor Paul Cyr claimed that he couldn’t and as such, he, Cyr, ought to be recognised as governor.
Any doubts that Long had been taking notes on the European dictatorships of the day ceased to exist the moment he ordered the National Guard to surround the State Capitol in anticipation of Cyr standing down.
With another enemy vanquished, Long resigned the governorship, ensured his childhood friend Alvin King ‘won’ the subsequent run-off election, and then set about taking the senate by storm.
To begin with, it was senator Long’s oratory that made him impossible to ignore. Then, when FDR entered the White House in 1933 and his New Deal started to pick up steam, the Kingfish set himself in opposition to the president, claiming that Roosevelt hadn’t gone far enough and that the working man of America deserved an even Newer Deal.
Cue the 1934 launch of Long’s ‘Share our Wealth’ scheme, a programme designed to finance education and military pensions through the taxation of corporations.
‘Every man a king,’ boomed the slogan-friendly Long. Pretty soon, America would hear the same refrain on one of the country’s most popular radio broadcasts.
Radio broadcaster and Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin had initially come to national attention through his criticisms of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the late 1920s. He was broadcasting to an audience of 30 million by the time he turned his fire upon those he perceived to be the real enemy of America… Jewish immigrants.
Coughlin’s arguments were appalling but they went down very well in a country crippled by the Great Depression. With so many people hanging on the not-so-good Father’s every word, his praise for Long and his declared determination to improve the lot of the average American carried real political weight, and led to growing speculation that Long might have a tilt at the White House at the next election, in 1936.
But could Long really have challenged as respected an incumbent as FDR? There’s certainly no way in which the senator could have unseated the president through the Democratic primary process. Long, however, was of the opinion that taking on Roosevelt at the ballot box would be a great way to publicise both himself and his policies. Biographer T Harry Williams argues that, in the wake of losing the Democrat nomination, the ‘Kingfish’ would breakaway from the party proper and contest the presidential election under his ‘Share Our Wealth’ banner.
It might sound like pie in the sky but with Couglin banging the drum for Long and offers of support from US farming heavyweight-turned-populist rabble-rouser Milo Reno, the senator grew increasingly convinced that he could reshape the political landscape. A nationwide speaking tour further fuelled his ambition, with raucous, well-attended rallies in the Midwest convincing Long that states such as Iowa and Pennsylvania would cheerfully vote Kingfish.
And as Long was getting excited about a tilt at the White House, the Democrat National Congress was growing increasingly concerned about the prospect of the senator splitting their vote. DNC chairman James Farley commissioned a poll, the results of which indicated that Long might receive as many as four million votes in 1936. In a hastily-written memo to president Roosevelt, Farley explained that the poll suggested ‘[Long] would command upwards of 100,000 votes in New York, a pivotal state in any national election. A vote of that size could easily mean the difference between victory and defeat… That number of votes would mostly come from our side and the result might spell disaster.’
A fraught FDR in turn contacted William E Dodd, the US ambassador to Germany and a close friend of the president. ‘Long plans to be a candidate of the Hitler type for the presidency in 1936,’ Roosevelt wrote. ‘He thinks he will have a 100 votes at the Democratic convention. Then he will set up as an independent with southern and mid-western progressives… Thus he hopes to defeat the Democratic Party and put in a reactionary Republican. That would bring the country to such a state by 1940 that Long thinks he would be made dictator… It is an ominous situation.’
While the president stared into his crystal ball, Long set about completing My First Days in the White House, an ‘autobiography’ in which he outlined how he would fight the 1936 election. Such was the confidence of the Kingfish he even named his cabinet – FDR would no doubt have been relieved to hear that he was to be kept on as secretary of the navy.
History, however, had other plans for Long, plans that came to fruition on September 8, 1935. For it was on that day that Dr Carl Weiss stormed into the Capitol building in Baton Rouge, demanding an audience with the senator. Incensed that Long had enacted legislation to demote Weiss’s father-in-law – a judge on the state supreme court – the physician got into a pushing fight with the politician.
What happened next has sparked no end of conjecture. Did Weiss pull a gun and open fire on Long? Or did Long’s bodyguards accidentally shoot their paymaster while trying to separate the two men mid-scuffle? Whatever the true course of events, Long was rushed to hospital, screaming ‘Don’t let me die! I’ve got so much to do!’
For two days, he fought his injuries. Then, with the end in sight, Long begged his nurses for a glass of water. One of the women, clearly no fan of the Kingfish, told a colleague, ‘You probably should give it to him. Where he’s going, I hear it’s pretty hot.’
Often described as a larger-than-life character, Long wasn’t going to let a little thing like death wrest power far away from him.
In keeping with his wishes, the Kingfish’s senate seat was inherited by his wife Rose. Then in 1948, Long’s son Russell entered the senate. It was a position he’d hold for almost four decades.
If all this talk of chicanery, media manipulation and political dynasties has a familiar ring to it, comparisons between Huey Long and Donald Trump have been around as long as the latter’s harboured political ambitions. Similarities between the two further extend to the willingness with which the men and their families embrace conspiracy theories.
Indeed, it was while on a flight to Washington in 1966 that a well-oiled Russell Long got talking to Louisiana’s district attorney about the aspects of the Kennedy assassination that didn’t add up for him. The DA in question was Jim Garrison and the events this conversation set in train were played out in Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Incidentally, in the film, Russell Long is played by Walter Matthau who is actually the spitting image of Huey Long himself, which is quite something given that the actor was in his late sixties when he made the movie and the senator was only 42 when he died. ‘My face isn’t so much lived in,’ the great Walter once remarked, ‘it’s more vandalised.’ A more fitting description of the Kingfish it’s impossible to come up with. For in keeping bad company and pursuing bad practices, Huey Long might have elevated himself and his family, but the toll it took was written all over his face.