The Kingfish and His Realm: The life and Times of Huey Long By William Ivy Hair Louisiana State University Press
406 Pages $24.95
Last fall, an unlikely coalition of Louisiana blacks, white moderates, and conservative businessmen returned Edwin W. Edwards to the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge. The race that pitted former Klansman David Duke against the twice-indicted former governor was described by one voter as a choice between "cancer and AIDS."
Such divisive political battles plus years of corruption and financial mismanagement have earned Louisiana the rank of lowest-rated state credit in the nation. But Mr. Edwards and many of his predecessors take pride in their political and financial shenanigans. They're carrying on a political tradition that goes back to the days of their hero, Huey Long.
In a fine new biography, "The Kingfish and His Realm," William Ivy Hair describes the life of this notorious political magpie and provides the reader with a thorough treatment of Louisiana's political, financial, and economic environment during the Depression years.
Taking the title of "Kingsfish" from the grandmaster of the fictitious "Amos and Andy" lodge the Mystic Knights of the Sea, Huey Long ruled Louisiana like a banana republic. For most in Washington's higher circles, he was a living caricature of the corrupt Southern politician wearing a white alpaca suit and flailing his arms on a platform. And yet, until the 42-year-old Long was gunned down in September 1935, President Roosevelt feared he would be toppled from the White House by this man he described as America's most dangerous politician.
Huey Pierce Long Jr. was born on a 330-acre red clay farm in Winn Parish, La., on Aug. 30, 1893. Dropping out of high school at 16, he became a traveling salesman peddling cottolene, a cheap cooking oil, and later the products of a Houston meat-packing firm.
Stranded in Tennessee after being fired for abusing the expense account, Huey panhandled his way back to Louisiana and conned his way into Tulane Law School. After six months in the classroom, he convinced the state bar committee to give him a special individual exam. He managed a passing grade and on May 15, 1915, the 21-year-old took the oath of the legal profession.
From childhood, Mr. Long held the belief that he was destined to be President of the United States, and all his actions were directed toward that goal. In 1918 he took the first major step, successfully running for a spot on the state's three-member railroad commission. He used that seat to build an image of defender of the downtrodden and crusader against oil and gas interests.
By the time he was 30, Mr. Long was convinced he was ready for the governor's chair. He lost the 1924 race, but shocked the ruling class by coming in a strong third and winning absolute majorities in 21 rural parishes. The Long threat was not expected to disappear. Commenting on the election, New Orleans' Times-Picayune wrote: "Long went into districts that have been hibernating and laying [sic] dormant or over 30 years. He aroused them and opened their eyes. We may just as well try and charge Hades with a bucket of water as to try and stop Huey P. Long."
For the next four years, Huey traveled the state pumping flesh. Pledging to bring Louisiana out of its dirt and darkness, he "tapped not only the anger and resentment. but also the hopes that lay just beneath them."
Easily winning the Democratic primary on Jan. 17, 1928, Long told his supporters: "You fellers stick with me. We're just getting started. This is only the beginning-... From now on, I'm the Kingfish. I'm gonna be President someday."
Gov. Long proceeded to exhaust the tax-exempt market by financing 3,000 miles of paved highways, farm roads, free bridges, the New Orleans Port Authority, Louisiana State University, a new state capital, numerous schools, and education programs.
The Kingfish was loved by the little people, but he had a dark side that the pols came to recognize. Hair explains:
"Huey led by compulsion instead of statesmanship because he was internally driven by a force he seemed unable to control. His brilliant and retentive mind took no time for reflection or intellectuality; he denied himself both restraint and breadth of vision.
"Instead, Huey focused his genius on specific situations that could be aimed toward the only goal that truly mattered--the domination of everybody around him. Domination was of the utmost importance because only by making others recognize the centrality of Huey Long's existence could he validate, confirm, that Olympian self-image without which life would be meaningless."
Huey tolerated no opposition and he enjoyed dominating and humiliating people. When reminded of the unconstitutionality of a piece of legislation, he declared "I am the Constitution." Opponents were publicly ridiculed; they were "fossils, old buzzard backs, old sacks of bones."
He loved to fire people: "No music ever sounded one-half so refreshing," he noted, "as the whines and moans of pie eaters when shoved away from the pie." During a conference, one member said "I think," and Huey snapped, "God-damn you,. shut up! If you could think, I wouldn't have put you on that commission."
In 1930, Mr. Long was elected to the U.S. Senate, but refused to take his seat for two years. Only after he had installed his stooge, O.K. Allen, into the governorship did he consent to be sworn into the Senate.
In Washington he refused committee assignments, harassed the Democratic leadership, insulted most members of the chamber, and viciously turned against F.D.R. "Within an hour," reported The New York Times, "the terror of the Bayous ... was violating every rule of decorum in that august chamber."
Mr. Long developed a national share-the-wealth program entitled "Every Man a King -- No Man Wears a Crown." "Everything he proposed," writes Hair, "could be furnished by confiscating the surplus wealth of America's super rich and the boost in consumer spending and labor productivity that would follow. ~God ordered this," Huey insisted, referring to certain passages in the Bible. ~God said so!'"
Even though economists dismissed his proposals and proved there was not enough national wealth to subsidize the program, many Depression-ridden Americans found the Kingfish's call to arms appealing. By 1935, 27,431 Share the Wealth clubs, representing 7,682,000 people, had been formed.
Before implementing his plan to lead a third-party presidential campaign to eject F.D.R. from the White House, Huey had to turn his attention to Louisiana. Machines built on one man cannot be ignored by the creator, and to avoid any future embarrassments Mr. Long decided to ram through the Legislature a program that would eliminate all his political enemies.
"The conversion of Louisiana from a quasi-authoritarian state into a full-fledged dictatorship began at the legislative biennial regular session in May 1935," writes Hair.
Entering the legislative floor (that he had not right to be on), the Kingfish "shouted orders, muttered threats, tolerated no delays." Huey's agenda consolidated power into the hands of the state's chief executive and eroded local government. Get a load of some of the bills enacted into law:
* The governor obtained power to call out of the National Guard for any reason.
* The governor's attorney general gained the power to "relieve, supplant, or supersede" the power of local district attorneys.
* A bureau of criminal identification was created. The members of this secret police were to be known only by the governor.
* New Deal work relief would be rejected if the governor could not dole it out.
* A tax was levied on advertising in anti-Long papers in urban centers.
* Control of the New Orleans Police Department was transferred to the state.
* Baton Rouge was stripped of home rule. Half its legislators would be appointed by the governor.
* The offices of the elected officials of Alexandria, including the mayor, were declared vacant and their replacements were to be chosen by the governor.
Reacting to criticism from the national press, the Kingfish said: "There is no dictatorship in Louisiana. There is a perfect democracy there, and when you have a perfect democracy, it is pretty hard to tell it from a dictatorship.
Mr. Long's plan to be President for 16 years was snuffed out when a mild-mannered Baton Rouge physician, Dr. Carl Weiss Jr., shot the governor in a corridor outside his capital office. Dr. Weiss, riddled with more than 60 bullets from Mr. Long's bodyguards, was unable to reveal his motive to the nation. "At 4:06 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 1935, 30 hours after the shooting, death came to Huey Long."
Although the political establishment was frightened by the demagogy of Huey Long and his kind, the American people were more level-headed. At the height of the Depression, the populace was seeking competence and leadership, not radical change. This was evident by the failure of the extreme left at the ballot box. As historian Michael Barone has noted: "The Socialists ...who had endorsed Robert La Follette when he had won 17% in 1924, ended up with only 2% in 1932; the Communists less than three-tenths of 1%.
"Americans wanted no revolution, no upheaval of the social order. Voters were seeking not income redistribution or nationalization of resources. They were seeking a national leader who could exert control over a dizzying downward economic spiral." If Mr. Long had lived, it is likely that his third-party movement would have dissipated like those of La Follette, Henry Wallace, George Wallace, John Anderson, and Ross Perot.
One last observation: During the past year, several important and well-received political biographies were published: McCullough's Truman, Remini's Henry Clay, and Heckscher's Woodrow Wilson. Each had one thing in common -- averaging 900 pages, they were too long. The sheer weight of the volumes exhaust their readers. Professor Hair has performed a great service; he has proven that a very readable and thorough portrait of an important political figure can be traced in fewer than 500 pages. George J. Marlin co-authored with Joe Mysak "The Guidebook to Municipal Bonds." They are presently writing a book on New York City.