The Reign of Huey P. Long
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From the moment he took office as governor in 1928 to the day an assassin’s bullet cut him down in 1935, Huey Long wielded all but dictatorial control over the state of Louisiana. A man of shameless ambition and ruthless vindictiveness, Long orchestrated elections, hired and fired thousands at will, and deployed the state militia as his personal police force. And yet, paradoxically, as governor and later as senator, Long did more good for the state’s poor and uneducated than any politician before or since. Outrageous demagogue or charismatic visionary? In this powerful new biography, Richard D. White, Jr., brings Huey Long to life in all his blazing, controversial glory.
White taps invaluable new source material to present a fresh, vivid portrait of both the man and the Depression era that catapulted him to fame. From his boyhood in dirt-poor Winn Parish, Long knew he was destined for power–the problem was how to get it fast enough to satisfy his insatiable appetite. With cunning and crudity unheard of in Louisiana politics, Long crushed his opponents in the 1928 gubernatorial race, then immediately set about tightening his iron grip. The press attacked him viciously, the oil companies howled for his blood after he pushed through a controversial oil processing tax, but Long had the adulation of the people. In 1930, the Kingfish got himself elected senator, and then there was no stopping him.
White’s account of Long’s heyday unfolds with the mesmerizing intensity of a movie. Pegged by President Roosevelt as “one of the two most dangerous men in the country,” Long organized a radical movement to redistribute money through his Share Our Wealth Society–and his gospel of pensions for all, a shorter workweek, and free college spread like wildfire. The Louisiana poor already worshiped him for building thousands of miles of roads and funding schools, hospitals, and universities; his outrageous antics on the Senate floor gained him a growing national base. By 1935, despite a barrage of corruption investigations, Huey Long announced that he was running for president.
In the end, Long was a tragic hero–a power addict who squandered his genius and came close to destroying the very foundation of democratic rule. Kingfish is a balanced, lucid, and absolutely spellbinding portrait of the life and times of the most incendiary figure in the history of American politics.
From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group
; March 2009
361 pages; ISBN 9780307535764
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Author: Richard White
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A WEDDED MAN WITH A STORM FOR A BRIDE
Huey Long climbed onto a large bale of fresh-picked cotton and gazed out at a crowd of farmers attending a country fair. For a few moments he stood motionless, his shoulders hunched like a boxer waiting for the first bell to ring. Leaning forward to talk to the men in the front row, Huey began speaking in a whispery voice so quiet that the crowd shuffled closer to hear him. After a couple of minutes, he slowly raised his voice, a little louder each minute, until he roared to the gathering throng. He threw off his coat, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and slackened the red silk tie hanging around his neck. His voice booming across the dusty fairgrounds, Huey pummeled his audience with old-fashioned soapbox oratory and hell-for-leather political bluster. He whooped and hollered, pounded his fist, and punched in the air at imaginary enemies. His face turned the color of a ripe tomato. Twirling his arms above his head in the sweltering Louisiana heat, perspiration pouring down his cheeks, he quickly captivated the audience with spellbinding charisma and homespun guile.
It was the summer of 1927 and Huey was running full speed for governor of Louisiana. At every stop on the campaign trail, he treated his listeners to a boiling mixture of snake-oil salesmanship, burlesque tap dancing, evangelicism, and blistering billingsgate. He would preach to the crowd, holding a Bible in his hand in holy uplift and quoting from memory lengthy passages of the Scriptures. From Galatians he taunted his adversaries. “Am I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” More often though, Huey spewed a torrent of abuse upon his foes. He branded his political opponents with epithets like “low-down vile and slanderous men,” “thieves, bugs, and lice,” “grafters and money boodlers,” “graveyard robbing politicians,” and “blackguards in full-dress suits.” His audience, mostly rural folk who took their politics raw like corn whiskey, could not get enough. “You tell ’em, Huey,” the farmers yelled back. “Go get ’em.”
Huey’s crowd of farmers looked up at a man in his thirties, of medium height, approaching pudginess with a round face, puffy jowls, and skin glowing pink like a fresh sunburn. An unruly mop of chestnut-colored hair topped his head, with a curly forelock that tumbled down. An oversized nose jutted from his face and his brown eyes were large, round, and expressive, shifting from jest to rage in a twinkling. When he walked, he jostled along “like a saddling pony.” As Huey dazzled his audiences, at times he appeared almost childish, spoiled, and “like an overgrown small boy with very bad habits indeed.” In an instant, however, his face could turn exceedingly hard and cruel.
A dominating egotist, Huey hungered for the spotlight and could not bear to share it with another. “The only kind of band in which Huey Long could play,” one newspaper editor wrote, “was a one-man band.” A skillful speechmaker, he craved the microphone. “I can’t remember back to a time when my mouth wasn’t open whenever there was a chance to make a speech,” he remarked. He could not stand to be ignored by the newspapers, admitting that “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they say something.” He knew that Louisiana voters would cast their votes for a known thief before they would vote for a name they did not recognize. Desperately wanting to be noticed, he dressed in a dazzling mix of pastel suits, purple shirts, flaming red flowered ties, and two-toned wing tips that provoked one onlooker to describe him as an explosion in a paint factory. “Drama was his natural art,” a supporter wistfully remembered, “an actor whose stage was his work, whose scenery, the people about him.”
Perpetually in motion, Huey wielded his “energy of ten men” as one of his most effective weapons. If he could not whip his political opponents with his brilliance or cunning, he simply wore them out by working harder, traveling more miles, making more speeches, shaking more hands, and twisting more arms. “He never relaxed,” observed a campaign worker. “He got along with little or no sleep when he was under pressure. He awakened associates at all hours of the night to talk over a new notion which had come to him in bed.” Always mesmerizing, he cast a spell upon his listeners. While he spoke at the parish fair that summer, a man who hated him stood to the side of the crowd, then disappeared. Later, one of Huey’s supporters saw the man and asked why he left. “I left because I was afraid. That guy was convincing me. I had to get out.”
huey long was born on August 30, 1893, in Winn Parish, Louisiana, amid the red-clay hill country dotted with longleaf pine and where a dark and relentless poverty sapped the lives of the straitlaced Baptists who struggled to survive there. The people there were so poor that, according to a wry local joke, they made a living by taking in each other’s wash. Many of them lived in clapboard cabins with dirt floors and subsisted off small worn-out farms, cut-over timber lands, and paltry cotton patches. The parish seat, Winnfield, languished as a mud-pathed village of about two thousand residents, with two hotels, a lumber mill, seven other buildings, and neither running water nor electricity. The town was notable only for “large numbers of hogs and children, and by a scarcity of Negroes.”
A year before Huey was born, his parents, Hugh and Caledonia Long, moved from Tunica, Mississippi, to Winnfield. Hugh bought 320 acres of scrub land, which he cultivated with cotton and corn and where he let his hogs run wild in the woods. After 1900, Winnfield became a railroad hub, with four lines passing through the town, and the site of a roundhouse and repair shops. The railroad built a depot on the Long farm and within ten years the town grew to about three thousand inhabitants. Hugh sold part of the farm in lots. On one side of his farm the business section rose and on the other side residences sprang up. Although far from wealthy, Hugh became one of largest landowners and livestock holders in Winnfield. He grew and raised most of what the family consumed, and when they needed cash, he sold a pig or cow. In 1907, he built a large home in Winnfield, with two stories, ten rooms, electric lights, indoor plumbing, high ceilings, and large columned verandas on three sides. Two big white oaks sat in the front yard and celery and asparagus sprouted in a bed at one end of the front porch.
Hugh Long turned forty when Huey was born in 1893. By then, Hugh’s hair was an iron gray and his face brown and wrinkled like a walnut shell. A gangly six-footer, he glared at people through the same penetrating brown eyes that all nine of his children would possess. Hugh loved to talk in a booming voice and could be found sitting in front of Bernstein’s store in Winnfield under an ancient chinaberry tree, amusing the townsfolk with his dry wit. Hugh was eccentric, gentle, even weak, had only an elementary education, and bragged of voting for the Socialist candidate for president, Eugene Debs.
Huey’s mother, Caledonia, like his father, came from Pennsylvania Dutch stock. A slender, hazel-eyed, and raven-haired woman who weighed less than a hundred pounds, Caledonia was disciplined, self-educated, and had a photographic memory that Huey would inherit. She insisted her children read the Bible and attend the First Baptist Church of Winnfield. She had a preacher baptize Huey in a neighbor’s fishpond but the boy rebelled against his Baptist upbringing. Caledonia, who refused to whip her children, tried to manage Huey, the most unruly and headstrong of her nine offspring, but her efforts proved futile. Even before he could walk he demanded that he control everything and everyone around him. Always inquisitive, as a toddler he wandered off and on one occasion crawled beneath a steam locomotive and delayed a train departing the Winnfield station. As a rebellious teenager he smoked, drank, chewed tobacco, and cussed like a field hand.
Caledonia passed on her charitable spirit to Huey. Known throughout the parish as a generous and compassionate woman, she frequently sent her son to deliver food and clothing to less fortunate families. From his parents, Huey inherited a belief that the wealth of the land should be shared and that “none should be too poor and none too rich.” Caledonia insisted that Huey and the other children read avidly. If one of the youngsters was reading, the mother would not assign the child chores. The clever Huey learned to always have a book in his hands, whether or not he read it. At an early age he memorized long passages from the Bible, pored over Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice, and once bet a friend $10 that he could recite Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He admired Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, where the lead character metes out harsh revenge to his enemies. John Clark Ridpath’s History of the World also made a lasting mark upon young Huey. In future years while stumping around the state, he quoted Ridpath, who stressed the crucial role of powerful leaders in world affairs and deplored the social evil ingrained in concentrated wealth.
Huey was bright, outspoken, aggressively self-confident, and forever seeking the center of attention. “If he couldn’t pitch, he wouldn’t play,” a childhood friend remarked. With a hot temper that fit his rust-colored hair, Huey could rage quickly into a tantrum, his bright, darting eyes revealing his anger. He quarreled often with his brothers and sisters, who were all smart and competitive. Of the four Long brothers and five sisters, three of the boys became attorneys, the fourth, George, a dentist and later congressman, and the girls received degrees in education from Louisiana Normal College in Natchitoches, one becoming a professor.
While in high school, Huey learned to set type and wrote short items for two local newspapers, the Baptist Monthly Guardian and the Southern Sentinel. When he was a junior, he competed on his high school debate team that traveled to Louisiana State University for the state rally. While in Baton Rouge, Huey stayed at the home of T. H. Harris, the state superintendent of education. “The boy was a perfect portrait of the man to follow,” Harris later recalled. “He came swaggering into the house, leaving the baggage for others to bring in, and introduced himself to Mrs. Harris. . . . He was always late for meals, left his clothes all over the bathroom floor, and had everybody in the house awake by five or six in the morning.”
Huey received an early education in Louisiana’s freewheeling politics. He grew up in a household where the family argued politics each night at their large and noisy dinner table. When he turned seven, his father ran as an independent Democrat and finished a distant third in a state Senate race and ten years later finished sixth in a race for Winnfield’s five aldermen. As a boy, Huey often walked into Winnfield, where he listened to the parish’s rabble-rousers standing on the courthouse steps and sounding off at a political system that disenfranchised the poor population. In 1908, fourteen-year-old Huey campaigned at a polling precinct for Theo Wilkinson, who lost the race for governor to the New Orleans machine candidate, J. Y. Sanders. From the start, politics surged through Huey’s veins. “All I remember is that the first time I knew anything about it, I was in it.”
Huey never had much patience for school. In 1910, just before his seventeenth birthday, Winnfield High School expelled him. He was already showing an obsession to be in charge and to control those around him. “We had formed a secret society. . . . We wore a red ribbon,” he recalled later. He belonged to “a sort of circle that was to run things, laying down certain rules the students would have to follow.” If the students obeyed faculty rules, then Huey and his followers kept them off the baseball team or the debating team. The faculty told Huey that his antics were out of order but he continued to defy their authority. After he published a circular attacking the teachers, the principal expelled him. Even after being expelled, he did not give up. He hand-delivered a petition around Winnfield and convinced a majority of the citizens to sign it. They fired the principal.
Huey did not try to finish high school. He left Winnfield in July and took a job as a traveling salesman selling Cottolene, a lard substitute made from cottonseed oil. His salary was $19 a week. He traveled across the South, hawking his product and distributing pie plates and cookbooks and holding baking contests in cities and towns. Selling Cottolene door-to-door, Huey soon became a persistent and skillful salesman who combined his wit and outgoing personality with iron-willed determination to make a sale. He often turned to the Scriptures to persuade his customers. “I used the Bible on them, showing where the Lord had forbidden the Israelites to use anything from the flesh of swine food, and how cottonseed oil, seeing it was a vegetable product, was just bound to be pure.” When quoting the Scriptures failed to produce a sale, he was more aggressive. “If I couldn’t convince the woman no other way I’d go right into the kitchen and bake a cake for her, or cook supper for the family,” he recalled. “I had to persuade those womenfolks that you could bake a cake with something else besides cow butter and fry meat in something else besides hog lard.” Years later, many housewives remembered young Huey, his red curls tousled, barging into their farmhouse, rolling up his sleeves, and scattering flour about the steamy kitchen as he baked a cake or fried some chicken.
After only a few months, Huey was fired in November 1910 when business slumped. He next took a job in Memphis selling cured meats, lard, and canned goods for an Austin, Texas, food wholesaler. He met his quotas but ran through his expense account by staying in the most expensive hotels and eating lavishly and, “after being given a few warnings, which I did not heed, I was summarily discharged.” With no job and less than a dollar in his pocket, Huey was evicted from his Memphis hotel room. “I went from park to depot and depot to railroad yards, sleeping wherever I might be permitted to lay my head.”
From the Hardcover edition.