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FDR And The Kingfish
A brilliant demagogue named Huey Long was scrambling for the Presidency when an assassin’s bullets cut him down just fifty years ago
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
In May 1932 Louisiana’s flamboyant senator, Huey Pierce Long, told a throng of newspapermen to prepare for a headline-making announcement. After months of temporizing, he was finally ready to reveal whom he would support for his party’s presidential nomination at the upcoming Democratic national convention: his choice was the patrician governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were an odd couple, and the decision was not one the Kingfish—a nickname borrowed from the popular “Amos ’n Andy” radio show—had come to easily. Five months earlier he had said of FDR, “He ran too poorly with Cox in 1920, and he would be certain to be beat.” Even now he told a proRoosevelt senator, “I didn’t like your son of a bitch, but I’ll be for him.” In this unpromising fashion began an improbable alliance that would soon be transformed into the stormiest political rivalry of the decade: the conflict between FDR and the Kingfish.
By 1932 Long had already established himself as a figure of national consequence, though he had only arrived in Washington at the start of the year. It had been a debut, however, that the capital was still talking about. There is a wellestablished rule that not only are freshman senators supposed to be silent, they are supposed to be invisible. But on his first day in the Senate, Huey bounced onto the Senate floor, slapped one distinguished senator on the back, poked an Old Guard Republican in the ribs, and ran around the chamber telling everyone the Kingfish had arrived—all the while puffing on a big cigar, in violation of Senate rules. By the end of the week, Long had attracted more attention than had been accorded a freshman senator in many, many years.
Some of this attention simply resulted from Huey’s remarkable flair for focusing the spotlight on himself by deliberately flouting propriety. But he drew attention, too, because at a time in the Great Depression when twelve million people were unemployed, he was the best-known advocate of an ancient panacea: sharing the wealth. A few weeks after he took his Senate seat, he introduced a resolution to limit fortunes to one hundred million dollars—and divide up the residue.
But perhaps the most important reason reporters crowded around Long was that he would control Louisiana’s votes at the 1932 Democratic national convention and have a lot to say about the ballots of neighboring Mississippi as well. Once Huey decided to back FDR, he went all the way, and a number of observers credit him with playing a crucial role. “There is no question in my mind,” the Bronx County boss, Edward J. Flynn, later declared, “but that without Long’s work Roosevelt might not have been nominated.”
As governor, Huey boasted openly that his legislature was the “finest collection of lawmakers money can buy.”
Long’s performance at the convention proved to be the high point of his association with Roosevelt; it was downhill from there. Imbued with a sense of his own importance, he was determined to shape FDR’s policies. He even wanted a whole campaign train for himself, in part to promote views that conflicted with Roosevelt’s. But the Democratic campaign manager, Jim Parley, shuttled him off to the Great Plains, where he could do little harm (and actually did some good), and Roosevelt kept him at arm’s length.
Angry at his inability to win the kinds of commitments he sought, Huey made no secret of his displeasure with Roosevelt’s behavior. On one occasion, shortly after the convention, he was heard shouting over a phone: “Goddamn it, Frank, don’t you know who nominated you? Why do you have … all those Wall Street blankety blanks up there to see you? How do you think it looks to the country? How can I explain it to my people?” A short time afterward, Long reported: “When I talk to him, he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ But [Sen.] Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day, and again he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says ‘Fine!’ to everybody.”
The climactic encounter took place at the end of the first Hundred Days of 1933. Throughout that early springtime of the New Deal, Long had noised his objections to a good number of Roosevelt’s proposals and not a few of his appointees. When he visited the White House, he was in a cocky, even insolent, mood. He wore a sailor straw hat that he kept on his head, except when he used it to tap the President on the knee or the elbow to make a point. Roosevelt never blinked. But by the close of the interview it was clear to the senator that none of the vast federal patronage destined for Louisiana was to go to him.
After that, Long and Roosevelt parted ways. Some thought they separated because the Kingfish was disappointed in patronage. Long said it was because he disagreed with FDR’s policies. The real reason for the break, though, was surely more complex.