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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
Few rivalries of the 1930s cut so deeply as the conflict between Roosevelt and Long. Each held or was bidding for national power at a time when, in much of the world, totalitarianism was coming to seem the wave of the future. Roosevelt was one of many who feared that unless certain social changes were made peacefully, they would ultimately be made violently and democracy might not survive. For the President and his circle, the threat to democracy came from two sources: the Old Guard conservatives who resisted change and the men like Huey Long who would exploit popular discontent if change was not achieved.
Roosevelt and Long each sensed that there was not room enough in Washington for both of them. One political commentator wrote of Long: “Obviously he cannot succeed while the country still has hopes of the success of the New Deal and trusts the President. Huey’s chances depend on those sands of hope and trust running out.” FDR, in turn, was aware that if he stumbled, the Kingfish would be there to gobble up the pieces. “It’s all very well for us to laugh over Huey,” he told an aide, “but actually we have to remember all the time that he really is one of the two most dangerous men in the country. (Asked if he had Father Coughlin in mind as the second dangerous man, the President said, “Oh no. The other is Douglas MacArthur.”)
To the New Dealers, Long’s Louisiana served as a model for the kind of despotism the country might experience if they did not succeed, for in that state Huey was unabashedly creating a personal dictatorship. He bullied the legislature, intimidated the courts to the point at which their independence all but vanished, and kept a squad of tough—and sometimes savage—bodyguards around him at all times.
Even Long’s most sympathetic biographer, T. Harry Williams, has conceded: “He wanted to do good, but for that he had to have power. So he took power and then to do more good seized still more power, and finally the means and the end became so entwined in his mind that he could not distinguish between them, could not tell whether he wanted power as a method or for its own sake. He gave increasing attention to building his power structure, and as he built it, he did strange, ruthless, and cynical things.”
“This is my university,” Long said of Louisiana State University. “I can fire a thousand of these students and get ten thousand in place of them any time I feel like it.” When he learned that a student newspaper planned to carry a letter critical of him, he ordered the presses stopped and the letter deleted. He sent a squad of state troopers to see that the edict was carried out. The university suspended the editor and five members of the staff. Huey explained, “I like students, but this state is puttin’ up the money for that college, and I ain’t payin’ anybody to criticize me.”
Long made a point of showing his contempt for the democratic process. When asked how the Kingfish had built his majority in the legislature, one Long leader explained, “They all didn’t come for free.” Huey, who said of one member of the legislature, “We got that guy so cheap we thought we stole him,” boasted openly that his legislature was the “finest collection of lawmakers money can buy.” (Years later, his brother Earl, who also became a memorable governor of Louisiana, remarked: “Huey used to buy the legislature like a sack of potatoes. Hell, I never bought one in my life. 1 just rent ’em. It’s cheaper that way.”) Huey’s legislators voted like automatons. While U.S. senator, Long handed one session of the legislature forty-four bills. In little more than two hours the legislature adopted all forty-four.
One commentator wrote in July 1935, “Unlike the German intelligentsia, who could not judge from experience what Hitler might do, Americans may turn the pages of Louisiana’s recent history for … insight into the sort of country we would have if Long became our Hitler.”
A number of historians have protested applying the term fascist to Long, and with good reason. He had elaborated no antidemocratic ideology, no conception of a corporate state. “Long’s political fantasies,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., observes, “had no tensions, no conflicts, except of the most banal kind, no heroism or sacrifice, no compelling myths of class or race or nation.” And unlike other Southern demagogues, Long did not rise to power by racist rhetoric against blacks. Though there were serious incidents of suppression of civil liberties in Louisiana, to the end of his life Long was openly attacked by most of the newspapers of his state. Long’s political beliefs, a number of writers have stressed, were native to American soil, the culmination of a time-honored line of agrarian dissent.
Yet it is also true that Long—far more than has sometimes been acknowledged—did represent a threat to democracy. His hostility to voluntaristic organizations—from labor unions to bar associations—suggested a totalitarian mentality. His contempt for legislatures, his vengeful, even sadistic, politics, and, most of all, his overwhelming ambition constituted a distinct menace. That Long’s ideas were in the American tradition of protest made him more rather than less ominous.