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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 truth, political analysts have always found Long’s ideas hard to categorize. They have been puzzled in particular by such questions as whether Long was to the left or to the right of Roosevelt. Huey himself viewed all the efforts to pigeonhole him with droll detachment. When pressed on the matter he once told reporters, “Oh, hell, say that I’m sui generis and let it go at that.” FDR himself had a simpler view—that his struggle with Long represented a contest between democracy and dictatorship. And so it did. But it was something else, too—a conflict between two rival traditions of reform.
Though Roosevelt has sometimes been thought of as a descendant of Populist reformers, it is, rather, Long who is in the Populist tradition; FDR is better understood as a foe of the heirs of Populism. Long came from Winn Parish, the birthplace of Populism in Louisiana. His slogan, Every Man a King, derived from a line in William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech: “Every man a king, but no man wears a crown.” While Roosevelt’s approach to politics reflected the outlook of an Eastern-seaboard patrician, Huey’s voiced the aspirations of a rural class that had known bitter deprivation.
Long had come to power by challenging the rule of an upperclass oligarchy that was probably the most reactionary and most corrupt of any state in the country It had three elements: the planters, the corporations (especially oil), and a New Orleans ring headed by the urban boss Martin Behrman. (It was Behrman who, on one occasion, rejected a proposal for a new civic auditorium in the style of a classic Greek theater with the comment, “There aren’t enough Greeks living here to make it worthwhile.”) This alliance cared for little save its own interests. In literacy, a crucial index of the social health of any political system, Louisiana ranked last in the nation, with an illiteracy rate many times higher than that of neighboring Mississippi. Anyone who came to power by overturning such a system would inevitably carry with him attitudes toward the Establishment vastly different from those of a man like Roosevelt.
In his classic study of Southern politics, the political scientist V. O. Key wrote: “As good a supposition as any is that the longer the period of unrestrained exploitation, the more violent will be the reaction when it comes. Louisiana’s rulers controlled without check for a long period.… [It] was a case of arrested political development. Its Populism was repressed with a violence unparalleled in the South, and its neo-Populism was smothered by a potent ruling oligarchy.”
When Long overturned the old order in Louisiana, he did more than just win an election; he triggered a political revolution. He gave lower-class rural whites from the forks of the creek, for the first time, their day in the sun. In 1928 fifteen thousand people—sunbonneted women and gallused men—swarmed into Baton Rouge to see one of their own elevated to the governorship. Long’s election ushered in a “fantastic vengeance upon the Sodom and Gomorrah that was called New Orleans,” as the newspaperman Hodding Carter noted. “A squaring of accounts with the big shots, the Standard Oil and the bankers, the big planters, the entrenched interests everywhere.” Long’s strength, said the novelist Sherwood Anderson, came from “the terrible South … the beaten, ignorant, Bible-ridden, white South. Faulkner occasionally really touches it. It has yet to be paid for.”
Franklin Roosevelt derived from a quite different tradition of reform. He felt kinship with those post-Populist reformers, the Progressives, the followers of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who feared and despised Populism as an uprising of the ignorant, the suspicious, the envious, the unsuccessful. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had sought to rescue the reform movement from the rural fundamentalists and direct it in channels of respectability that the urban middle class would accept. It was this tradition- the reform impulse of the Establishment—of which Franklin Roosevelt, like TR and Wilson, was a part. This tradition could find no space for the ambitions of a Huey Long.
FDR held an aristocratic view of the reformer-statesman as the paladin of the lowly. In the novels of Roosevelt’s youth—in the political romances of such writers as the American novelist Winston Churchill—the hero is typically a wellborn Galahad who battles the machine, purifies the corrupt legislature, and routs the evil combine, all the while wooing a heroine who breathlessly admires his daring in entering the political arena. In the final scene, hero and heroine ride off in their coach to live happily forever after—on their inherited income.
Huey shared no such fantasies. His idols came from the pages of Ridpath’s history of the world—kings, conquerors, rulers; and it was unadorned power, the power of an Alexander, that made the greatest appeal. Long’s model was Frederick the Great:” ‘You can’t take Vienna, Your Majesty. The world won’t stand for it,’ his nitwit ambassadors said. The hell I can’t,’ said old Fred. ‘My soldiers will take Vienna and my professors at Heidelberg will explain the reasons why!’”