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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
Unlike FDR, Long had an antiromantic perception of the state. While Roosevelt took pride in his service as assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I and genuinely regretted he had not been in combat, Long deliberately evaded participation in the war. He even sought deferment on the grounds that he was a notary public. Asked why he had not fought for his country, Huey explained, “I was not mad at anybody over there.”
From men such as Endicott Peabody, the headmaster of Groton, Roosevelt learned to conceive of public life as a duty the wellborn owed to their country. To be sure, FDR could never conceal the gusto with which he took to politics nor his ardor for social changes many in the Establishment found appalling, but he accepted the gentlemanly precept that the office seeks the man, not the man the office. Huey made no such disclaimer. Politics, for him and for his followers, represented an opportunity for advancement and rewards. Long was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-one, and said, “I came out of that courtroom running for office.”
Implied in the Endicott Peabody tradition was a high seriousness about politics, and it was against the pretensions of this tradition of reform that Huey turned the weapon of humor. He jeered at claims that Roosevelt and the New Dealers were disinterested public servants. They, like him, Huey insisted, wanted power.
His behavior brings to mind Shakespeare’s Henry IV , in which Falstaff presides over his circle of followers just as Henry does over his court. Henry celebrates such martial, aristocratic virtues as courage in battle, while Falstaff jeers that it is better to live ignobly than to die, especially to die for impersonal principle. The values of the prince must stand the test of Falstaff’s scorn. Long played Falstaff to FDR’s Henry.
Long insinuated that Roosevelt and his circle, no less than the Louisiana planters and the oilmen, were part of the Establishment, with a stake in the system. The New Dealers, he sensed, were most vulnerable to the charge that they did not really represent a new order but actually sustained the old one.
An episode in Washington early in 1933 revealed Huey’s approach. Shortly before FDR’s inauguration Long kicked open the door of one of the Brain Trusters at the Mayflower Hotel and barged into the room. He grabbed an apple, took a big bite, and walked up to Norman Davis, a dignified international diplomat close to both Roosevelt and the house of Morgan. Tapping Davis’s stark-white shirtfront with the half-bitten apple, he shouted, “I don’t like you and your goddamned banker friends!”
Often Long’s barbs seemed to be fired at random, but they were all aimed at making a single point—that he, not Roosevelt, should be the country’s leader. His posthumously published My First Days in the White House made that contention explicit by effecting, however good-naturedly, a reversal of roles. In that slim literary effort, Huey pictures himself as President and, after naming Herbert Hoover secretary of commerce, demotes FDR to secretary of the Navy.
Though Huey deliberately played the role of clown, he was no fool. His briefs before the Supreme Court were praised by both Chief Justice William Taft and Justice Louis Brandeis. The Washington correspondent of The New York Times recalled: “His speech in behalf of the legality of his delegates in ’32 was the finest legal argument that anybody has ever heard—or that I ever heard—at a national convention. He dropped all the clowning. He dropped the hillbilly stuff. Huey wasn’t the rustic he pretended to be. He was a brilliant man and a very fine lawyer.”
Asked why he had not fought for his country in World War I, Huey explained, I was not mad at anybody over there.”
However, it served Long’s purposes to play the buffoon. By parodying the New Deal, he drew national attention away from Roosevelt and softened the impression of himself as a Louisiana autocrat. Instead of appearing as a would-be dictator, Huey created a picture of himself as a lovable, amiable, harmless soul, an affable country philosopher. At one point he even stirred up a national controversy between dunkers and crumblers of corn pone and got Emily Post to render a when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans-do verdict.
But if Long had been nothing more than a jester, he would only have been a seven-day wonder. He got as far as he did because his achievements in Louisiana commanded attention, especially from people who were disenchanted with the New Deal. Unlike many other demagogues, Huey was an innovator and a lawgiver. He was even called “the first Southerner since Calhoun to have an original idea.” With a vivid sense of the iconography of politics, Long dismantled the structure of the old regime to make way for a new era in Louisiana. He built a modern skyscraper capital that symbolized the new commonwealth he was creating on the ruins of the old. (Mark Twain said of the old capital: “That comes from too much Sir Walter Scott.”) He also tore down the antiquated governor’s mansion and built a new Executive Mansion in Baton Rouge on the model of the White House, in order, he explained, to be “used to it when he got there.”