- Historic Sites
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
But these actions were only symbolic. Long did a great deal more. He sponsored Louisiana’s first income tax law, eliminated the poll tax, revamped the barbarous state institutions for the insane, considerably expanded public health facilities, and initiated the greatest road-building program of any state in the union. When he took office, Louisiana had less than three hundred miles of concrete roads and only three major bridges; seven years later, there were over thirtyseven hundred miles of paved highways and forty major bridges. He distributed free textbooks to students and got the legislature to tax the oil companies to pay for them. (Huey insisted, “When these fellows suck an oil well dry we want a new schoolhouse somewhere.…”) He instituted night schools to cope with the state’s illiteracy, and by the time he left for the U.S. Senate in 1932, one hundred thousand people had been taught to read, write, and cipher.
With so much achievement, it was not always easy to recognize that Long’s programs had shortcomings too, especially when contrasted to FDR’s emerging welfare state. Long opposed minimum-wage legislation; failed to further the Child Labor Amendment (though children in Louisiana toiled for as little as six cents an hour); showed small understanding of the aspirations of the union movement; and did not do much for either the urban unemployed or the sharecropper. Unlike other reform governors, Huey left no shelf of social legislation. Yet Long’s reign, deficient, undemocratic, and shamelessly corrupt, nonetheless brought unprecedented change to Louisiana.
At election time the Kingfish could declare: “They tell you that you’ve got to tear up Longism in this state. All right, my friends, get you a bomb or some dynamite and blow up that new state capitol. Then go out and tear up the concrete roads I’ve built. Get your spades and your shovels and scrape the gravel off them roads we graveled and let a rain come in on ’em. That’ll put ’em back like they was before I come. Tear down all the new buildings I’ve built at the university. And when your child starts to school tomorrow morning snatch the free textbooks out of his hands. Then, my friends, you’ll be rid of Longism in this state, and not before.”
With that record of performance in Louisiana, Long was able to mount an effective attack on the New Deal. He questioned whether Roosevelt was concerned with the welfare of the poor (after all, FDR had never known the hardships of Winn Parish), and he denied that the administration had found the road to recovery. Long’s assault came at a particularly embarrassing time: after the upturn of the first Hundred Days of 1933, the economy had come to a standstill. At precisely that point, in January 1934, Huey made his bid for national power by establishing a national political organization with an arresting slogan: Share Our Wealth. He named as national organizer Gerald L. K. Smith, a fifth-generation minister of the Disciples of Christ and a stump speaker of unrivaled power who, it has been said, was a combination of Savonarola and Elmer Gantry.
Although the details of Long’s program shifted from time to time, the main features remained constant. Huey proposed to liquidate all personal fortunes above a certain amount; from the fund the government would accumulate, every family would get enough to buy a home, an automobile, and a radio; old-age pensions would be paid; and worthy boys would receive a college education. Though it was far from clear how he proposed to do so, Huey would redistribute not only cash but also real property and securities. “No, sir, money is not all of it by a jugful,” he explained. “We are going to redistribute in kind so the poor devil who needs a house can get one from some rich bird who has too many houses; so the man who needs a bedstead can get one from the man who has more than he will ever need. …” In vain did critics point out that the economic assumptions behind Huey’s proposal were riddled with error. In a period when FDR was involved in such complicated schemes as gold buying, code authorities, and deficit finance, the promises of the Share Our Wealth campaign seemed more specific and understandable than anything the President was offering.
By 1934 Long, who three years earlier had not even been a sectional leader, was winning national and even international notice. The French journal L’Europe Nouvelle published an article titled “Huey Long contre Roosevelt,” and H. G. Wells sailed across the Atlantic to interview the senator. After talking to the Kingfish, Wells reported that he was “like a Winston Churchill who has never been at Harrow. He abounds in promises. …” For a moment, it even seemed that the Kingfish might eclipse the President.