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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
God is my judge,” Gerald L. K. Smith cried in 1935, “the only way they will keep Huey Long from the White House is to kill him.”
Roosevelt responded to Long’s challenge in a variety of ways, including encouraging the Treasury to look into well-founded rumors of tax evasion in Louisiana. In short order thirty-two Treasury agents were installed at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans to investigate the finances of the Long crowd. By April 1935, one of Huey’s men in the legislature had been sentenced to eighteen months in prison for income tax evasion, and federal revenue agents were dogging the footsteps of Long’s closest associates. There is even some evidence that the government contemplated prosecuting the senator himself.
The President also stepped up his use of patronage against Long. Early in February 1935 Roosevelt scolded cabinet officers and other key officials for awarding patronage to foes of the administration. Some people, he said, should be fired on principle. “In a delicate situation like Louisiana we may have to ask your advice,” Secretary Wallace interposed. “You won’t have to do that,” the President replied forcefully. “Don’t put anybody in and don’t keep anybody that is working for Huey Long or his crowd! That is a hundred percent! … Anybody working for Huey Long is not working for us.”
Roosevelt and his appointees also hit out at Long by denying Louisiana a share of New Deal spending. In April 1935, when the senator attempted to supervise the distribution of federal funds in his state, he met his match in the public works administrator Harold Ickes. Secretary Ickes announced that “no public works money is going to build up any Sharethe-Wealth political machine,” and he threatened to cut off the state’s grant. Huey answered, “We are doing the United States government a compliment when we let them do business with us.” To which Ickes replied, “The emperor of Louisiana has halitosis of the intellect.” Ickes, who could play as rough as Long, then withdrew a substantial amount of federal money that had been destined for Louisiana.
It has often been suggested that the most important response to Long came in the New Deal legislation of the second Hundred Days of 1935. Some writers believe that Roosevelt advanced reforms that year with the deliberate purpose of “stealing Huey’s thunder.” Two acts in particular are said to show Long’s influence. The first was FDR’s allocation of fifty million dollars to the National Youth Administration, an agency that, by giving part-time employment to students, offset the appeal of Long’s plank for free college education. In June the President took another step that seemed to indicate a much more conspicuous response to Long: his tax message, asking Congress for a new law based on the idea of redistributing the wealth. “For the time being,” wrote the Los Angeles Times , “he has silenced Huey and taken him into camp. However hard it comes, the Kingfish must perforce applaud.”
Yet it is by no means certain that Roosevelt’s ventures in the second Hundred Days were undertaken either as a rejoinder to Long or that they significantly diminished Huey’s strength. Though it is often said that Roosevelt, like other shrewd statesmen, undercut rivals like Long by sponsoring reforms that alleviated the discontent on which these men fed, that is too simple a perception of political movements. Long won allegiance not simply by advocating specific programs but by appealing to a whole constellation of loyalties and resentments that FDR could not, or would not, embody.
The vast following Long had acquired posed a serious threat to Roosevelt in itself, and if the Kingfish could align behind him the supporters of the radio priest Father Coughlin, the old-age pension advocate Dr. Francis Townsend, and the farm leader MiIo Reno, he would be more powerful still.
The Share Our Wealth organization provided Long not merely with backing for his scheme but with a countrywide political organization that might shape the outcome of the 1936 elections, and Share Our Wealth was sweeping the country like a prairie fire. Raymond Moley, Roosevelt’s former adviser, wrote that the administration came to feel that Long “could make himself political master of the whole, vast Lower Mississippi Valley—perhaps even of great hunks of the West. Who knew where Huey … would end?”
Maybe the Democrats worried too much. The subsequent fiasco of the Union party in 1936, a third party that attempted to unite the Long, Coughlin, and Townsend followers, demonstrated what Roosevelt had earlier foreseen. “There is no question that it is all a dangerous situation,” the President had confided to Colonel House in 1935. “But when it comes to Show-down these fellows cannot all lie in the same bed and will fight among themselves with almost absolute certainty.”