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
Yet in 1935 Huey was still only forty-two, and his ambitions were boundless; so, many believed, were his prospects. Roosevelt had a long way to go to get the country out of the Depression. And there was no mistaking Long’s intent. “I’ll tell you here and now,” he informed newspaper reporters late in the summer of 1935, “that Franklin Roosevelt will not be the next President of the United States. If the Democrats nominate Roosevelt and the Republicans nominate Hoover, Huey Long will be your next President.”
“As 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.” At least as early as 1934 Long’s opponents were talking openly of violence as the only way of ridding the state of the senator and his cronies. In the spring of 1935 one of the few remaining Long opponents in Baton Rouge warned: “I am not gifted with second sight. … But I can see blood on the polished floor of this Capitol. For if you ride this thing through, you will travel with the white horse of death.”
On the night of September 8, 1935, the Louisiana legislature was meeting in special session to adopt a series of recommendations, some of which stunned even Huey’s disciples. One proposed to terminate the career of a Long opponent, Judge Benjamin Pavy; another portended a constitutional crisis by providing for the imprisonment of federal officials. Huey wandered around the legislative chamber that evening in his usual manner—as though he owned it—and then walked out into the corridor of the state capital. At 9:20 P.M. , a white-clad, bespectacled figure stepped out of the shadows from behind a pillar, approached Huey, and fired a small pistol. Long’s bodyguards and capital policemen emptied their guns into the assassin, whose bullet-ridden body was subsequently identified as that of Judge Pavy’s son-in-law, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, who had resented Long’s vendetta against his family. Mortally wounded, Huey reeled down the stairs and into a car in the parking lot. Two days later he died.
The assassination of Lone ended the only po tentially serious political threat to FDR in the 1930s. The Share Our Wealth movement quickly disintegrated. Gerald L. K. Smith tried to seize control of the organization, but Long’s henchmen in Louisiana would have none of him. They had no interest in sharing the wealth, no thirst for national power, merely a desire for plunder. As a Louisiana governor later explained, “I swore to uphold the constitutions of Louisiana and the United States, but I didn’t take any vow of poverty.”
The Long machine had only one concern: to persuade Washington to abandon the tax prosecutions. In return it was willing to throw its support to the President. The details of what happened subsequently are murky. The Roosevelt administration was accused of reaching an accommodation with Long’s heirs—what one columnist called the Second Louisiana Purchase. Perhaps it did, but the evidence is not clearcut. (Some years later, both the governor of Louisiana and the president of LSU would so to the penitentiary.) However, one thing is certain: at the 1936 Democratic convention, Long’s lieutenants waved FDR banners and paraded the aisles for the great and good Franklin DeIano Roosevelt.
The administration greeted Long’s death with ill-concealed relief. A few weeks afterward, the Democratic national chairman, Jim Farley, remarked, “I always laughed Huey off, but I did not feel that way about him,” and then went on to list a number of states that FDR would have lost if the Louisiana senator had run for President. In his lengthy memoir and biography, Rexford Tugwell has reflected: “When he was gone it seemed that a beneficent peace had fallen on the land. Father Coughlin, Reno, Townsend, et al., were after all pygmies compared with Huey. He had been a major phenomenon.”
Tugwell, one of the original members of the Brain Trust, has captured better than anyone Roosevelt’s own response to the death of his most troublesome rival: “I think he had really given Franklin concern for a bit. … It was not a happy circumstance that one of the most effective demagogues the country had ever known should be attacking with spectacular effect every move and every measure devised to meet the situation. It did get on Franklin’s nerves. He must have regarded Huey’s removal as something of a providential occurrence—one more sign that he himself moved under a star.”