The Long, Long Trail

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To the state of Louisiana and the parish of Winn, John M. Long brought his family from Mississippi in 1859. In Louisiana, counties are called parishes, and Winn, in the north-central part of the state, was destined by incorporation to be the poorest of the poor: when the land was divided, Winn got what nobody else wanted. It is hill country. (Former President Calvin Coolidge, visiting Louisiana in 1930, asked Huey Long what part of the state he came from. Replied Huey, “I’m a hillbilly—like yourself.”) It is Baptist country. (Huey recalled that a Methodist preacher moved to Winn and would have starved to death had it not been for the charity of the Long family.) It is a parish of small farms and cutover timber lands. The people there have said that they make a living by taking in each other’s washing. This is Winn Parish, where, as one historian has described it, “a man would skin a flea for the hide and tallow.”

The major crop in Winn has always been dissent. At a convention called in 1861 to decide whether Louisiana should join the Confederacy, the delegate from Whin voted against secession: “Who wants to fight to keep the Negroes for the wealthy planters?” he asked. John M. Long did not join the Confederate Army. His son, Huey P. Long, Sr., had strong Union sympathies. After the war, Winn became a Populist enclave. The Socialists elected half of the parish officials in 1908; Eugene Debs received almost thirty-six per cent of Winn’s vote when he ran for President in 1912.

“There wants to be a revolution, I tell you,” said Huey P. Long, Sr., his six-toot frame still erect and powerful after eighty-three years. “I seen the domination of capital, seen it for seventy years. What do these rich folks care for the poor man? They care nothing—not for his pain, nor his sickness, nor his death … Maybe you’re surprised to hear talk like that. Well, it was just such talk that my boy was raised under, and that I was raised under.”

By Winn standards Huey Senior was lucky. The railroad bought his farm, and he was able to send six of his nine children to college. Julius, the oldest, became a lawyer; George became a dentist. But the money ran out before the two youngest, Huey and Earl, had their turn. They became travelling salesmen. Huey peddled a product called Cottolene, a vegetable shortening; Earl, two years his junior, sold baking powder.

Huey Long was designed for writers and cartoonists. A. J. Liebling, a reporter for a New York paper in the early 1930’s, interviewed him at the Waldorf. “A chubby man, he had ginger hair and tight skin that was the color of a sunburn coming on. It was an uneasy color combination, like an orange tie on a pink shirt. His face faintly suggested mumps. …” Below the unruly hair with its natural spitcurl there were the deep-set brown eyes; the snub nose, turned up at an impudent angle; a wide mouth, heavy lips, dimpled chin. And he had the habit of unwittingly scratching himself regularly on the left buttock.

It was Huey Long who made a revolution in Louisiana politics and who, before he was cut down, constituted what one New Deal official called “the greatest individual challenge to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and to his New Deal policies.” Never has an American been called a dictator by so many responsible commentators. One of Huey’s biographers, Carleton Beals, considered him “the pole-cat, wild ass, Messiah and enigma of American politics.” John Gunther viewed him as “an engaging monster,” and compared him to Hitler, Mussolini, Goering, Goebbels, Salazar, Franco, Dollfuss, Kemal, Metaxas, Stalin, and Pilsudski. On the other hand, a new school of critics is now going to the opposite extreme, even comparing Long to Jacques Maritain’s image of the prophet leader, whose mission is, in the words of Professor T. Harry Williams, “to awaken the people, to awaken them to something better than everyone’s daily business, to the sense of a supra-individual task to be performed.”

The Long phenomenon grew out of the pathology of Louisiana politics. Before Huey, the state was controlled by a coalition of the rich and the corrupt, the great planters of the Black Belt and the machine bosses of New Orleans. The city was ruled by Mayor Martin Behrman, whose classic remark on vice was, “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” The poor, white and Negro, got little from government, and expected less. Of those who ran the state Huey once said, “One of ’em skinned you from the ankles up, the other from the neck down.” Standing beneath the fabled Evangelinc oak, inspiration of Longfellow, Huey told the rawboned, leather-faced Cajuns: And it is here under this oak where Evangelinc waited for her lover, Gabriel. This oak is immortal, but Evangeline is not the only one who waited here in disappointment. Where are the schools, the roads and highways, the institutions tor the disabled you sent your money to build? Evangeline’s tears last through one lifetime—yours through generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.