The Long, Long Trail

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The aim of Huey’s revolution was to weld the poor into a viable political lone; to make the poor redneck, the poor Caj un, and the poor Negro see that their political common denominator was “poor”—and that they must make common cause in the voting booth. He became the first major southern leader to put aside appeals to race-baiting and ante-bellum myths and address himself to social and economic ills. And when he was finished, Louisiana had new schools and free textbooks and roads and mental hospitals and bridges. But when he was finished, Louisiana also had a secret police and a rubber-stamp legislature and a subservient judiciary. “Never before in American history,” wrote Hamilton Basso, had the people “been so plainly asked to jettison the democratic system and consent to the erection of a totalitarian society in its place.” They had been asked to “exchange political freedom for economic security.” To those who had nothing, it seemed like a good bargain.

Huey Pierce Long was born on August 30, 1893. He maintained that his blood was a mixture of English, Dutch, Welsh, Scottish, and French (although the last claim was more an appeal to the voters of southern Louisiana than a hereditary fact).

His first full-time job as a Cottolene salesman introduced him to the hillfolk of the upper parishes, who would be his political backbone, and to Rose McConnell, who would be his wife. The future Mrs. Long was pretty and plump, a dark-haired little Shreveport belle with pale blue eyes. They met during a baking contest that Huey was conducting; Rose won. After they were married she convinced him to give up his peddler’s pack for law books. Huey entered Tulane, took eight months of the three-year course (as much as his money allowed), and then talked his way into a special bar examination, which he passed. Almost as soon as he had “Lawyer” painted on a fifty-cent tin sign, he was searching the state constitution for a public office which did not prescribe a minimum age limit. The only post open to the twenty-four-year-old Huey was a seat on the Railroad Commission (later renamed the Public Service Commission). So in 1918 he ran from the northern Louisiana district and was elected. His financial angel (8500 worth) was Oscar Kelly (“O.K.”) Alien, a Winnfield storekeeper whom Huey had gotten out of a jam when he mixed up two corpses, one white and the other Negro. (Oscar was just trying to help a friend by shipping a body home for burial, but he was not too bright; later Huey made him governor of Louisiana.) Commissioner Long promptly forced the giant Standard Oil Company to increase its tax payments and got the local telephone and utility companies to reduce their rates.

On August 30, 1923, his thirtieth birthday, Huey announced that he was a candidate for governor. It rained hard on the day of the Democratic primary in 1924. When the first ballot box was opened, the vote was 60 to i for Long. “I’m beat,” said Huey. “There should have been one hundred for me and one against me. Forty per cent of my country vote is lost in that box.” He finished a strong third, but his country vote was washed out. The returns showed that Huey was still a sectional candidate. To win the next time he would have to increase his strength among the French Catholics in the southern parishes. So in 1926 he campaigned for United States Senator Edwin Broussard (“Couzain Ed,” he called him), and then claimed credit for his narrow victory. When he ran again for governor in 1928, he received 43.9 per cent of the primary vote. In Louisiana, the Democratic nomination is tantamount to election, and if no candidate receives a majority in the primary, a second primary is held between the two top contenders; Huey managed to force his opponent to withdraw from the run-off and, unopposed, he became the youngest governor in Louisiana history.

There would never be another state administration like Huey’s. To his opponents it was something like gallows humor—if it wasn’t so serious, it might be funny. But the majority of the people had no reservations. Their new governor called himself the “Kingfish of the Lodge,” after a character on the “Amos ’n Andy” radio program. He led the Louisiana State University band, composed its songs, gave the football team pep talks between halves (“What the hell do you care if you break your legs while you’re breaking their necks?”). And when L.S.U. lost a game 7 to 6, he introduced a bill in the legislature to outlaw the point after touchdown. “Most of the people would rather laugh than weep,” said Huey; “I don’t see any harm in lightening up the tragedy of politics for the people.”