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The Long, Long Trail
The members of Huey’s Louisiana clan who tried to follow his footsteps to the land of their dreams never quite matched his bumptious stride or dictatorial power—but they grew into a thriving political dynasty
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
He caused an international incident by wearing green silk pajamas during a formal audience with the commander of a visiting German cruiser. To correct the faux pas , the Kingfish borrowed pin-striped pants from a hotel manager, a boiled shirt from a waiter, a coat from a preacher, a collar “so high I had to stand on a stool to spit over it,” and went to call on the mortified German officer. Huey’s apology was a masterpiece of the tongue-in-cheek: “You see, I come from Winnfield up in the hills of Winn Parish, in this state. I know little of diplomacy and much less of the international courtesies and exchanges that are indulged in by nations. In fact, I only happened to be governor of the state by accident, anyway. There was no royal heritage, but simply by chance I happened to receive more votes than the other men aspiring to the same office.” The people loved it. Huey was showered with pajamas from admirers; later, pajamas even adorned his campaign posters. Shortly afterward, the Kingfish, clad only in his underwear, received a United States general and his aides. The Baton Rouge State-Times commented, “If General McCoy is loath to believe that he had a narrow escape, and that the governor does not receive visitors in the nude, he is just not acquainted with our governor.”
The New York Times editorialized that Huey was merely “a worthy competitor in the field of light political farce.” The assessment clearly underrated the man. For usually the Kingfish’s farce was deliberately directed. “I like to cut around the opposition with a joke,” he said.
Those who were not misled by the comedian’s mask discovered a man of surprising intellectual ability. Edward J. Flynn, who heard Huey speak before the committee on credentials at the 1932 Democratic national convention, concluded, “Never in all my experience have I listened to a finer or more logical argument. …” When Huey pleaded a case before the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice William Howard Taft was reported to have said that Long was the most brilliant lawyer who had appeared before the Court. And Professor Raymond Moley, the Roosevelt brain-truster assigned to act as a “friendly contact” with Huey during the early New Deal days, wrote that the Kingfish “had, combined with a remarkable capacity for hard, intellectual labor, an extraordinarily powerful, resourceful, clear, and retentive mind, an instrument such as is given to very few men.”
A redneck farmer summed up his devotion to the Kingfish: “At least we got something . Before him, we got nothing.” One of Huey’s first acts as governor was to distribute free textbooks to all students in public, private, and parochial schools. His opponents argued that it was unconstitutional, a violation of the principle of separation of church and state. Huey took the case to the Supreme Court. The books were furnished to the children, not to the schools, he successfully contended. (Many of the state’s numerous Catholics suddenly saw a beauty in Huey which had not been evident to them before.) He started to pave Louisiana’s roads—but in scattered patches of five, ten, or fifteen miles to a parish. “When the people once knew the pleasure of travelling over paved highways,” explained Huey, “their support for a program to connect up the links was certain.” (He might have added that patchwork paving also allowed a maximum of voters to quickly taste the fruits of Longism.) But when he tried to impose a new, heavy tax on the Standard Oil Company, the legislature felt the state had had enough of Huey. He was impeached on nineteen counts ranging from the serious to the ridiculous. Among the charges were misusing state funds, demolishing the executive mansion without authority, carrying concealed weapons, cursing, appearing on the floor of the legislature without permission, and trying to hire a man named Battling Bozeman to assassinate a legislator.
Huey avoided conviction by getting fifteen state senators to sign a round robin stating that they would not vote against the Kingfish no matter what the evidence . “Anti-Longs have never ceased to belabor the climax of the impeachment trial as a deliberate mockery of justice,” writes Professor Allan P. Sindler. “That view conveniently overlooked the fact that ‘justice’ was not present, hence could not be mocked. The impeachment was politically inspired from start to finish and, therefore, the round robin was of a piece with the rest of the play.” The round-robineers were well rewarded for their loyalty. Newspapers proclaimed, “Theirs is the earth and the fullness thereof.” When one of the faithful fifteen asked for another road for his district, Huey claimed he replied, “My gracious, Hugo! Won’t you ever get through asking for roads for that country? There isn’t room to plow there now, we’ve got so much pavement and gravel in that country.”
He next sought to solidify his political position by running for the United States Senate against an ancient incumbent, Joseph Ransdell, whose goatee inspired Huey to call him “Feather Duster” and “Old Trashy Mouth.” Long promised that if elected he would remain as governor; if defeated, he would resign. The only fireworks in the campaign came when one Sam Irby contended that he had been kidnapped by the Kingfish. (Irby was the uncle by marriage of Alice Lee Grosjean, a sparkling little brunette whom Huey had raised from his private secretary to Louisiana’s Secretary of State.) Right before election day, however, Uncle Sam turned up and said it was all a misunderstanding.