The Long, Long Trail

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It was more than a war of invective, however. Huey skillfully concocted a simple formula of immense appeal to the one-third of the nation whom F. D. R. had labelled ill-clothed, ill-housed, and ill-fed. The “Share Our Wealth” program had been germinating in Huey’s head as far back as 1918. While he kept juggling the figures, the general outline was this: all fortunes over $5,000,000 (or $3,000,000) would be liquidated; from this fund every family would get $4,000 (or $5,000) to purchase a home, an automobile, and a radio; the minimum annual wage would be $2,500; the maximum allowable income per year would be $1,800,000; there would be free education from kindergarten through college, plenty of food from government surpluses, and cash bonuses for veterans. Over 27,000 Share Our Wealth clubs sprang up all over the United States and even in Canada, claiming a total membership of 7,682,768 (no dues required). Huey had to hire a staff of forty-eight stenographers to handle the mail, which reached a high of 37,000 pieces a day. The movement’s newspaper carried more advertisements than the Saturday Evening Post . Its catchy theme song, inspired by William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, was composed by Huey himself. ( In the wintertime or spring:/There’ll be peace without end,/Every neighbor a friend,/With every man a king .)

Huey later outlined his utopia in a book, My First Days in the White House , published posthumously in 1935. Written in the past tense, it starts with the Kingfish delivering his inaugural address at the Capitol. He then chooses his Cabinet: Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, Al Smith as Director of the Budget, Franklin Roosevelt as Secretary of the Navy. (F. D. R.: “What in the world do you mean by offering me a Cabinet post, after all the things you have said about me as President?” Huey: “I only offered you a position which I thought you were qualified to fill.”) President Huey proceeds to call the Mayo brothers to Washington to supervise free medical care for every American, and gets John D. Rockefeller, with Andrew Mellon as his assistant, cheerfully to direct the redistribution of the wealth. Today the book reads like satire, often wildly funny.

The President and James A. Parley, Democratic national chairman, were not amused by the Kingfish, his antics, or his program. Roosevelt wrote Colonel House that the Republicans were probably financing Huey, and Parley ordered a secret poll to determine Long’s strength. Much to Parley’s surprise, the poll showed that Huey might get 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 votes if he ran for President on a third-party ticket in 1936. “His support was not confined to Louisiana and nearby states,” said Parley. “His ‘share the wealth’ program was attracting strength in industrial and farm areas of the north.”

Then fate stepped in. Huey had always had a morbid fear of assassination and surrounded himself with gunmen. In July, 1935, he told the Senate that his enemies had gathered in a New Orleans hotel to plan his death with “one man, one gun, and one bullet.” (Newspaper editor Hodding Carter attended that antiLong meeting and later reported that “the ‘plotting’ was limited to such hopefully expressed comments as ‘Good God, I wish somebody would kill the son of a bitch.’ ”)

On the night of Sunday, September 8, Senator Long was in Baton Rouge to direct a special session of the legislature. O. K. Alien was governor, but Huey restricted Alien’s function to signing what was put before him. (“A leaf blew in the window of Alien’s office,” said Earl Long, “and fell on his desk. He signed it.”) As Huey hurried along the polished floor of the capitol, trailed by his gunmen, thirty-year-old Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, the son-in-law of an anti-Long judge, walked up to the Kingfish, pressed a .22 Belgian automatic pistol into his stomach, and fired a single shot. The assassin may have felt that his action would shield his family from a racial slur that he believed Huey was about to make. No one will ever know for certain: Carl Austin Weiss was instantly killed by a hail of bullets from the Senator’s bodyguards. Huey Pierce Long died on the second day after the shooting.

Twenty-eight years later Russell Long would rise in the United States Senate and say, “The news of the events that happened in Dallas that fateful Friday last month swept back all the crushing memories of another day—in 1935—when Baton Rouge was the scene of murder of a top governmental official. The Kennedy family would mourn the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963. How well I know that special grief.”

Huey was buried in the shadow of the thirty-four-story state capitol, which he had had built for $5,000,000. (“Only one building compares with it in architecture,” he had then said. “That’s St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, Italy.” Earl called it “a silo.”)

The poor people who loved him, from Dry Prong and Napoleonville and Winnfield, 150,000 of them, watched his coffin lowered into a hastily dug grave, and heard Gerald L. K. Smith, a Share Our Wealth organizer, give a self-serving funeral oration: I was with him when he died. I said “Amen” as he breathed his last. His final prayer was this: “O God, don’t let me die; I have a few things more to do.” The work which he left undone we must complete. As one with no political ambition and who seeks no gratuities at the hand of the State, I challenge you, my comrades, to complete the task.