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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
A biographer corrected the record: “Senator Long died, reluctantly and in a sort of childish hysteria, murmuring words which an ignoramus at the bedside translated into a bit of heroics about the Kingfish’s unfulfilled mission for America.”
To the hill people of northern Louisiana, Huey P. Long remains a kind of back-parish Robin Hood. In southern Louisiana the Cajuns still sing of him in ballad: O they say he was a crook/But he gave us free Schoolbook/Now tell me why is it they kill Huey Long? His career has inspired at least four novels. And from the myth that survived him a great political dynasty has been built.
What would have been Huey’s future had he not been murdered at forty-two? Louisiana’s Senator Alien Eilender feels that legal obstacles would have kept him from starting a third-party movement in 1936, and had he not been able to block Roosevelt’s renomination, he would have supported a progressive Republican for President. This is what may have prompted Forrest Davis to write that “the superstitious might be justified in regarding Long’s death as another example of ‘Roosevelt luck.’ ” Earle Christenberry, Huey’s friend and secretary, feels that he would have run for President in 1940. Probably by that time war and prosperity would have eroded the Kingfish’s political influence. Another school of thought contends that he would have gone to jail. The chief of the U.S. Secret Service and the head of the Treasury Department’s Intelligence and Enforcement Division claim that they had a clear case of tax evasion against Huey. (Yet, as the New Orleans newspaperman Hermann Deutsch points out, after Huey’s death the government lost its strongest tax-evasion case against a Long underling.) President or prisoner? It is the sort of choice that Huey would have liked.
Probably the best assessment of the Kingfish, possibly the only fair one that can be made, was spoken, not surprisingly, by Huey Long himself: “Just say I’m sui generis , and let it go at that.”
While Rose, Huey’s widow, was filling out the last year of her husband’s unexpired term in the Senate, those contending for Huey’s mantle in the Long organization were working out a ticket for the 1936 election. Gerald L. K. Smith was squeezed out (and left Louisiana to re-emerge as the nation’s leading anti-Semite). Portly Richard Lèche, a state judge, became candidate for governor; Earl Long was named to run as lieutenant governor. There had been a reconciliation between the brothers shortly before Huey’s death—at least, as the Kingfish put it, Earl had been placed “on probation.”
To show further that Dick Leche was the true heir of the Kingfish, Huey’s seventeen-year-old son Russell, a freshman at L.S.U., was paraded around the state at political meetings. Young Russell, who everyone said was the “spit ’n’ image” of his father, had been born while Huey was out campaigning, and had been taught to fold and mail political literature by the time he could walk. His first state-wide appearances proved him to be a real comer, and he drew generous applause for a short, pat speech: “I’d like to meet all of you and shake hands with you, but I really came just to thank you for your friendship to my father.”
There was only one issue in the campaign—Huey’s martyrdom. Gerald L. K. Smith had correctly seen that “the martyr’s blood is the seed of victory.” Speakers for the Long ticket carried basins of red dye, and while the fluid trickled through their fingers, they declaimed: “Here it is, like the blood Huey Long shed for you, the blood that stained the floor as it poured from his body. Are you going to vote for those who planned this deed and carried it into execution?” Leche received a resounding 67.1 per cent of the vote. Earl Long got 12,000 fewer votes, an indication perhaps that not everyone had forgiven him for his quarrel with his late brother. The ghost of the Kingfish proved to be a greater vote-getter than Huey Long had ever been in the flesh.
Huey had been at his prophetic best when he said of his henchmen, “If those fellows ever try to use the powers I’ve given them without me to hold them down, they’ll all land in the penitentiary.” Now that Huey was gone, Roosevelt wanted an end to his political war with Louisiana, and so called off the income-tax prosecutions pending against the Long leaders—an arrangement dubbed the “Second Louisiana Purchase.” This was immediately followed by an orgy that clearly overstepped “the fuzzy limits of allowable graft,” according to Allan P. Sindler. “When I took the oath as governor,” said Dick Leche, “I didn’t take any vows of poverty.”
Finally Washington was forced to send in a young Assistant Attorney General, O. John Rogge, to clean up the mess. Leche was found to have had an income of $282,000 in 1938 on a governor’s salary of $7,500. The state had been constructing buildings and paying for them twice, a practice called the “double-dip.” James Monroe Smith, the President of L.S.U., had been secretly printing state bonds to cover his wild stock speculations. Governor Leche was given ten years in the federal penitentiary; the Democratic national committeeman, four years; “Doc” Smith, two and a half.
And in the wake of the scandals, as Leche was marched off to jail, Lieutenant Governor Earl Long became the new governor of Louisiana.