August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
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
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.
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.”
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.
It was also charged by the Constitutional League, an anti-Long reform group, that Huey had appointed twenty-three relatives to the state payroll. The Kingfish dubbed his attacker “the Constipational League.” Considering the number of cousins he had, Huey told reporters, the percentage working for the state was pretty low. “Of course, I gave my wife’s brother a job. I have to live with his sister! You would do it too.”
The Constitutional League disbanded the day after the senatorial primary. Huey was now governor and senator-elect, and would soon also become Democratic national committeeman and Democratic slate chairman. There was no longer any doubt of who was Louisiana’s Kingfish.
Having been attacked by the good-government element for doing too much for his family, Huey was now to be publicly attacked by his family for not doing enough. He had appointed brother Earl as inheritancetax collector of New Orleans, a post that could pay-as much as $15,000 in good years. (Earlier Huey had promised to abolish the job and use the money to build a new hospital for tuberculars on Lake Pontchartrain; now a newspaper printed a picture of Earl captioned, “New Lakefront TB Hospital.”) In 1932 Earl felt it was his turn to hold higher office. Huey argued that it would be politically disastrous to have brother succeed brother. But Earl disregarded the warning and filed for lieutenant governor. A tall, lean scrapper, he had sunk his teeth so deeply into the neck of a state representative during the impeachment fight that the legislator had taken a shot of lockjaw serum.
The Long family, the sisters and the eldest brother, Julius, rushed to Earl’s support. In the 1932 campaign Julius attacked Huey across the state. (“I swear that I do not know of a man, any human being, that has less feeling for his family than Huey P. Long has.”) Huey answered with silence; he had the votes. O. K. Alien was elected governor, and Earl Long was badly defeated for lieutenant governor.
The year 1932 also marked Huey’s entrance on the national scene. At the presidential convention the Kingfish whipped Arkansas and Mississippi into line for F. D. R. Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana said, “Roosevelt would never have won the Democratic nomination in 1932, in my opinion, but for Huey Long.” Boss Flynn of the Bronx agreed.
In the Senate, however, the Kingfish was considerably less effective. But the people were still fascinated by him. Alice Roosevelt Longworth described the scene in the galleries as Huey entered the Senate chamber. “All heads are immediately turned in his direction, and a veritable hum becomes audible. As he moves across the floor at his curious, rolling, loose-jointed gait, every eye follows him with an expression made up of interest, amusement and expectancy.” Observed the sharp-tongued Princess Alice, “I have seen the same sort of look in the eyes of children as they pore over the comic strip following the adventures of the mischievous cartoon kids and their puppy dogs, goats, and other attractively uncouth animals.”
The spectators didn’t go away disappointed. Huey conducted massive one-man filibusters (one lasting more than fifteen hours); he dictated recipes for fried oysters and Roquefort dressing; he announced, “I will accommodate any senator tonight on any point on which he needs advice”; he proposed to enact a law making it mandatory to play the Jew’s harp with outward instead of inward strokes. And when he sat down, the galleries emptied. “Yes, you can go now!” Vice President Garner once called to the departing spectators. “The show’s over!” In short, Huey broke every treasured rule of Senate decorum, leading Tennessee’s Kenneth McKellar to say, “I don’t believe he could get the Lord’s Prayer endorsed in this body.”
The Kingfish was off the Roosevelt bandwagon almost before he had climbed aboard. The split between F. D. R. and Huey was inevitable: one occupied the White House, the other wanted to. The junior senator from Louisiana now turned his scathing invective on the President and those around him. Long dubbed Roosevelt “Prince Franklin, Knight of the Nourmahal ” (after Vincent Astor’s yacht); New Dealers Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes, and Hugh Johnson he called respectively, “Lord Corn,” “the Chicago Chinch Bug,” and “Sitting Bull.” Johnson’s National Recovery Administration—the NRA—was renamed “Nuts Running America.” Only Ickes could match Huey’s colorful abuse: the Secretary of the Interior shot back, “The emperor of Louisiana has halitosis of the intellect.”
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.
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.
A lieutenant governor, Earl had never been part of the inner circle. He disliked Leche. “The office of lieutenant governor is a part-time job paying $200 a month,” said Earl. “While I was lieutenant governor I spent twenty per cent of my time in Baton Rouge. The rest of my time I spent on a pea patch farm in Winnfield or practicing law in New Orleans.” He was never implicated in the scandals. “I ain’t against stealing,” Earl joked, “but it takes two of us to steal and the other might squeal.” The Longs were always more interested in power than in money, anyway.
Later Time Magazine would say of the second Long governor: “Earl has aped his brother with the beetlebrowed assiduousness of a vaudeville baboon learning to roller-skate; he rubs himself with the legend of Huey’s greatness like a voodoo worshiper using ‘Fast Dice Oil.’ ” There was no doubt that Earl lived in the shadow of his brother. Even when he reached the exalted position of governor, the zenith of his ambition, there was Huey right below his office window: a huge, perpetually lighted bronze statue of the Kingfish that the state had erected over his grave. But Huey was more than a magic charm to be rubbed smooth; he was also the rivalled sibling. When Earl became the only three-time governor of the state, his first thought was, “Huey never done that.” Huey was Earl’s yardstick, always there for comparison. “I ain’t like Huey. He could go a-chomping around and get away with it. I’ve gotta go slower—I might get my head knocked off. Maybe I ain’t as much of a genius. But I got more horse sense.” And again, “Huey used to buy the legislature like a sack of potatoes. Hell, I never bought one in my life. I just rent ’em. It’s cheaper that way.” And again, “I’ve done more for the poor people of this state than any other governor. The only other governor who came close was my brother Huey, and he was just starting out. I’ve got his experience and I’ve got my experience, and you’ll see that I can make a better governor.”
When Earl inherited Leche’s scandal-ridden administration, he announced that his motto would be, “Better a little with righteousness, than a great revenue without right.” But it was soon clear that the new governor would not be a reformer. He needed the organization to get elected in 1940, and the last thing the organization wanted was a new broom. After the president of L.S.U. changed his academic gown for horizontal stripes, Earl remarked, “Don’t blame everyone. Look at Jesus Christ. He picked twelve. And one of ’em was a sonofagun!”
The 1940 gubernatorial race proved that Earl Long was a worthy successor to the Kingfish in invective. Of his opponent, a successful small-city lawyer named Sam Jones, Earl said: “He’s High Hat Sam, the High Society Kid, the High-Kicking, High and Mighty Snide Sam, the guy that pumps perfume under his arms.” The Governor told the hill farmers, “You vote for a good old country boy from over here in Winn Parish that thinks and smells like you on Saturday.” Replied his opponents, “Earl Long posing as a leader of the Huey Long peoplel That’s like Judas Iscariot running on the platform of Jesus Christ.” A hostile cartoonist pictured a disreputable bunch in a café plastered with signs, “Vote for Honest Earl; He Ain’t Like Us Burglars.” And there was Earl at the piano saying, “I just work here. I eat out.” Momentarily at least, Louisiana had had enough of Huey’s heirs; though Earl received 40.9 per cent of the vote in the primary, he lost by slightly more than 19,000 votes in the runoff. Immediately after the election he tried unsuccessfully to get himself appointed Secretary of State. Then there was nothing he could do but go back to his pea patch in Winnfield. For the first time since 1912, when Julius was elected district attorney of Winn Parish, no member of the Long dynasty held public office.
By 1948, however, the people of Louisiana were already fed up with the good-government element. Sam Jones had been succeeded as governor by Jimmie Davis, composer of “You Are My Sunshine.” If the reformers had the virtue of honesty, they also committed the political sin of being incredibly dull. (Moreover, Davis proved to be an absentee governor, spending 108 days out of the state in 1946-47 while making a movie in Hollywood.)
So Earl ran again for governor, determined that he would not be defeated for lack of promises. His something-for-everyone platform offered bonuses for veterans, hot lunches for school children, higher salaries for teachers, increased old-age pensions, wider highways, improved mental institutions, more and better hospitals and prisons.
He also recruited an impressive array of familial support. Rose, Huey’s widow, came out of retirement to say a few nice words about her brother-in-law; brother George campaigned briefly; nephew Russell—now a naval veteran of World War II—was back on the stump; and a new face, cousin Gillis Long, pitched in too. In the runoff primary Earl carried 62 of the State’s 64 parishes; all but 33 of 539 wards.
To celebrate the Longs’ return to power after eight years on the pea patch, Earl staged a jumbo inauguration in the L.S.U. football stadium. There were cowboys, clowns, a baseball game, and a two-hour parade, with 140 high school bands; refreshments included 16,000 gallons of buttermilk, 240,000 bottles of soda pop, 200,000 hot dogs. There was only one embarrassing incident: Russell Long received a greater ovation than the new governor.
It was not easy to be Huey P. Long’s son. The young man whose bulbous nose, cleft chin, and unruly hair might have been traced from his father’s image had had more than his share of schoolboy fights in defense of the family name. At the tender age of thirteen Russell Long had granted his first press interview. “I miss my father a lot since he went to Washington.” As he escorted the reporter to the door, he added, “When I get big and run for office, I want you to remember the promise you made to vote for me.” By 1938 he was a candidate—for president of the L.S.U. student body. Russell hired airplanes to shower the campus with literature, imported Ted (“Is everybody happy?”) Lewis’ dance band, painted L-O-N-G on the bare backs of a bevy of bathing beauties. His victory was followed by a law degree, also at L.S.U., and Navy service as a landing-boat officer in North Africa and Sicily, at Anzio, and in southern France.
In the spring of 1948 Governor-elect Earl made him his executive counsel, in which post he helped draft the promised new programs (and the unpromised legislation providing for $80,000,000 in additional taxes to pay for them). Two months later United States Senator John Overton died, and Russell was soon campaigning in shirt sleeves, tie loosened, arms windmilling in rank imitation of his father. He compared his opponent, Robert Kennon, to a “mosquito dodging through a barrage of Flit.” The comparison, by Huey’s standards, was tepid. For Russell was a city boy and a college graduate masquerading as a Winn Parish bumpkin. Liebling found him a “toned-down” Long, “which is the equivalent of a Samson with a store haircut.” But if he didn’t have quite the right smell on Saturday, he at least had the right name and physiognomy.
On November 2, 1948, Russell B. Long was elected to the United States Senate; the next day he celebrated his thirtieth birthday. He became the first American to have been preceded in the Senate by both his father and mother.
In 1952, when Earl Long was prevented by state law from succeeding himself as governor, a split developed between him and Russell that was reminiscent of the great intra-dynasty battle of 1932. Earl supported Judge Carlos Späht as his replacement; his nephew was for Congressman Hale Boggs. The fight between Long and Long, as usual, overshadowed the mainrounder. Earl: “Russell Long was picked too green on the vine.” Russell: “If I was picked too green on the vine, then Uncle Earl is too ripe on the vine and should be picked at once.”
The result was that neither Long-backed candidate won. Historically a Long gets forty per cent of the first primary vote. In the runoff he needs to pick up only another ten per cent, which is assured if his opponents cannot unite against him. In 1952 the Longs’ forty per cent was divided about in half, Earl’s man getting 22.8 per cent, Russell’s man 18.7. Robert Kennon, who had lost to Russell when the Longs were united in 1948, became governor.
By 1956, however, Earl was back in the running. In fact, the Longs were in the embarrassing position of a baseball team with three runners on one base: Earl wanted to be governor; so did Russell; so did George, who had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1952. After they exchanged a few mutually unkind words, Earl emerged as the dynasty’s candidate, and went on to win a stunning victory over New Orleans Mayor deLesseps S. Morrison (“Dellasoups,” Earl called him). At the inauguration George said, “We always seem to get together at this time of year, particularly every four years.”
Earl Long, three times governor of Louisiana and beginning to fail physically, then had his wife elected Democratic national committeewoman. There had even been a story that he wanted George to resign so that he could give “Miz Blanche” a congressional seat. Earl had met pretty, dark-haired Blanche Revere while he was at law school and she was working behind the cigar counter at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans. Unlike Rose Long, who claimed she never talked politics with Huey, Blanche became her husband’s trusted political confidante. “I guess all the Longs just naturally take to politics,” Blanche said, “and even though I’m a Long by marriage, I guess I take to it too.” In 1948 she ran Earl’s state campaign headquarters, and during his middle term as governor there was a rash of editorials about “petticoat politics.”
The spring of 1959 closed around Earl Long. He was by now a sick man, having already suffered one thrombosis; he was an aging man, cut off by law from running for governor again; he was a childless man, with “the pressures,” said one psychiatrist, “of being the childless branch of a dynasty.” And he was a man suddenly standing alone against the terrible spectre of mass race hatred.
An explosion of fears and forces in the South that followed the Supreme Court decision on desegregation of the schools produced the White Citizens Councils, and in Louisiana a racist state senator named Willie Rainach sought to translate their bigotry into local law. The Longs had always paid lip service to segregation, but it had never been one of the tenets of their faith. (“My father and my mother favored the Union,” old Huey Long, Sr., had said. “Why not? They didn’t have slaves. They didn’t even have decent land.”) Now, as Rainach steamrolled his anti-Negro bills through the legislature, the physically and mentally ill Governor threw his once-impressive body in their path. “A lot of people are following you, not because they agree with you but because they’re scared of you,” Earl shouted at Rainach. “I’m for segregation one hundred per cent, but I don’t believe you should run for office on it.”
His voice rising and cracking under the strain, Earl Long hurled obscenities at the legislators over statewide television. Before the eyes of his terrified wife he shed the personal characteristics of a lifetime. He started chain-smoking, carried a soda-pop bottle filled with grape juice and gin (“one hundred proof Coke,” said a reporter), and had well-publicized trysts with a red-headed stripper named Blaze Starr. Here were all the elements of an international news story. L E GOUVERNEUR TERRIBLE , headlined a French journal. A governor was dying, and attention must be paid.
After consulting with Russell, Blanche arranged to have a National Guard plane fly Earl to a mental institution across the state border in Galveston. She gave her story of the Governor’s crack-up to Life Magazine: “They say that when Earl gets out of the hospital he will take his certificate of health and take it out on the campaign trail with him. Then he can say he is the only man in the race who can actually prove he is sane. The people will laugh and be happy again because they know he is the only man in the state who really knows their wants and needs. And I’ll be happy again, too. I will know in my heart of hearts that he is well again. I’ve lived with this turbulent character for twenty-seven years and I love him very much.” But the story didn’t have a “they-lived-happily-ever-after” ending. What followed was more like a tragic performance of the Keystone Cops. Earl wangled his release from the Galveston institution on the promise of entering Ochsner Clinic at New Orleans, then promptly walked out of Ochsner. Blanche countered by getting him committed to a state hospital for the insane; Earl immediately fired the superintendent and replaced him with a doctor who signed his release.
Earl Long’s final race for state-wide office was as a candidate for lieutenant governor. He could manage to place no better than third in a six-man field. But there was still one last effort to be made.
In the Eighth Congressional District, heartland of the Longs’ domain, young Harold B. McSween had been elected to the seat left vacant by the death of Earl’s brother, George. In 1959, after his defeat for lieutenant governor, Earl decided to take on McSween. On the night before the primary Earl suffered another heart attack, but refused to enter a hospital for fear that it would deter people from voting for him. As the voters went to the polls on August 27, Earl Long gasped in pain on a bed in the Hotel Bentley in Alexandria. Finally, after the polls had closed and the news could no longer affect his chances, Earl went to the hospital. He won the primary for Congress by some 6,000 votes. Earlier that year he had announced, “I won’t quit running until I die.” On September 5 he died.
For the moment, this left only one Long on the national scene—Russell, who in 1948, at the age of thirty, had entered the United States Senate, a legislative body whose rules of civilized procedure had been bent and burlesqued by his father. Some of his older colleagues had been witness to Huey’s tirades. And here was a young man who arrived in Washington with the announced intention of vindicating the Kingfish’s name. He meant it; to Cabell Phillips of the New York Times Russell said, “I think my father was one of the greatest men of his time. He was certainly the greatest man I ever knew.”
But Russell was a second-generation legislator who, like other sons of self-made men, worked hard to maintain a newly won respectability. If his father was the shirt-sleeved laborer, he was the man in the gray flannel suit—Louisiana style. “I guess the main difference between me and my father,” Russell said, “is that the only way he knew to get the things he wanted was to fight and raise hell for them. He wanted all these good things to happen right now—fast. I know you can’t get things that fast, and I’m satisfied to take my time. And if I do that, and make a good senator, then I figure people will be bound to say, ‘Well, Huey Long must not have been so bad after all.’ ”
By his third term in the Senate, Russell had outgrown his compulsion to be the “Princefish,” merely Huey’s boy. “I have a fond and warm recollection of my father,” he said in 1963, “but I have my job to do, and for a long time now I have been working for Russell Long, not Huey Long.” When he steered President Johnson’s tax program through the Senate in 1964, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who opposed it, called him a “legislative artist in action.”
After Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for Vice President in August, 1964, Russell Long quietly began lining up votes to succeed him as majority whip of the Senate. While his chief opponent, John O. Pasture of Rhode Island, campaigned by sending a belated form letter to his fellow senators, Russell made a point of personally asking his colleagues for their support. He was assured of a sizable bloc of southern votes, but newspapermen were surprised at his strength among northern and western liberals. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, the most outspoken foe of the filibuster, agreed to become his campaign manager; Paul Douglas of Illinois, torchbearer for economic liberalism, announced that he was for Long because “he has a warm heart and a compassion for the poor.”
On the first day of the Eighty-ninth Congress he was elected Democratic whip. He was following in powerful footsteps: of the last three whips, one was now President; one was Vice President; and the third, Mike Mansfield of Montana, was majority leader. Moreover, the chairman of the Finance Committee, Harry Byrd, retired within a year. The ancient Virginian was able to turn his Senate seat over to his son, but not his seniority, and so Russell took over his chairmanship. The Louisiana senator announced defiantly that he would also retain his position as whip, and, despite minor senatorial grousing, his right to hold two powerful offices at the same time was not challenged.
Russell Long, whose father could not have gotten the Lord’s Prayer passed by the Senate, was now hailed (by William S. White) as “a genuine Senator’s Senator.” Said a colleague, “Unless he overplays his hand, Russell Long is about to become the most powerful man in the Senate.”
Long concedes readily that he would like to be majority leader. But is this the ultimate goal of his ambition? Tom Wicker, the astute Washington bureau chief of the New York Times , believes that under certain circumstances the Democrats, anxious for a moderate who could hold the South’s 128 electoral votes, could tap Russell for a future vice-presidential nomination. There are others who paint a less promising picture of the Senator’s future. They see his present position of national leadership in the Democratic party as basically inconsistent with the views of the party in Louisiana, especially on civil rights issues. And those who walk a tightrope must run the risks of a fall.
Meanwhile, two other Longs, both third cousins of the Senator, are making their way up the political ladder. Gillis first went to Washington in 1948, as a staff member of a Senate committee on which Russell served, and in 1962 defeated incumbent Harold McSween to become congressman from Louisiana’s Eighth District. Within a year he was running for governor with Russell’s backing. He finished third.
While Gillis was in Washington another cousin with the colorful name of Speedy O. Long (he had been born two months prematurely) was immersing himself in state politics. His father, Felix, ran a barbershop in Tulles, also serving as town councilman and as mayor. “Politics was all we ever had for breakfast,” Speedy remembers. “I was brought up to think that Huey Long was God Almighty, Earl Long was Jesus Christ and George was St. Peter.” He was elected to the Louisiana senate in 1959, but his ambitions were set higher. When Cousin Gillis came up for re-election in 1964, Speedy decided to contest his seat.
The Democratic primary came three weeks after passage of the Civil Rights Act, and in Louisiana emotions ran high. Both Longs were segregationists (Gillis had voted against the act), but Speedy was outspoken and Gillis, by central Louisiana standards, hadn’t spoken loudly enough. With the support of, among other elements, the “Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Realm of Louisiana” (their slogan: “Let Gillis go. Elect Speedy O.”), Speedy won the primary by 4,900 votes; in the election that fall he won easily, though Republican Barry Goldwater carried the district by two and a half to one. Gillis has returned to Louisiana, and there are reports that in 1967 he may try again for the governorship.
The Longs of Louisiana: brothers—Huey, Earl, and George; wives—Rose and Blanche; and cousins in the next generation—Russell, Gillis, and Speedy. Two governors, a lieutenant governor; three United States senators, elected five times; three congressmen, elected five times. All in two generations!
Huey, of course, was the colossus; without him there could have been no dynasty. Some dynasts- are the driving force within the family, instilling the desire for office and the sense of public service in their heirs, but leaving little mark on their times. Others become dynasts because of the mark they have left; their flamboyant personalities or records of achievement create a demand for those who bear their name. Huey Long was of the latter variety. There is no record that he set out to create a dynasty; the dynasty was created because there was Huey.
This is not to say that there is no pride of family in the Longs, but it was not the force that initially propelled the dynasty. And as often as not family pride was blunted by competing ambitions. Like a child’s kaleidoscope whose loose fragments form an endless variety of patterns, political relationships within the dynasty have been in a constant process of change as Longs fought one another, united, and fought again.
Yet through it all there has been a steadfastness to the populist legacy of Huey. The differences have not been ideological. Beneath the comic antics and political cynicism of Huey and Earl, there was a genuine desire to better the condition of the poor and disinherited. It was the root of their strength. And, by and large, it has been passed on to the second generation.
The generational differences, then, have been more of style than of substance. Though columnist Russell Baker sees in Russell Long “a tempestuous, moody, unpredictable charmer” who reminds him of a minor Labour party official in the Welsh coal country, this only contrasts him with today’s I.B.M. senator, not with his galluses-snapping, buttock-scratching father. Even Speedy O. Long, with his redneck appeal, dresses conservatively in dark suit and rep tie, speaks softly, and displays a worldly vocabulary. It is difficult to imagine Russell or Gillis or Speedy spreading a newspaper on the floor of the governor’s mansion and spending an evening spitting on it, as Earl once did to keep his disgust fresh for “them lyin’ newspapers.”
The new Longs have been housebroken. Compared to their forebears, they are tame, professional, homogenized. Huey said, “I don’t see any harm in lightening up the tragedy of politics. …” But in his heirs some of that electricity is gone, a sacrificial offering to the gods of respectability.
It is hard to believe that it is less than a half century since the first Long arose as a political force. They are a young dynasty. The members of the second generation are only in their thirties and forties. And in a state where third cousins can claim political kinship, there are plenty of Longs for every occasion. Recently, at the opening session of the state legislature, Speedy Long held up his infant son in diapers for all to see. He just wanted Louisiana to know that the dynasty is “going to be around awhile.”