October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
A brilliant demagogue named Huey Long was scrambling for the Presidency when an assassin’s bullets cut him down just fifty years ago
In May 1932 Louisiana’s flamboyant senator, Huey Pierce Long, told a throng of newspapermen to prepare for a headline-making announcement. After months of temporizing, he was finally ready to reveal whom he would support for his party’s presidential nomination at the upcoming Democratic national convention: his choice was the patrician governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were an odd couple, and the decision was not one the Kingfish—a nickname borrowed from the popular “Amos ’n Andy” radio show—had come to easily. Five months earlier he had said of FDR, “He ran too poorly with Cox in 1920, and he would be certain to be beat.” Even now he told a proRoosevelt senator, “I didn’t like your son of a bitch, but I’ll be for him.” In this unpromising fashion began an improbable alliance that would soon be transformed into the stormiest political rivalry of the decade: the conflict between FDR and the Kingfish.
By 1932 Long had already established himself as a figure of national consequence, though he had only arrived in Washington at the start of the year. It had been a debut, however, that the capital was still talking about. There is a wellestablished rule that not only are freshman senators supposed to be silent, they are supposed to be invisible. But on his first day in the Senate, Huey bounced onto the Senate floor, slapped one distinguished senator on the back, poked an Old Guard Republican in the ribs, and ran around the chamber telling everyone the Kingfish had arrived—all the while puffing on a big cigar, in violation of Senate rules. By the end of the week, Long had attracted more attention than had been accorded a freshman senator in many, many years.
Some of this attention simply resulted from Huey’s remarkable flair for focusing the spotlight on himself by deliberately flouting propriety. But he drew attention, too, because at a time in the Great Depression when twelve million people were unemployed, he was the best-known advocate of an ancient panacea: sharing the wealth. A few weeks after he took his Senate seat, he introduced a resolution to limit fortunes to one hundred million dollars—and divide up the residue.
But perhaps the most important reason reporters crowded around Long was that he would control Louisiana’s votes at the 1932 Democratic national convention and have a lot to say about the ballots of neighboring Mississippi as well. Once Huey decided to back FDR, he went all the way, and a number of observers credit him with playing a crucial role. “There is no question in my mind,” the Bronx County boss, Edward J. Flynn, later declared, “but that without Long’s work Roosevelt might not have been nominated.”
Long’s performance at the convention proved to be the high point of his association with Roosevelt; it was downhill from there. Imbued with a sense of his own importance, he was determined to shape FDR’s policies. He even wanted a whole campaign train for himself, in part to promote views that conflicted with Roosevelt’s. But the Democratic campaign manager, Jim Parley, shuttled him off to the Great Plains, where he could do little harm (and actually did some good), and Roosevelt kept him at arm’s length.
Angry at his inability to win the kinds of commitments he sought, Huey made no secret of his displeasure with Roosevelt’s behavior. On one occasion, shortly after the convention, he was heard shouting over a phone: “Goddamn it, Frank, don’t you know who nominated you? Why do you have … all those Wall Street blankety blanks up there to see you? How do you think it looks to the country? How can I explain it to my people?” A short time afterward, Long reported: “When I talk to him, he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ But [Sen.] Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day, and again he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says ‘Fine!’ to everybody.”
The climactic encounter took place at the end of the first Hundred Days of 1933. Throughout that early springtime of the New Deal, Long had noised his objections to a good number of Roosevelt’s proposals and not a few of his appointees. When he visited the White House, he was in a cocky, even insolent, mood. He wore a sailor straw hat that he kept on his head, except when he used it to tap the President on the knee or the elbow to make a point. Roosevelt never blinked. But by the close of the interview it was clear to the senator that none of the vast federal patronage destined for Louisiana was to go to him.
After that, Long and Roosevelt parted ways. Some thought they separated because the Kingfish was disappointed in patronage. Long said it was because he disagreed with FDR’s policies. The real reason for the break, though, was surely more complex.
Few rivalries of the 1930s cut so deeply as the conflict between Roosevelt and Long. Each held or was bidding for national power at a time when, in much of the world, totalitarianism was coming to seem the wave of the future. Roosevelt was one of many who feared that unless certain social changes were made peacefully, they would ultimately be made violently and democracy might not survive. For the President and his circle, the threat to democracy came from two sources: the Old Guard conservatives who resisted change and the men like Huey Long who would exploit popular discontent if change was not achieved.
Roosevelt and Long each sensed that there was not room enough in Washington for both of them. One political commentator wrote of Long: “Obviously he cannot succeed while the country still has hopes of the success of the New Deal and trusts the President. Huey’s chances depend on those sands of hope and trust running out.” FDR, in turn, was aware that if he stumbled, the Kingfish would be there to gobble up the pieces. “It’s all very well for us to laugh over Huey,” he told an aide, “but actually we have to remember all the time that he really is one of the two most dangerous men in the country. (Asked if he had Father Coughlin in mind as the second dangerous man, the President said, “Oh no. The other is Douglas MacArthur.”)
To the New Dealers, Long’s Louisiana served as a model for the kind of despotism the country might experience if they did not succeed, for in that state Huey was unabashedly creating a personal dictatorship. He bullied the legislature, intimidated the courts to the point at which their independence all but vanished, and kept a squad of tough—and sometimes savage—bodyguards around him at all times.
Even Long’s most sympathetic biographer, T. Harry Williams, has conceded: “He wanted to do good, but for that he had to have power. So he took power and then to do more good seized still more power, and finally the means and the end became so entwined in his mind that he could not distinguish between them, could not tell whether he wanted power as a method or for its own sake. He gave increasing attention to building his power structure, and as he built it, he did strange, ruthless, and cynical things.”
“This is my university,” Long said of Louisiana State University. “I can fire a thousand of these students and get ten thousand in place of them any time I feel like it.” When he learned that a student newspaper planned to carry a letter critical of him, he ordered the presses stopped and the letter deleted. He sent a squad of state troopers to see that the edict was carried out. The university suspended the editor and five members of the staff. Huey explained, “I like students, but this state is puttin’ up the money for that college, and I ain’t payin’ anybody to criticize me.”
Long made a point of showing his contempt for the democratic process. When asked how the Kingfish had built his majority in the legislature, one Long leader explained, “They all didn’t come for free.” Huey, who said of one member of the legislature, “We got that guy so cheap we thought we stole him,” boasted openly that his legislature was the “finest collection of lawmakers money can buy.” (Years later, his brother Earl, who also became a memorable governor of Louisiana, remarked: “Huey used to buy the legislature like a sack of potatoes. Hell, I never bought one in my life. 1 just rent ’em. It’s cheaper that way.”) Huey’s legislators voted like automatons. While U.S. senator, Long handed one session of the legislature forty-four bills. In little more than two hours the legislature adopted all forty-four.
One commentator wrote in July 1935, “Unlike the German intelligentsia, who could not judge from experience what Hitler might do, Americans may turn the pages of Louisiana’s recent history for … insight into the sort of country we would have if Long became our Hitler.”
A number of historians have protested applying the term fascist to Long, and with good reason. He had elaborated no antidemocratic ideology, no conception of a corporate state. “Long’s political fantasies,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., observes, “had no tensions, no conflicts, except of the most banal kind, no heroism or sacrifice, no compelling myths of class or race or nation.” And unlike other Southern demagogues, Long did not rise to power by racist rhetoric against blacks. Though there were serious incidents of suppression of civil liberties in Louisiana, to the end of his life Long was openly attacked by most of the newspapers of his state. Long’s political beliefs, a number of writers have stressed, were native to American soil, the culmination of a time-honored line of agrarian dissent.
Yet it is also true that Long—far more than has sometimes been acknowledged—did represent a threat to democracy. His hostility to voluntaristic organizations—from labor unions to bar associations—suggested a totalitarian mentality. His contempt for legislatures, his vengeful, even sadistic, politics, and, most of all, his overwhelming ambition constituted a distinct menace. That Long’s ideas were in the American tradition of protest made him more rather than less ominous.
In truth, political analysts have always found Long’s ideas hard to categorize. They have been puzzled in particular by such questions as whether Long was to the left or to the right of Roosevelt. Huey himself viewed all the efforts to pigeonhole him with droll detachment. When pressed on the matter he once told reporters, “Oh, hell, say that I’m sui generis and let it go at that.” FDR himself had a simpler view—that his struggle with Long represented a contest between democracy and dictatorship. And so it did. But it was something else, too—a conflict between two rival traditions of reform.
Though Roosevelt has sometimes been thought of as a descendant of Populist reformers, it is, rather, Long who is in the Populist tradition; FDR is better understood as a foe of the heirs of Populism. Long came from Winn Parish, the birthplace of Populism in Louisiana. His slogan, Every Man a King, derived from a line in William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech: “Every man a king, but no man wears a crown.” While Roosevelt’s approach to politics reflected the outlook of an Eastern-seaboard patrician, Huey’s voiced the aspirations of a rural class that had known bitter deprivation.
Long had come to power by challenging the rule of an upperclass oligarchy that was probably the most reactionary and most corrupt of any state in the country It had three elements: the planters, the corporations (especially oil), and a New Orleans ring headed by the urban boss Martin Behrman. (It was Behrman who, on one occasion, rejected a proposal for a new civic auditorium in the style of a classic Greek theater with the comment, “There aren’t enough Greeks living here to make it worthwhile.”) This alliance cared for little save its own interests. In literacy, a crucial index of the social health of any political system, Louisiana ranked last in the nation, with an illiteracy rate many times higher than that of neighboring Mississippi. Anyone who came to power by overturning such a system would inevitably carry with him attitudes toward the Establishment vastly different from those of a man like Roosevelt.
In his classic study of Southern politics, the political scientist V. O. Key wrote: “As good a supposition as any is that the longer the period of unrestrained exploitation, the more violent will be the reaction when it comes. Louisiana’s rulers controlled without check for a long period.… [It] was a case of arrested political development. Its Populism was repressed with a violence unparalleled in the South, and its neo-Populism was smothered by a potent ruling oligarchy.”
When Long overturned the old order in Louisiana, he did more than just win an election; he triggered a political revolution. He gave lower-class rural whites from the forks of the creek, for the first time, their day in the sun. In 1928 fifteen thousand people—sunbonneted women and gallused men—swarmed into Baton Rouge to see one of their own elevated to the governorship. Long’s election ushered in a “fantastic vengeance upon the Sodom and Gomorrah that was called New Orleans,” as the newspaperman Hodding Carter noted. “A squaring of accounts with the big shots, the Standard Oil and the bankers, the big planters, the entrenched interests everywhere.” Long’s strength, said the novelist Sherwood Anderson, came from “the terrible South … the beaten, ignorant, Bible-ridden, white South. Faulkner occasionally really touches it. It has yet to be paid for.”
Franklin Roosevelt derived from a quite different tradition of reform. He felt kinship with those post-Populist reformers, the Progressives, the followers of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who feared and despised Populism as an uprising of the ignorant, the suspicious, the envious, the unsuccessful. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had sought to rescue the reform movement from the rural fundamentalists and direct it in channels of respectability that the urban middle class would accept. It was this tradition- the reform impulse of the Establishment—of which Franklin Roosevelt, like TR and Wilson, was a part. This tradition could find no space for the ambitions of a Huey Long.
FDR held an aristocratic view of the reformer-statesman as the paladin of the lowly. In the novels of Roosevelt’s youth—in the political romances of such writers as the American novelist Winston Churchill—the hero is typically a wellborn Galahad who battles the machine, purifies the corrupt legislature, and routs the evil combine, all the while wooing a heroine who breathlessly admires his daring in entering the political arena. In the final scene, hero and heroine ride off in their coach to live happily forever after—on their inherited income.
Huey shared no such fantasies. His idols came from the pages of Ridpath’s history of the world—kings, conquerors, rulers; and it was unadorned power, the power of an Alexander, that made the greatest appeal. Long’s model was Frederick the Great:” ‘You can’t take Vienna, Your Majesty. The world won’t stand for it,’ his nitwit ambassadors said. The hell I can’t,’ said old Fred. ‘My soldiers will take Vienna and my professors at Heidelberg will explain the reasons why!’”
Unlike FDR, Long had an antiromantic perception of the state. While Roosevelt took pride in his service as assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I and genuinely regretted he had not been in combat, Long deliberately evaded participation in the war. He even sought deferment on the grounds that he was a notary public. Asked why he had not fought for his country, Huey explained, “I was not mad at anybody over there.”
From men such as Endicott Peabody, the headmaster of Groton, Roosevelt learned to conceive of public life as a duty the wellborn owed to their country. To be sure, FDR could never conceal the gusto with which he took to politics nor his ardor for social changes many in the Establishment found appalling, but he accepted the gentlemanly precept that the office seeks the man, not the man the office. Huey made no such disclaimer. Politics, for him and for his followers, represented an opportunity for advancement and rewards. Long was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-one, and said, “I came out of that courtroom running for office.”
Implied in the Endicott Peabody tradition was a high seriousness about politics, and it was against the pretensions of this tradition of reform that Huey turned the weapon of humor. He jeered at claims that Roosevelt and the New Dealers were disinterested public servants. They, like him, Huey insisted, wanted power.
His behavior brings to mind Shakespeare’s Henry IV , in which Falstaff presides over his circle of followers just as Henry does over his court. Henry celebrates such martial, aristocratic virtues as courage in battle, while Falstaff jeers that it is better to live ignobly than to die, especially to die for impersonal principle. The values of the prince must stand the test of Falstaff’s scorn. Long played Falstaff to FDR’s Henry.
Long insinuated that Roosevelt and his circle, no less than the Louisiana planters and the oilmen, were part of the Establishment, with a stake in the system. The New Dealers, he sensed, were most vulnerable to the charge that they did not really represent a new order but actually sustained the old one.
An episode in Washington early in 1933 revealed Huey’s approach. Shortly before FDR’s inauguration Long kicked open the door of one of the Brain Trusters at the Mayflower Hotel and barged into the room. He grabbed an apple, took a big bite, and walked up to Norman Davis, a dignified international diplomat close to both Roosevelt and the house of Morgan. Tapping Davis’s stark-white shirtfront with the half-bitten apple, he shouted, “I don’t like you and your goddamned banker friends!”
Often Long’s barbs seemed to be fired at random, but they were all aimed at making a single point—that he, not Roosevelt, should be the country’s leader. His posthumously published My First Days in the White House made that contention explicit by effecting, however good-naturedly, a reversal of roles. In that slim literary effort, Huey pictures himself as President and, after naming Herbert Hoover secretary of commerce, demotes FDR to secretary of the Navy.
Though Huey deliberately played the role of clown, he was no fool. His briefs before the Supreme Court were praised by both Chief Justice William Taft and Justice Louis Brandeis. The Washington correspondent of The New York Times recalled: “His speech in behalf of the legality of his delegates in ’32 was the finest legal argument that anybody has ever heard—or that I ever heard—at a national convention. He dropped all the clowning. He dropped the hillbilly stuff. Huey wasn’t the rustic he pretended to be. He was a brilliant man and a very fine lawyer.”
However, it served Long’s purposes to play the buffoon. By parodying the New Deal, he drew national attention away from Roosevelt and softened the impression of himself as a Louisiana autocrat. Instead of appearing as a would-be dictator, Huey created a picture of himself as a lovable, amiable, harmless soul, an affable country philosopher. At one point he even stirred up a national controversy between dunkers and crumblers of corn pone and got Emily Post to render a when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans-do verdict.
But if Long had been nothing more than a jester, he would only have been a seven-day wonder. He got as far as he did because his achievements in Louisiana commanded attention, especially from people who were disenchanted with the New Deal. Unlike many other demagogues, Huey was an innovator and a lawgiver. He was even called “the first Southerner since Calhoun to have an original idea.” With a vivid sense of the iconography of politics, Long dismantled the structure of the old regime to make way for a new era in Louisiana. He built a modern skyscraper capital that symbolized the new commonwealth he was creating on the ruins of the old. (Mark Twain said of the old capital: “That comes from too much Sir Walter Scott.”) He also tore down the antiquated governor’s mansion and built a new Executive Mansion in Baton Rouge on the model of the White House, in order, he explained, to be “used to it when he got there.”
But these actions were only symbolic. Long did a great deal more. He sponsored Louisiana’s first income tax law, eliminated the poll tax, revamped the barbarous state institutions for the insane, considerably expanded public health facilities, and initiated the greatest road-building program of any state in the union. When he took office, Louisiana had less than three hundred miles of concrete roads and only three major bridges; seven years later, there were over thirtyseven hundred miles of paved highways and forty major bridges. He distributed free textbooks to students and got the legislature to tax the oil companies to pay for them. (Huey insisted, “When these fellows suck an oil well dry we want a new schoolhouse somewhere.…”) He instituted night schools to cope with the state’s illiteracy, and by the time he left for the U.S. Senate in 1932, one hundred thousand people had been taught to read, write, and cipher.
With so much achievement, it was not always easy to recognize that Long’s programs had shortcomings too, especially when contrasted to FDR’s emerging welfare state. Long opposed minimum-wage legislation; failed to further the Child Labor Amendment (though children in Louisiana toiled for as little as six cents an hour); showed small understanding of the aspirations of the union movement; and did not do much for either the urban unemployed or the sharecropper. Unlike other reform governors, Huey left no shelf of social legislation. Yet Long’s reign, deficient, undemocratic, and shamelessly corrupt, nonetheless brought unprecedented change to Louisiana.
At election time the Kingfish could declare: “They tell you that you’ve got to tear up Longism in this state. All right, my friends, get you a bomb or some dynamite and blow up that new state capitol. Then go out and tear up the concrete roads I’ve built. Get your spades and your shovels and scrape the gravel off them roads we graveled and let a rain come in on ’em. That’ll put ’em back like they was before I come. Tear down all the new buildings I’ve built at the university. And when your child starts to school tomorrow morning snatch the free textbooks out of his hands. Then, my friends, you’ll be rid of Longism in this state, and not before.”
With that record of performance in Louisiana, Long was able to mount an effective attack on the New Deal. He questioned whether Roosevelt was concerned with the welfare of the poor (after all, FDR had never known the hardships of Winn Parish), and he denied that the administration had found the road to recovery. Long’s assault came at a particularly embarrassing time: after the upturn of the first Hundred Days of 1933, the economy had come to a standstill. At precisely that point, in January 1934, Huey made his bid for national power by establishing a national political organization with an arresting slogan: Share Our Wealth. He named as national organizer Gerald L. K. Smith, a fifth-generation minister of the Disciples of Christ and a stump speaker of unrivaled power who, it has been said, was a combination of Savonarola and Elmer Gantry.
Although the details of Long’s program shifted from time to time, the main features remained constant. Huey proposed to liquidate all personal fortunes above a certain amount; from the fund the government would accumulate, every family would get enough to buy a home, an automobile, and a radio; old-age pensions would be paid; and worthy boys would receive a college education. Though it was far from clear how he proposed to do so, Huey would redistribute not only cash but also real property and securities. “No, sir, money is not all of it by a jugful,” he explained. “We are going to redistribute in kind so the poor devil who needs a house can get one from some rich bird who has too many houses; so the man who needs a bedstead can get one from the man who has more than he will ever need. …” In vain did critics point out that the economic assumptions behind Huey’s proposal were riddled with error. In a period when FDR was involved in such complicated schemes as gold buying, code authorities, and deficit finance, the promises of the Share Our Wealth campaign seemed more specific and understandable than anything the President was offering.
By 1934 Long, who three years earlier had not even been a sectional leader, was winning national and even international notice. The French journal L’Europe Nouvelle published an article titled “Huey Long contre Roosevelt,” and H. G. Wells sailed across the Atlantic to interview the senator. After talking to the Kingfish, Wells reported that he was “like a Winston Churchill who has never been at Harrow. He abounds in promises. …” For a moment, it even seemed that the Kingfish might eclipse the President.
Roosevelt responded to Long’s challenge in a variety of ways, including encouraging the Treasury to look into well-founded rumors of tax evasion in Louisiana. In short order thirty-two Treasury agents were installed at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans to investigate the finances of the Long crowd. By April 1935, one of Huey’s men in the legislature had been sentenced to eighteen months in prison for income tax evasion, and federal revenue agents were dogging the footsteps of Long’s closest associates. There is even some evidence that the government contemplated prosecuting the senator himself.
The President also stepped up his use of patronage against Long. Early in February 1935 Roosevelt scolded cabinet officers and other key officials for awarding patronage to foes of the administration. Some people, he said, should be fired on principle. “In a delicate situation like Louisiana we may have to ask your advice,” Secretary Wallace interposed. “You won’t have to do that,” the President replied forcefully. “Don’t put anybody in and don’t keep anybody that is working for Huey Long or his crowd! That is a hundred percent! … Anybody working for Huey Long is not working for us.”
Roosevelt and his appointees also hit out at Long by denying Louisiana a share of New Deal spending. In April 1935, when the senator attempted to supervise the distribution of federal funds in his state, he met his match in the public works administrator Harold Ickes. Secretary Ickes announced that “no public works money is going to build up any Sharethe-Wealth political machine,” and he threatened to cut off the state’s grant. Huey answered, “We are doing the United States government a compliment when we let them do business with us.” To which Ickes replied, “The emperor of Louisiana has halitosis of the intellect.” Ickes, who could play as rough as Long, then withdrew a substantial amount of federal money that had been destined for Louisiana.
It has often been suggested that the most important response to Long came in the New Deal legislation of the second Hundred Days of 1935. Some writers believe that Roosevelt advanced reforms that year with the deliberate purpose of “stealing Huey’s thunder.” Two acts in particular are said to show Long’s influence. The first was FDR’s allocation of fifty million dollars to the National Youth Administration, an agency that, by giving part-time employment to students, offset the appeal of Long’s plank for free college education. In June the President took another step that seemed to indicate a much more conspicuous response to Long: his tax message, asking Congress for a new law based on the idea of redistributing the wealth. “For the time being,” wrote the Los Angeles Times , “he has silenced Huey and taken him into camp. However hard it comes, the Kingfish must perforce applaud.”
Yet it is by no means certain that Roosevelt’s ventures in the second Hundred Days were undertaken either as a rejoinder to Long or that they significantly diminished Huey’s strength. Though it is often said that Roosevelt, like other shrewd statesmen, undercut rivals like Long by sponsoring reforms that alleviated the discontent on which these men fed, that is too simple a perception of political movements. Long won allegiance not simply by advocating specific programs but by appealing to a whole constellation of loyalties and resentments that FDR could not, or would not, embody.
The vast following Long had acquired posed a serious threat to Roosevelt in itself, and if the Kingfish could align behind him the supporters of the radio priest Father Coughlin, the old-age pension advocate Dr. Francis Townsend, and the farm leader MiIo Reno, he would be more powerful still.
The Share Our Wealth organization provided Long not merely with backing for his scheme but with a countrywide political organization that might shape the outcome of the 1936 elections, and Share Our Wealth was sweeping the country like a prairie fire. Raymond Moley, Roosevelt’s former adviser, wrote that the administration came to feel that Long “could make himself political master of the whole, vast Lower Mississippi Valley—perhaps even of great hunks of the West. Who knew where Huey … would end?”
Maybe the Democrats worried too much. The subsequent fiasco of the Union party in 1936, a third party that attempted to unite the Long, Coughlin, and Townsend followers, demonstrated what Roosevelt had earlier foreseen. “There is no question that it is all a dangerous situation,” the President had confided to Colonel House in 1935. “But when it comes to Show-down these fellows cannot all lie in the same bed and will fight among themselves with almost absolute certainty.”
Yet in 1935 Huey was still only forty-two, and his ambitions were boundless; so, many believed, were his prospects. Roosevelt had a long way to go to get the country out of the Depression. And there was no mistaking Long’s intent. “I’ll tell you here and now,” he informed newspaper reporters late in the summer of 1935, “that Franklin Roosevelt will not be the next President of the United States. If the Democrats nominate Roosevelt and the Republicans nominate Hoover, Huey Long will be your next President.”
“As God is my judge,” Gerald L. K. Smith cried in 1935, “the only way they will keep Huey Long from the White House is to kill him.” At least as early as 1934 Long’s opponents were talking openly of violence as the only way of ridding the state of the senator and his cronies. In the spring of 1935 one of the few remaining Long opponents in Baton Rouge warned: “I am not gifted with second sight. … But I can see blood on the polished floor of this Capitol. For if you ride this thing through, you will travel with the white horse of death.”
On the night of September 8, 1935, the Louisiana legislature was meeting in special session to adopt a series of recommendations, some of which stunned even Huey’s disciples. One proposed to terminate the career of a Long opponent, Judge Benjamin Pavy; another portended a constitutional crisis by providing for the imprisonment of federal officials. Huey wandered around the legislative chamber that evening in his usual manner—as though he owned it—and then walked out into the corridor of the state capital. At 9:20 P.M. , a white-clad, bespectacled figure stepped out of the shadows from behind a pillar, approached Huey, and fired a small pistol. Long’s bodyguards and capital policemen emptied their guns into the assassin, whose bullet-ridden body was subsequently identified as that of Judge Pavy’s son-in-law, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, who had resented Long’s vendetta against his family. Mortally wounded, Huey reeled down the stairs and into a car in the parking lot. Two days later he died.
The assassination of Lone ended the only po tentially serious political threat to FDR in the 1930s. The Share Our Wealth movement quickly disintegrated. Gerald L. K. Smith tried to seize control of the organization, but Long’s henchmen in Louisiana would have none of him. They had no interest in sharing the wealth, no thirst for national power, merely a desire for plunder. As a Louisiana governor later explained, “I swore to uphold the constitutions of Louisiana and the United States, but I didn’t take any vow of poverty.”
The Long machine had only one concern: to persuade Washington to abandon the tax prosecutions. In return it was willing to throw its support to the President. The details of what happened subsequently are murky. The Roosevelt administration was accused of reaching an accommodation with Long’s heirs—what one columnist called the Second Louisiana Purchase. Perhaps it did, but the evidence is not clearcut. (Some years later, both the governor of Louisiana and the president of LSU would so to the penitentiary.) However, one thing is certain: at the 1936 Democratic convention, Long’s lieutenants waved FDR banners and paraded the aisles for the great and good Franklin DeIano Roosevelt.
The administration greeted Long’s death with ill-concealed relief. A few weeks afterward, the Democratic national chairman, Jim Farley, remarked, “I always laughed Huey off, but I did not feel that way about him,” and then went on to list a number of states that FDR would have lost if the Louisiana senator had run for President. In his lengthy memoir and biography, Rexford Tugwell has reflected: “When he was gone it seemed that a beneficent peace had fallen on the land. Father Coughlin, Reno, Townsend, et al., were after all pygmies compared with Huey. He had been a major phenomenon.”
Tugwell, one of the original members of the Brain Trust, has captured better than anyone Roosevelt’s own response to the death of his most troublesome rival: “I think he had really given Franklin concern for a bit. … It was not a happy circumstance that one of the most effective demagogues the country had ever known should be attacking with spectacular effect every move and every measure devised to meet the situation. It did get on Franklin’s nerves. He must have regarded Huey’s removal as something of a providential occurrence—one more sign that he himself moved under a star.”