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1934 Fifty Years Ago

July 2024
2min read

Christmas Eve seemed everywhere the most hopeful since the beginning of the Depression. In the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt read aloud to his family from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol . As his wife, Eleanor, later observed, “For all his advanced political theories, he clung to the old-fashioned traditions in many curious little ways.”

He also insisted on real candles for the Christmas tree. Eleanor had felt compelled to make a statement about that apparently hazardous custom several days earlier: “The President feels that a tree doesn’t look right without candles,” she explained, “and hasn’t the right atmosphere unless it smells of hot evergreen.”

The President grew his own trees at Hyde Park—but not entirely in respect for family tradition. When reporters had asked his cousin Theodore Roosevelt how he would decorate his White House tree, he had said there would not be one. As a conservationist, that Roosevelt disapproved of all Christmas trees.

December 17, 1934: The U.S. senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana spent the week before Christmas in Baton Rouge with his state’s legislature. The Populist Democrat had not been governor since 1932 but he now had the most absolute control of a state government in the nation’s history. Tightening his grip, he had pushed through dozens of bills in two quick sessions in August and November. One new law had given the governor, a virtual Long puppet, dictatorial control over the state’s election machinery; others had allowed panels headed by the governor to independently set utility rates and property taxes throughout the state, to control the bar association, and to hire and fire almost all local police and fire chiefs. By now nearly every conceivable state or local government job had become a patronage position controlled by Huey Long.

This week Long held another whirlwind session, introducing thirty-five bills on opening night. Most further increased the patronage he could hand out—one effectively gave his organization the authority to hire and fire sheriff’s deputies across the state. A bill aimed at Long’s archenemy, Standard Oil, imposed a five-cents-abarrel tax on oil refining in the state; others enabled the governor to overthrow and replace the uncooperative local governments of Alexandria and New Orleans.

On the first day of the session an obedient House passed Long’s bills to its Ways and Means Committee at the rate of one a minute. The next day Long, the committee’s only witness, explained his bills as the committee’s members sat surrounded by state police officers and his personal bodyguards. That took seventy minutes. The day after that the House passed the bills at the rate of one every three minutes. Only one was dropped—at Long’s suggestion; however, he was forced to modify the law concerning sheriff’s deputies.

When the bills reached the Senate, that body rejected one while Long was out of the room. The decision was reversed when he returned.

Such special sessions seemed to be called at Long’s whim, and the lawmakers appeared to be overwhelmed by the Kingfish’s demands. Actually, the entire proceeding was carefully planned by Long’s organization. The senator’s legislative leaders would be fully informed in advance of the content of the bills, and other pro-Long lawmakers would hear them explained in detail on the first morning of the session. The opposition, a minority, would be left in the dark. The most controversial laws were often inconspicuously tacked on as amendments to innocuous bills just before the roll call. Legislators who did not support Long’s programs felt helpless.

Long described one of the most sweeping bills as dealing with the financing of education for children who crossed parish lines to go to school. The next day it became known that the bill in fact gave Long’s organization the power to hire and fire every schoolteacher in the state. The Kingfish commented: “Aw, that ain’t nothing. That ain’t no new power. ” In response one representative announced that the House had been made into a body of “putty-faced stooges.”

The following September, during another special session, Long was assassinated in the capitol by the son-inlaw of a leader of the opposition.

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