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Long, Huey (1893-1935)

Long, Huey (1893-1935)

One of the most skillful orators and most successful politicians of the 1920s and 1930s, Hugh Pierce Long was a demagogue, but one with strong populist appeal. Long was elected governor of Louisiana and then U.S. senator, and, had his life not been cut short by an assassin's bullet, he might have posed a formidable threat to Franklin D. Roosevelt's tenure in the White House. He is immortalized, in a thinly disguised version, in one of America's great political novels: Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

Born into a middle-class Louisiana family, Long studied law for a year before gaining admission to the Louisiana bar in 1915. A few years later, he was elected to the state's Public Service Commission, which regulated the oil companies that were such an important part of Louisiana's economy. Long became known as a critic of the oil companies' exploitation of the state and its people, and he tried to ride this reputation into the Governor's mansion in 1924. He lost that election but won the next, in 1928. He was elected to the U.S. Senate two years later.

It was in the Senate that Long began to develop a national reputation, much of which grew from his proposed "Share Our Wealth" program. This plan was intended as a solution to the hardships brought on America by the Great Depression that had begun in 1929; it involved, as its name suggests, a government-directed redistribution of assets—taking from the rich and giving to the poor and middle class. Long proposed confiscation of individual wealth over 50 million dollars, which would provide a guaranteed minimum income of five thousand dollars per year to the poor.

Although Long's plan was almost certainly unconstitutional, it found favor with large segments of the public, to whom the Depression had brought hardship, poverty, and hopelessness. At Long's urging, "Share Our Wealth" societies sprang up all over the country. These groups might well have formed the basis for a Huey Long presidential candidacy. Certainly Long himself entertained that notion, and had expressed the intent to run against President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 election. But he never got the chance. On September 10, 1935, Huey Long was shot dead in the Louisiana Capitol building. His assassin was the son of a former political opponent.

In many ways, Long was typical of the Southern demagogues who flourished in the region between, approximately, 1870 and 1970. He was a populist, in that he claimed to stand for the "little guy" against the power of the established economic and political interests; he pretended to humble origins, although his background was middle class; he identified himself with his cause so thoroughly that it soon became impossible to separate the two in the public mind; he was a powerful and emotional public speaker, with a style that emphasized the "plain folks" appeal; and his rhetoric tended to focus on an enemy—whether the oil companies, the wealthy, or the Roosevelt administration. One difference—making Long virtually unique among Southern demagogues—was that he never engaged in race baiting. Rather, whenever Long mentioned blacks in his speeches, he claimed that they were victims of the "big interests" as much as poor whites.

Despite the undeniable corruption, political chicanery, and abuse of power that characterized Long's career, he is still revered by many in Louisiana where he is remembered as the champion of "the little man." And, if Long's life itself was not enough to guarantee the persistence of his legend, then ample assistance was provided by Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel, All the King's Men, which was later made into a popular film. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book chronicles the rise of Willie Stark through the jungles of Southern politics, and no one familiar with Huey Long's career is likely to miss the similarities. The character of Willie Stark is written as a great political leader who nonetheless possesses the fatal flaw of hubris. The same could be said of the man who was his inspiration.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Warren, Robert Penn. All the King's Men. New York, Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1946.

Williams, T. Harry. Huey Long. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

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