It Can Happen Here: Huey Long

In 1932, Democratic Party nominee Franklin Roosevelt commented that Douglas McArthur and Huey Long were the two most dangerous men in America. McArthur had just quashed the Bonus Marchers, impoverished World War I veterans who had marched on Washington at the inception of the depression to seek relief from the obdurate Hoover administration.  As for Long, the Senator had fashioned a personal fiefdom in Louisiana built from demagoguery and patronage and financed by monumental corruption. McArthur was famously fired by President Truman during the Korean War for insubordination.  He had the grace to “fade away.”  Had Long not been assassinated by the son-in-law of a political opponent, this country would still be reeling from the consequences.

To his credit, Long (1993-1935) was a shrewd politician who shaped his strategies to appeal to a forgotten portion of the Louisiana electorate: poor white families.  Up to Long’s time, Louisiana politics was controlled by a confederation of aristocratic planters and the New Orleans machine known as the Old Regulars. Politicians catered to planters and industrial interests dominated by Standard Oil.

Long got his start as a lawyer in the new field of workers’ compensation, assisting injured employees. Papering rural Louisiana with campaign circulars (a technique that Long innovated in Louisiana), making exhaustive personal campaign stops across the state, unleashing vehement personal attacks upon adversaries in compelling oratory and — because every demagogue must have his demon– pinning Louisiana’s ills upon Standard Oil,  Long was elected to the Louisiana Public Services Commission in 1921 at the age of twenty-five.  Once there, he maneuvered his way into the chairmanship and worked to confine utility rate increases. He brought a lawsuit against the Cumberland Telephone Company for unfair rate increases that he argued in the United States Supreme Court.  The litigation resulted in refunds for tens of thousands of customers, which Long insisted be paid directly to consumers by check rather than by credits, in this way cementing his name before the public.  As chair of the Public Services Commission, he continued to butt heads with Standard Oil.  In an effort that he must have known would be futile, he sought to have Standard Oil declared a utility.  Since the purpose was to show the public that Huey Long championed the little guy, judged from this perspective his attacks succeeded.

Long was elected to the governorship of Louisiana in 1928.  He introduced sound trucks to political campaigning and was one of the first politicians to effectively used radio. He again employed circulars and forceful oratory and unleashed a new slogan, Every Man A King But No One Wears A Crown.  Once in Baton Rouge, he had his associates make deals with legislators and enacted his program:  distribution of free textbooks to students in both public and parochial schools, construction of highways and toll-free bridges, bringing natural gas and an airport to New Orleans, expansion of Louisiana State University, reform of state prisons, improvement of public hospitals, and creation of night schools providing adult literacy classes for both whites and blacks.  Long also succeeded in getting enacted a homestead tax exemption on up to $2,000 in home valuation.  He formed a school equalization fund paid for by a tax on gasoline (which was not passed on to consumers), using it as a tool to require teacher certification and setting minimum salaries for teachers.

The free textbook program was controversial.  When one parish resisted it, Long withheld authorization for construction of an airbase until it acceded.  A suit was brought to declare the distribution of the textbooks to parochial school students unconstitutional on the ground that it transgressed the First Amendment separation of church and state.  The Louisiana free textbook law was upheld by the United States Supreme Court on the basis that the books were distributed to children, not parochial schools.

Long followed up on campaign promises by proposing a tax on production of refined oil. The proposal triggered a brawl in the legislature and Long’s impeachment.  Wheeling and dealing, including alleged vote-buying by both sides with large sums of cash and state offices held out as inducements prevented Long’s conviction and ouster. Long famously produced a document known as the Round Robin that was signed by just over one-third of the State Senate.  The Round Robin stated that the signatories would not vote for conviction no matter the evidence. The Round Robin halted the proceedings in its track as conviction required an affirmative 2/3 vote.

Long successfully ran for the United States Senate in 1930.  Long illegally refused to relinquish the governorship, until matters were brought to a head when the Lieutenant Governor Paul Cyr declared himself governor.  Long called out the national guard to prevent Cyr from entering the state capitol building.  He then successfully sued to have Cyr declared to have vacated the lieutenant governorship by having declared himself governor.  In the next election, Long chose Oscar K. Allen as the Long candidate.  Allen was elected and served as Long’s puppet.

The primary tool that Long used to exert power was patronage.  Upon being elected to the governorship, he destroyed the independence of state boards by passing laws that reduced the terms of current officeholders retroactively to allow him to appoint new officers loyal to him.  Supporters like the Round Robineers all received positions.  Long thought nothing of allowing legislators to double dip—holding an office in the executive branch along with their legislative seat. He engaged in nepotism. He required many of his appointees to sign undated letters of resignation. After he became Senator, Long tightened the patronage noose to assure his continued control.  He pushed through legislation that transferred to the state authority to make municipal appointments in New Orleans, Alexandria, and Baton Rouge, cities that were hostile to him, even providing the state with the power to appoint teachers rather than local boards. Ultimately, legislation was enacted making all election officials state employees.  Long pushed New Orleans to the brink of bankruptcy by backing measures that removed the city’s ability to levy certain taxes and that placed collection of real property taxes in the hands of the state.  Unable to pay its bills, New Orleans capitulated. The flip side of patronage was retaliation.  Following his impeachment, Long attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to recall legislators who had opposed him and ousted members of their families from public appointments. He collected records and affidavits with material harmful to his enemies to use when he needed to intimidate or buy support. He used the same technique to keep his followers subordinate. In one case in neutered a board by vetoing appropriations because political rivals held a majority.

Under Long’s regime, separation of powers virtually vanished.  Long would leave the governor’s office to attend sessions of the legislature, directing his supporters and bullying opponents.  Once he became Senator, he returned to Baton Rouge frequently and perfected a system where bills were summarily placed before the ways and means committee in the House, with only Citizen Long appearing, then reported out by the committee without a hearing.  The bills were passed in minutes without debate. A similar procedure prevailed in the State Senate, where the bills were presented to the finance committee. Bills were given an average consideration of 2-3 minutes.  Long pushed through the abolition of the poll tax to increase the number of poor whites, his core constituency, able to vote, simultaneously assuring that registration laws and the white primary (primaries in which only whites were allowed to vote) would continue to suppress the black vote. Long supporters were notified of legislative sessions well in advance, but antis not until shortly before the opening session. Many judges were Longites.  When the press attacked him, Long formed his own newspaper. When one journalist provided particularly unfavorable coverage, Long threatened to publish the names of the journalist’s relatives being treated in the insane asylum.

Long’s campaigns and his purchases of allies were financed by extraordinary graft and a system known as the “deduct.”  Pay for play and kickbacks were routine.   Ten percent of the salaries of public employees were deducted and placed in the Long war chest.  The deductions along with kickbacks and legitimate contributions were made in cash as were expenditures, an unknown amount of which went to fund Long’s lavish personal expenses along with occasional state funds earmarked for other use.  Off-duty state police officers were assigned to distribute Long circulars using state vehicles. Long also double-dipped.  He earned large sums of extra cash as attorney for the Public Service and Tax Commissions.  In cases brought by the Public Service Commission, Long’s fees were paid by the utility if the Public Service Commission won.  In Tax Commission cases, Long received one-third of the taxes collected.  Through a corporation, Long also held clandestine interests in oil leases on state-owned property.

Long never hesitated to use threats or force to achieve his objectives. During his senatorial campaign, he arranged for the arrest of two men who were about to disclose information about Long’s indiscretions. He pressured solvent banks to make loans to endangered banks because the lending banks knew that a state audit would follow if they did not comply. He employed the national guard to achieve his objectives.  He used it to insure that Cyr did not take the governorship, he declared “partial martial law” in New Orleans to intimidate the courts in an election fraud dispute, and he imposed martial law in Baton Rouge to suppress opponents that he declared were involved in a plot to murder him.

Long’s conscious buffoonery and flamboyance appealed to the public.  He answered to the nickname of Kingfish based upon a character in the popular Amos and Andy radio program.  He wore white suits accented with pink bowties and lavender shirts.  He received national publicity for his recipe for Louisiana potlikker. He met with political leaders and even foreign dignitaries in his bedroom, clothed only in pajamas.  He womanized and sometimes drank uncontrollably.  On one highly publicized occasion, he emerged with unexplained facial injuries from a public rest room.  The most common theory was that he had peed on another user’s shoes.

During the last two years of his life, Long prepared to take on a new challenge, Franklin Roosevelt.  While he supported Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in 1932 and initially supported the New Deal, he later engaged in frequent filibusters attacking New Deal programs from the left.  He urged the distribution of wealth, creating a mass campaign called Share Our Wealth.  Share Our Wealth Clubs had 7.5 members and received 60,000 letters weekly.  Long urged that maximums in annual income and overall wealth be set at $1 million and $5 million, respectively, with the excess to be collected through taxes.  The revenue would then be distributed in the form of a homestead valued at $5,000 per family and a guaranteed income of $2-3 thousand.  The government would provide pensions, college scholarships, set a maximum work week and year of 30 hours and eleven months, and store agricultural surpluses to support prices.  While many critics fastened on the ideology, others condemned the program as unworkable.  For instance, a tax on corporate assets would end up with the government owning the majority of the enterprise and having to operate the corporation.  Long stomped across the United States and made regular radio appearances to promote his program.  He argued that Share the Wealth was an antidote to certain communism. His short-term goal was to prevent FDR’s reelection in 1936 by running as a third party candidate on a Share the Wealth platform.  Believing that the Republicans would do nothing to ameliorate the ongoing depression when returned to office—a good bet in light of Herbert Hoover’s performance—Long believed that the masses would turn to him as a savior in the 1940 election.   Long was an isolationist, and he called for American withdrawal from international agreements.

The pressure Long exerted from the left is credited for FDR steering the New Deal leftward and pressing for the enactment of the Social Security Act, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and similar measures.  At the time of Long’s death, FDR and Long were headed for a collision in Louisiana.  FDR was no less an adroit politician than Long.  FDR appointed anti-Longites to federal positions in Louisiana and to administer New Deal programs.  Louisiana was the only state in which someone from outside the state was appointed to direct unemployment relief.  Spitefully, Long refused to accept federal funds for public works programs supervised by his opponents.  FDR continued an Internal Revenue Service investigation started by Hoover that resulted in the conviction of one Long associate by the time of Long’s death. Roosevelt, in turn, demanded the repeal of two Louisiana laws before Public Works Administration funds would be distributed to Louisiana: a law declaring a two-year moratorium on collection of private debts and legislation that placed the New Orleans water and sewer board under state control. These actions spurred Long, who could not tolerate any threat to his power and resented even the specter of federal interference in Louisiana, to bulldoze through the Legislature laws that would require gubernatorial consent for a municipality to avail itself of a federal law promising debt adjustment and making it a criminal offense to interfere with powers reserved to Louisiana under the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, obviously aimed at New Deal officials.  He also launched a baseless attack on James Farley, a Roosevelt associate, repurposing his demonization and conspiracy theory tactics.  A showdown was in the offing.  Unlike MacArthur, if Long had not been assassinated, he would not have faded away.

In 1969, T. Harry Williams, a professor at LSU, published a monumental biography of Long with the blessing of Long’s son Russell, who served a longer and far more respectable career in the United States Senate that his father.  Williams interviewed surviving Long associates and rivals and created a far more sympathetic portrait of Long as a man with good intentions who became confused about ends and means. Williams applauded Long’s assault on the old political guard, his incorporation of poor whites whose needs had previously been ignored, and his legislative accomplishments.  He portrayed Long as more racially enlightened than other Southern politicians, less inclined to race-baiting and willing to include blacks in his night school and Share the Wealth programs.  The book won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.

Subsequent scholars have veered in the opposite direction and have reasserted the contemporary view of Long as a dangerous dictator obsessed with power.  They view his accomplishments as puny.  Long was a faux progressive who never passed a pro-labor law or a measure assisting farmers. His highways were rarely made of concrete and were not connected.  State roads existed for a mile or two in many areas to delude voters into thinking that there was a state highway system.  Williams was too ready to accept Long’s explanation that pro-labor measures would have doomed him in the South given the other intolerable measures that Long did push through. As for Long’s attitude toward blacks, later scholars emphasize that Long did not need to race-bait since only .3% of Louisiana’s black population was able to vote.  Long used the n-word constantly to refer to blacks along with the equally derogatory “coons,” entertained the Senate in his filibusters with “n-word stories,” and reviled adversaries who did business with blacks, even spreading rumors that they favored integration or had black blood.  He race-baited when he needed to.  In Long’s first run for governor in 1924, he sidestepped the issue of the Ku Klux Klan, although the eventual winner of the race advocated and passed a de-masking law. (Interestingly, this measure was fueled more by the large block of Catholics in the New Orleans vicinity who opposed the Klan’s anti-Catholicism). As Senator,  Long opposed a federal anti-lynching law.  Long permitted blacks to join Share Our Wealth clubs because once he decided to make a presidential run he needed their votes. When Long abolished the poll tax in Louisiana, he did so to enlarge the poor white electorate, assuring supporters that other measures existed to suppress black voting.  Gerald K. Smith, who oversaw the Share Our Wealth clubs, was a rabid racist and anti-Semite.

It can happen here.  Let’s not give demagogues a second chance.

For more:  T. Harry Williams, Huey Long (1981).

Jeansonne, Glen. “Huey Long and Racism.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 33, no. 3 (1992): 265-82.

Jeansonne, Glen. “The Apotheosis of Huey Long.” Biography 12, no. 4 (1989): 283-301.


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