Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Scary, Dangerous Sideshow That Was Huey Long

Last week I wrote about two interesting biographical audiobooks, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford and Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard D. White, Jr. Most of my commentary concerned the somewhat shrouded and largely misunderstood Genghis Khan. Huey Long was a different breed of cat.

Huey, (friends and enemies alike called him by his first name) was Louisiana’s Governor (and later U.S. Senator) during the Great Depression. He never graduated from high school, but was considered (by himself, at least) to be the best lawyer in Louisiana. Ruthless and colorful in his insatiable quest for power, Huey never shied from a fight. “Always hit the big man first” was his motto, and he followed it ferociously.

As governor, he used his influence to get supporters elected to the state legislature so he could enact his reforms, which many Louisianans will still tell you greatly benefitted the state. He openly believed that the end justified the means, and he frequently fixed elections. Often, his chosen candidate received more votes in a particular community than there were registered voters.

Once, he even had a vocal member of the opposition kidnapped just before an election. His henchmen (people often talk about politicians having “henchmen,” but Huey really did) took the irate victim fishing for a few days. When he resurfaced just after the election, he been converted into an enthusiastic Huey fan—and was, most likely, a good bit better off financially than he had been before.

While such stories can be amusing, Huey could be downright evil. FDR called him one of the two most dangerous men in America (the other was Senator Joseph McCarthy). Never satisfied with a fair fight, he would stack the deck in his favor. Just a few examples:

He started his own propaganda newspaper and required all state employees to subscribe via mandatory deductions from their paychecks. He stacked the state Supreme Court by adding seats and appointing supporters (a ploy tried unsuccessfully by President Franklin Roosevelt). And he would draft several dozen bills, many of which granted him outrageous powers, call the legislature together for a special session, and force passage of all twenty or thirty bills within a day or two, before the lawmakers even had a clue about what they were voting on.

Beyond stacking the deck, Huey was cruel and vindictive in punishing his opponents. He would have opponents—as well as opponents’ entire extended families—fired from their jobs. In some cases where the enemy owned his own business, Huey would have the very business outlawed by the legislature.

Despite all this, Huey was wildly popular among the poor people of Louisiana because they thought of him as poor and downtrodden, just like they were. He made no apologies. “We’ve always had graft in Louisiana,” he once said. “At least with me, they have roads, too!”

Have a great week!

1 comment:

  1. I'm studying Louisiana History this semester at college, and I find the reign of Huey Long to be one of the most disturbing things I have learned about in history so far.

    I can add to your examples of horrible things Long did: My great grandmother was educated to be a teacher at LSU, but Long did not like my family and made all of the records of her attendance and accreditation disappear on the state and local level.