THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

HUEY LONG by T. Harry Williams

DICTATOR – in politics, a leader who rules a country with absolute power, usually by force

FASCIST – an individual who favors dictatorial government, centralized control of private enterprise, repression of all opposition, and extreme nationalism

DEMAGOGUE – a political leader who gains power by appealing to people’s emotions, instincts, and prejudices in a way that is considered manipulative and dangerous

POPULIST – an advocate of the rights and interests of ordinary people, e.g. in politics or the arts

I don’t know which is more forbidding: T. Harry Williams’ massive biography (994 pages) or the political career of the colorful, charismatic, controversial legend that is its subject. 

Huey Pierce “Kingfish” Long served as the 40th governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, and represented his state in the U.S. Senate from 1932 to 1935. His term in the Senate was cut short at age forty-two, when he was assassinated in the halls of the state capitol in Baton Rouge, ironically, a building that he made possible. 

At one time or the other, he was branded with all of the political labels mentioned at the beginning of the review, sometimes two or three simultaneously, and in the same breath. And the truth is, he was a little of all of them. However, Williams, in his critically acclaimed and award winning biography, which was published in 1969, leans more toward the populist label. 

T. Harry Williams was born in Illinois and grew up in Wisconsin. He eventually moved south where he taught American history at Louisiana State University (LSU) from 1941 to 1979. Since Long had been dead only six years when Williams took the position and the controversy surrounding him had hardly abated at all in the interim, it is only natural that historians, especially in Louisiana, would still be keenly interested in his legacy, though they might differ on the nature of that legacy.

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Williams was also able to interview many of Long’s champions and enemies who were still alive when he was conducting his research and that gives the book an air of immediacy that later biographies would not have. His research also leaned heavily on oral histories that had interviewed people in both camps. 

Williams’ biography is surprisingly sympathetic toward its subject. Although he doesn’t gloss over Long’s many faults or his heavy handed tactics, he does respect what Long attempted to do and, in many cases, did do for the poor people of his state. And he did accomplish a great deal. This is not the place to list all the things that Long did for his state and its people – especially the poor – for it is a long list, but there is no doubt that the populist label does fit.

I do not know any man who has accomplished so much that I approve of in one state in four years, at the same time that he has done so much that I dislike. It is a thoroughly perplexing, paradoxical record.-– Raymond Gram Swing (one of the most influential print and broadcast journalists during the time of Huey Long's heyday)

It is also true that Long was a demagogue and that he did become a virtual dictator in his state, controlling it with an iron hand in a fashion that no state before or since has ever experienced. Furthermore, that control did not let up with his election to the U.S. Senate but, on the contrary, it intensified. In his short tenure in that office he spent more time in Baton Rouge micromanaging the affairs of his state than he did in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t in his personal makeup to leave the state’s business in the hands of the new governor, even though that individual was his handpicked successor and carried out each and every one of his wishes. 

[Huey Long’s] clownish humor and acerbic tongue make Donald Trump look like Michael Dukakis. – Johnathan Alter, Newsweek

As a senator, he at first supported FDR and the New Deal, but the two men became estranged because Huey didn’t think that the president’s economic policies went far enough. At the time of his death, he was positioning himself to run for president on a third party ticket.

He never got that chance, but he did force FDR to propose legislation that he favored. The president did so because, as he privately stated, he wanted to steal some of Huey’s thunder. The result was the so-called “Second New Deal” that was proposed by FDR and passed by Congress in 1935. It included the Social Security Act and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), two programs advocated by Long.

This was my second reading of Williams’ book and each time I was struck by the similarities that I thought Long shared with another politician. Lyndon Johnson grew up under similar circumstances and he possessed the same burning ambition to be somebody and he was also known to be ruthless and to demagogue on occasion, but he also accomplished greatness. Both were bigger than life personalities whose lives read like something out of a Greek tragedy. And as someone once said of LBJ, they both "knew what made the mule plow."

It doesn’t surprise me that upon his retirement from LSU in 1979, T. Harry Williams began immediately to write a biography of Lyndon Johnson. Unfortunately, just two months after his retirement and after completing the first two chapters of the book, Williams died at age seventy.

It is impossible to summarize his biography of Long, but needless to say it is a thorough documentation of the life and times of one of the most fascinating politicians this country has ever produced. And Williams leaves no stone unturned or fact unexamined in making that abundantly clear. There have been a number of Huey Long biographies published since and most have been less sympathetic toward its subject, but they all have to be mea
sured against Williams’ monumental work.

Click on the picture below and you can watch vintage Huey at the top of his game:

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