The Rebellious Spirit of Huey Long

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The state capitol building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a fine example of the period of Art Deco architecture in America, the age of the Empire State building, the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the Great Depression.

I can imagine parties of today’s schoolchildren being trooped around the building, "the tallest state house in America," there to be subjected to a mind-deadening statistical barrage about how much sand, gravel, limestone, brick, tile, marble, bronze, granite and ornamental iron was used in its construction.

They will also be shown the 35-foot high sculpture in the gardens, on which stands the statue of one who is described on its pedestal as "Louisiana’s greatest son," Huey Pierce Long (1893—1935). As governor of the state in 1930, he was the man responsible for commissioning this huge phallic symbol of a structure, erected to a height of 450 feet in double quick time (14 months) to his unambiguous command: "Build it big and build it quick."

He never did have much time. In September 1935, not even five years after its construction began, he was to be shot in the corridors of that very same building. He died two days later, on September 10th, aged 42. On his deathbed he is reported to have said, "Don’t let me die, I have got so much to do."

As with JFK, assassination puts a convenient lid on all that was yet to be done and what might have been, and allows the state officially to mourn, love and eulogize one of its own. Meanwhile those who suspect foul play and cover-up develop conspiracy theories, and those who had it in for him gloat, first privately and then more brazenly as time goes by, that "he got what was coming to him." Over time a consensus emerges, literally cast in stone, that whatever his faults, "he did a lot for Louisiana."

Or did he really? When superlatives are used for propagating state mythology into the future like this, sooner or later someone is bound to call a halt and say: stop all this golden boy stuff! Camelot was rotten! The pied piper had feet of clay!

The Dictator of Louisiana?

Actually Huey Long has had a bad press for most of his after-life in American political history. It began on September 11, 1935, the very day after he died, with a subtly vicious obituary notice in the New York Times, then as now the mouthpiece of the establishment’s party line. Taking his own words ("If Fascism ever comes to America, it will come wrapped in an American flag") out of his dead mouth and twisting them into a parody of his original meaning, the paper used them to tar him as a dictator in his own patch, comparable to his worst contemporaries — Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini.

"What he did and what he promised to do are full of political instruction and also of warning. In his own State of Louisiana he showed how it is possible to destroy self-government while maintaining its ostensible and legal form. He made himself an unquestioned dictator…. In reality, Senator Long set up a Fascist government in Louisiana. It was disguised, but only thinly. There was no outward appearance of a revolution, no march of Black Shirts upon Baton Rouge, but the effectual result was to lodge all the power of the State in the hands of one man. If Fascism ever comes in the United States it will come in something like that way."

~ The New York Times, September 11, 1935

Paradoxes

This is just one of the infinite number of paradoxes and contradictions surrounding a man who openly believed in using the machinery of state for economic intervention in pursuit of social and political ends, spending in the process money which he had to take from others, and yet has been hailed as a champion of the little man, enfranchiser of the poor and the disadvantaged, defender of those with anti-war views and of the Constitution, and sharp critic of the price-fixing contained in the New Deal and of monopolistic concentration in restraint of trade. The story of Huey Long still exerts a surprising fascination.

Born in the "piney woods" of Winnfield, Northern Louisiana, he grew up poor. At 16 he began to work as a travelling salesman. In 8 months in 1914 he completed a law degree in New Orleans (normally a 3-year course) and then set up his own law practice, at the age of 21. Still in his twenties he entered public office first as a railroad commissioner, then as chairman of the Public Services Commission.

He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1924, but was successful four years later, running on a similar platform of unabashed state intervention — including road construction, free textbooks for all, greater state support for public schools, and increased taxation on the oil corporations, particularly Louisiana’s biggest, Standard Oil. From 1930 to 1935 he had a seat in the US Senate as representative of the Democratic Party. A month before he was shot, he had announced his intention to run for President in 1936, against the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Political Machine

The main reason why Long has had a very bad press over the years is the focus on the means he used to consolidate his political power, which brought him a raft of enemies. With the natural gift of cleverness, his proverbial razor-sharp wit, and claimed affinity with the common man, he learned to use and abuse those time-honoured methods for ensuring the absolute supremacy of a political machine: filling virtually every local government post with his own stooges, clamping down on any freedom of expression to criticize what he did, and not hesitating to beat up and silence any who ventured to do so. In 1934, in his overthrow of the old regime of local government in New Orleans, he would resort to even more violent methods, at one point sending in the national guard in his (successful) attempt to oust the "old regular" mayor and replace him with one of his own. Not surprisingly, this permanently soured his relationship with the city.

That, incidentally, did not prevent the dual-purpose road and rail bridge over the Mississippi in New Orleans, completed in December 1935 and only recently widened, being named the Huey P. Long Bridge.

As a consummate political animal, he was in fact in no way exceptional in his use of the political means, as history shows. He was innovative, however, in his use of mailed circulars, automobile stumping, radio speeches, sound trucks, and cruel personal invective designed to appeal to perhaps the baser sentiments of those among the people who were not sitting in the halls and offices of power. What was exceptional, in that it came as an unpleasant surprise to established Louisiana political interests in the late 1920s, was the speed and effectiveness of Long’s consolidation of power: all their theory and prior, untroubled experience indicated that a young populist from the backwoods could be expected to be thoroughly naïve about practical politics, promising the earth to the people and delivering not much. Huey Long was not like this, and they could not forgive him for his uppitiness.

The End of Ideology?

His canny use of the political means is not, however, the only reason for his continuing bad press. It also extends to the ends — his strategies and schemes for dealing with the social problems he identified by redistributing wealth. Details of his schemes are widely available on the Internet and links to them and some of his speeches1 are provided at the end of this article.

Throughout the nearly 70 years which have passed since his death — and this is another of the fascinations of the Huey Long story — the officially sanctioned disapproval of his political tactics, always considered by the liberal press to be at the very least "anti-democratic" (others, like the NYT obituary writer, did not mince their words, and as we have seen, called him a Fascist) has been used to overshadow and smother the actual issues raised by his career, his achievements and his plans, and discussion of their (possible) merits and (very real) defects.

There are three main reasons why discussions of the actual issues surrounding Long’s political career have been effectively suppressed: the first is that his tactics were no different to those used by many "successful" politicians who enlarge the power and scope of government. To criticize them too openly would expose others, possibly in the anti-Long camp, who used — and continue to use — similar methods.

The second reason is that by attributing only base motives to the man it is possible to discredit the substance of those points on which he might actually be right, or be telling the truth. In Huey Long’s case, he was right about certain forms of tyranny which may result if a ruling oligarchy’s disposition to seek ways of keeping the majority of the people in ignorance, poverty or nowadays fear, goes unchecked for a long enough period of time.

A typical example of this is the views of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, which have long held sway (and can be heard briefly in a clip from an interview for Ken Burns’ 1986 well-regarded PBS documentary film on Long). He actually denied to Long any recognition that his views or aims had ideological content, seeing him as being interested only in the means — power and money. In other words, this view (which is still widely held) could be called the cynical view that Long the politician merely made promises to help poor people because poor people represented the largest number of votes.

The inconsistency (or beauty) of this approach is that if you accuse a man of having no ideology, it is difficult to attribute to him any impact on the minds of men, either way. In other words, his ideas were the far-fetched notions of a power-crazed maniac. Therefore, disregard them.

Thirdly, as is generally recognized, and despite enormous fiscal cost which would burden the state for years to come after his demise, he had actually delivered on many of the promises he made to the people in the form of improved roads (or roads, period), free textbooks for all, etc., hoisting the state of Louisiana out of what some have described as a near-feudal condition and laying the foundations for modernity.

Suppression of the substance of debate on these issues should not surprise us, for here we enter into another paradox: since the state itself was and is active in the business of seizing and actively redistributing wealth, it always was much easier for the state to smother any real debate on these issues by focusing on Long’s "fascist" political methods, condemnation of which was palatable to a much broader constituency — in fact to nearly everyone under the sun.

Fiscal conservatives thought him profligate and irresponsible, the established corporations (including the media) rightly felt that he wanted to take from them, and assorted Communists and Socialists thought him dangerously naïve, believing that he had no idea of the strength and viciousness of the forces of the system of business concentration he was taking on.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little has been made of the fact that when confronted by the good advice that his economic schemes would be impracticable and perhaps impossible to implement (despite the fact that they were not as radical as is often suggested), Huey Long is said to have responded quite reasonably that he would have to call in people to help him work things out.

It is in this context of economic policy, particularly at the local level of what is good for Louisiana, that the legacy of intractable argument is even stronger, because it vehemently opposes those who believe in the beneficent power of government against those who believe that government intervention will by its very nature have nefarious political and economic consequences.

Economic intervention, political intervention

These substantive arguments remain topical today, and so keep re-surfacing and re-emerging in new ways. A Baton Rouge business magazine article from June 2002 entitled "Ghost of Huey Long Lives" complains that, at the end of a recent legislative session, "taxes ruled, big business took it on the chin and the people got a chance to "tax the wealthy" at the ballot box," showing that argument still rages between the inheritors of the pro-Long (interventionist) and anti-Long (non-interventionist) factions over what is best for the state:

Business and the wealthy are easy targets but are responsible for most of the jobs in the state — the lifeblood to government, quality of life and the entire economy. If someone has no job, he or she can’t pay taxes and their family doesn’t eat. Does discouraging new business growth help the poor get jobs?

So why would you want to send a message to those in business and those with money that “you’re easy pickins and we are coming after you?” I think that would drive many of them out of the state — and keep others away. When the poor are the only ones left, who will we tax then?

Inevitably, policy dead-ends identical to these, and their advocacy in combination with ruthless power tactics, brought Huey Long into conflict with established interests of the left and right, both public and private, but particularly with corporate interests. In Louisiana at least, those in control of such interests had for years successfully carried on a policy of political intervention in the machinery of state in pursuit of economic and corporate ends, very much geared to maintaining a comfortable and privileged status quo. As T. Harry Williams was to write in his 1969 biography of Long:

[Educational and other services] were poor for the additional reason that the ruling hierarchy was little interested in using what resources the state had available to provide services and was even less interested in employing the power of the state to create new resources so that more services could be supported…. A woman who was a member of the caste described its psychology frankly: “We were secure. We were the old families. We had what we wanted. We didn’t bother anybody. All we wanted was to keep it.”

~ T. Harry Williams, Huey Long, Bantam, 1969

Of Liberty and Prosperity

The fact is that neither the old conservative "hold on to it at all costs" option nor the "tax tax tax, spend spend spend" option of the populist are conducive to true free markets, to the flowering of individual liberty or to freedom of expression.

Restrictive practices, business concentration, cartels, monopoly power, bidding for "licenses" to operate, lobbying for government subsidies and price or tariff controls are, ipso facto, constraints on the operation of open competition and free markets, and thus reduce both economic freedom and, ultimately, the general prosperity, often preventing outsiders — those without access to membership of the respective monopoly or concentration — from even earning a decent living. Protests against this state of affairs often lead to the suppression of dissent through barely plausible but deceptively reassuring arguments that "national interests" are at stake.

On the other hand, increased state spending to pay for socially ambitious programmes has to be funded from somewhere, and leads to the populist zeal of campaigns to "soak the rich," "clobber the greedy corporations" and increase taxation. Since historically this all goes hand-in-hand with the personal enrichment and growing delusions of grandeur, not to say of immortality, of those who control the distribution of such booty, these policies also require the suppression of dissent regarding the real prospects for the promised collective good which is held out as the ultimate end of such intervention, leading in the long term to the reduction and even elimination of political freedom.

It is in the arguments that these camps use against each other, and in those which they consciously exclude from discourse, that those who strive for human liberty, moral responsibility and financially solid economic well-being find the gaps where political and economic labels such as "left and right" and "laissez-faire vs. dirigiste" are plainly inadequate. It is in those sometimes narrow gaps also that we find the true reasons for the continuing fascination and relevance for political history of the brief but eventful career of Huey Pierce Long.

Assassination conspiracy theory: the silencing of a troublesome prophet?

Was Huey Long assassinated because he was too likely to succeed in his fight against those he called the "a handful of financial slave-owning overlords who make the tyrant of Great Britain seem mild"? He was killed just about a month after declaring his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.

Consider for a moment not just this case, but also that of another Democrat, Robert F. Kennedy (shot while on campaign in Los Angeles 33 years later), the shooting which left candidate George Wallace paralysed in 1972, and the disappearance of John Kennedy Jr., whose plane crashed into the Atlantic in July 1999, it having emerged subsequently that he had discussed plans for declaring himself a presidential candidate in 2000. Would you not be inclined to agree that conspiracy buffs are fully entitled to believe that declaring yourself a candidate for the presidency of the United States, unless you know and cultivate the right people, can be seriously inimical to your survival?

Long was shot outside what is now the Speaker’s office in the state capitol building which he had caused to be built. He was wounded and taken to the hospital. His shooting was blamed on an alleged lone gunman, Dr. Carl Weiss, who was said to bear a personal grudge against Long’s attempts to unseat his father-in-law, Benjamin Pavy, from a judgeship, or perhaps as a result of an alleged racial smear. That remains the official story to this day. Weiss was killed on the spot in a hail of bullets from Long’s bodyguards.

New evidence which emerged in 1991 suggested that Weiss had been unarmed, that a gun had been planted on him to make him look like the lone assassin, that Long was shot by accident rather than design (a bullet fired by one of his bodyguards at the "assailant" apparently ricocheting into Long), and that this latter version of the story had been deliberately covered up.

This new and somewhat implausible version of events does not quell quite legitimate speculation that powerful interests might well have wanted to stop Long in his tracks in his incipient presidential campaign, which gave all the appearance of having the potential to succeed. In this connection some have also charged that proper attention was not given to all Long’s wounds: competent top surgeons may have been prevented from getting to him in time, the doctor who was on hand did not carry out a test for blood in the urine, and fatal damage to the kidneys was accordingly overlooked.

For those who might be interested in greater detail on the assassination and cover-up this is well documented on the Internet, in particular on two websites to which links2 are provided at the end of this article. One of them is called "The Lone Conspirators" (motto: "Only the Paranoid Survive"), and another is a personal website where three main possible theories and various threads of evidence are explored.

Of Diagnoses and Cures

It is rather an axiom of libertarian, anti-state theory that politicians — especially those who show skills in manipulating the mechanisms of power rather than in delivering on substantive policies, are a bunch of crooks interested only in feathering their own nest and accumulating as much power and pelf as possible while in office. Many politicians who have convinced themselves of their good intentions understandably get quite upset by the accusation, because of course it is largely true.

The unspoken danger of this approach is that sometimes you may also throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So are we left with anything more today of Huey Long than the image of the colorful demagogue with wacky notions of economics and a couple of monuments or structures named after him?

I believe we are left with much more than this, but that this has been obscured, because the real issues of freedom, moral responsibility and financially sound economic well-being have not been issues on which those in power, right down to the present day, have encouraged open debate, let alone helped people to think for themselves.

Instead, they have concocted a diet of entertainment, propaganda and easy money precisely so that little thought will be generally given to who is pulling the strings. This has permitted the size and reach of government to be enlarged exponentially since Huey Long’s days, and the continuation of precisely that use of political intervention to secure economic advantage against which he fought. As a result, despite the huge material progress which has been made, many of the disparities and distortions at which Long pointed an accusing finger are still in place and, certainly in times of increased intervention by government in the economy and in the private lives of citizens, have even become exacerbated.

In such a climate, Huey Long’s ideas for forcibly transferring wealth from one group of the population to another continue to have a strong appeal, however misguided they may be as a remedy for the ills he diagnosed, and however much history may have shown that forcible transfers of this kind, based on completely arbitrary judgments as to what is a living wage or a minimum value of a homestead inevitably lead to tyranny by the oligarchy which decides on how the wealth is the distributed. None of those difficulties of practical implementation diminish the liveliness of the spirit of rebellion and idealism in Huey Long’s vision, which was based on a defence of the underdog and his revulsion at the suffering and poverty which he saw around him in Louisiana as he grew up.

Controversial Senator William "Wild Bill" Langer of North Dakota, himself a popular politician accused of diverting moneys to social welfare schemes, said in a speech in 1941:

I doubt whether any other man was so conscious of the plight of the underprivileged or knew better the ruthlessness of those in control. And it was because Huey Long knew how to fight, knew how to fight fire with fire, knew how to combat ruthlessness with ruthlessness, force with force, and because he had the courage to battle unceasingly for what he conceived to be right that he became an inspiration for so many in their own fight for a square deal, and the object of such relentless persecution on the part of his enemies.

The fight he waged was such a desperate one that even in death he has not been immune from attack. So we find that 5 years after his body had been lowered into the grave — that grave which will forever be a shrine for those who love decency, honor, and justice — attempts are still being made to besmirch his character.

This is not fooling the farmer, the worker, the small businessman; it is not fooling the child who can read today because of the free textbooks that Huey Long obtained; it is not fooling the citizen who can vote today because Huey Long abolished poll taxes.

These people know from Huey Long’s life that, as they fight for the better things, there will always be the inspiration that fighting with them in spirit will be that tearless, dauntless, unmatchable champion of the common people, Huey P. Long.

Conclusion

The Huey Long story is a genuine tale of the 20th century, an epoch which began with the first machine age and the entrenchment of inflation-generating fiat money (for those non-economists like myself who might appreciate a reminder of what I am talking about here, that is money printed by government as legal tender which is not redeemable and which lacks economic value). These were the advance guard for the harsh forces which would achieve victory when the human obsession with the means and mechanisms of things, rather than with the ends of life, came to dominate almost every area of human existence.

Thus it is that we now pay attention not to the insidious fact of inflation itself, but to changes in the rate of inflation. We have mobile phones, but still we often fail to communicate: without even having exhausted the novelty of a gadget’s multiple functions, we are left with an unsatisfied human need to say and hear meaningful things, all the while using the gadget for its own sake, just because we happen to possess it and it is the latest thing. Likewise we may be induced to discount and deny the energy and life in Huey Long’s true and rebellious spirit, because we are told that he used disapproved, anti-democratic, populist and "fascist" methods.

In an era when the current President’s off-the-cuff remark that things would be so much easier if he were a dictator, supposedly said in jest, is actually not funny at all, many of the problems Huey Long identified, and the original reasons for his substantive rebellion and revolt, remain.

Notes, References and Links

Acknowledgements

For permission to reproduce some of the images contained in this article I am indebted to the following:

Selected Book and Video about Huey Long

Selected Additional Internet Links

  1. Speeches and Books by Huey Long
  1. Assassination conspiracy theory:

Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.

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