The Man Who Would Be King
The Reign of Huey P. Long
By Richard D. White Jr.
Random House. 361 pp. $26.95
Huey Long was the most entertaining tyrant in American history. From 1928, when he became governor of Louisiana, to 1935, when he was assassinated, Long's flamboyant style and brazen deeds provided journalists and their readers with more good stories than most politicians pile up in a lifetime.
The Kingfish (a nickname he borrowed from a character on the "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show) cursed and bullied state lawmakers until they voted his way or were hounded out of office, sometimes in rigged elections. Vowing to help farmers and laborers of all races, Long forced the legislature to finance free textbooks for schoolchildren, build thousands of miles of new roads and slap a hefty tax on Standard Oil, whose Baton Rouge refinery was the largest in the world.
Meanwhile, Long, who sometimes wore green silk pajamas while greeting official visitors, treated himself to the bounty of his realm. He ordered convicts from the state penitentiary to tear down the antebellum governor's mansion and had a near-replica of the White House built in its place. He acted as virtual coach of the Louisiana State University football team and sometimes threw tantrums on the field when they lost. And he often gave his best speeches while drunk.
In 1930, Long won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Back in Baton Rouge, he installed as governor a smiling toady, felicitously named O.K. Allen. In Washington, Long demanded that Congress confiscate all earnings over $1 million a year and use the funds for medical care, college tuitions and other programs. When his fellow senators refused to endorse his "Share Our Wealth" plan, he called them "damned scoundrels" fit for hanging.
To serve his ends, Long could switch from color-blind altruism to smarmy bigotry. In 1935, the Kingfish unleashed a racist smear against a local judge in Louisiana, accusing him of having "coffee" or mulatto blood. In response, the judge's son-in-law, a young doctor, shot Long down in the halls of the state capitol. At his death, the Kingfish was only 42 years old. He had been planning to run for president as a populist, third-party candidate; if he'd lived, he might have been able to keep Franklin D. Roosevelt from winning reelection in 1936.
These and scores of other similarly engaging tales fill Richard D. White Jr.'s precise and effervescent new biography of Long. White, who teaches at LSU, adopts a tone of zestful disapproval toward his crude, headline-grabbing subject. He understands that millions of ordinary people in the state loved Long for humbling the old elite and making himself a national celebrity in the process. "During his first couple of years as governor," White allows, "Huey Long made significant improvements to the lives of many Louisianans." But the net effect of White's "have you heard this one" approach is to make Long seem more a buffoon than a reformer or a dictator. Voters, the author implies, should have banished this egomaniacal man-child from public life long before his blood spattered the marble corridors of the state capitol building.
Although his book is a pleasure to read, White has the misfortune of having to meet a higher standard than does the typical biographer of a state politician who died fairly young and never got to campaign for national office. More than three decades ago, T. Harry Williams, another LSU professor, published a vivid, Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Long's life that included most of the same stories that White tells, usually at greater length and with the help of interviews with many of Long's cronies and enemies. Williams also took the time to explain how the corrupt political culture of Louisiana could produce a man like Long and could persuade ordinary people to overlook his thuggish flaws. If that opus wasn't competition enough, White also has to contend with the dazzling portrait-à-clef that Robert Penn Warren drew of Long, or "Willie Stark," in his novel All the King's Men . (Broderick Crawford gave a brilliant rendition of that character in the 1949 film; a remake starring Sean Penn is set to come out this fall.)
Unfortunately, White adds nothing significant to these memorable works. Nor does he make much of an effort to explain why Long, toward the end of his life, was able to build a national following with broadcast speeches and a mushrooming network of Share Our Wealth Clubs that boasted a membership of millions.
The answer is as contradictory as the man. Long flouted the law, drank excessively and bragged that he violently intimidated his rivals. But in the pit of the Great Depression, he also tapped into a deep vein of anger against the rich and a longing for political redemption. Even after his death, the magic of the Long name enabled Huey's brother, son and other family members to get elected time and again to state and federal offices. For Louisiana voters, memories of Long as the champion of ordinary folks beset by adversity trumped the image of him as a tyrant, making him what one fellow senator called "the smartest lunatic I ever saw in my whole life." Perhaps it's not surprising that, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, a certain nostalgia for the Kingfish has been stirring in the state he once ruled. ·
Michael Kazin is the author, most recently, of "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches history at Georgetown University.