Huey P. Long: icon or the closest this country came to having a dictator?
Louisiana state historians will renew the debate on Long, "The Kingfish," in a new museum.
The fiery governor and U.S. senator will be featured alongside Louis Armstrong in a permanent exhibit called "Huey and Louis: Two Louisiana Icons" as part of the Louisiana State Museum's new Baton Rouge museum, to open in early 2005.
Armstrong was an easy pick. His influence on the world of music is unquestioned.
But mixing Louis with Huey? That's a Louisiana-style cocktail that some scholars are having a tough time swallowing.
"Huey Long was the most controversial figure of the 20th century in Louisiana," said Ed Renwick, a political science professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. "Calling him an icon, that's the thing."
There is no doubt, however, that in this state of cypress swamps, red clay farms and storied mansions, Long's shadow still looms large.
At night, a spotlight still shines on his statue outside the "skyscraper" state Capitol he built in 1932, three years before he was assassinated there. His colorful younger brother, Earl K. Long, ruled Louisiana off and on until 1960. His son, Russell B. Long, was a powerful fixture in the U.S. Senate from 1948 to 1987.
Few political leaders in the United States were as beloved, hated and radical as Long. During his brief but explosive political career in the 1920s and 1930s, he was credited with pushing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the left, popularizing the welfare system and modernizing Louisiana -- enshrouded in poverty at the time.
"I just think he gets looked over many times. We tend to focus on presidents. But he was a national treasure," said state historian Alecia P. Long, who coincidentally shares the Kingfish's last name and middle initial. She wrote the first draft of the exhibit's script.
Long's flamboyant personality was as legendary as his political legacy -- and maybe more so.
With his light summer suits, pink neckties, straw hats and homespun commentary, he set himself up as an irreverent senator and a formidable populist in Washington.
At the height of his national popularity, advocating a socialistic platform of "Share the Wealth," he received 37,000 letters from supporters in a single day. Dozens of stenographers worked around the clock to answer them.
Unlike Armstrong, only a handful of books, movies and documentaries have chronicled Long's exploits. And most people outside Louisiana have paid little attention to the research by writers and scholars to piece together the truth about his death.
Was Long -- a contender to dethrone Roosevelt -- assassinated on Sept. 8, 1935, in a marble hallway of the state Capitol by Carl A. Weiss, a doctor? Was Weiss acting on behalf of an "old establishment" bitter about "losing out," as Russell Long asserted? Or was Long accidentally shot by his bodyguards when they opened fire on Weiss?
Long's national importance is not in doubt. But dealing with Long as a historical figure has been a dilemma -- especially in Louisiana.
"He was the closest thing to a dictator that America has ever produced, and I think it's embarrassing that our state produced him," said Phillip Cook, a history professor at Louisiana Tech in Ruston.
Long steamrolled his opposition. He abolished local governments and fired teachers because they opposed him. Public employees were forced to pay into his secret fund -- the deduct box -- and subscribe to his newspaper, Louisiana Progress.
He sent hundreds of soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard into New Orleans to strong-arm the city's political elite into submission.
There are those still alive whose stomachs turn at the thought of Long being portrayed as an icon.
"I'm prejudiced," said Carl Corbin, who was expelled from Louisiana State University in 1934 with six other students for allowing a letter Long opposed to be published in the college newspaper.
"Someone's making a strange mixture there -- Huey with the jazzman. They don't mix," the 88-year-old Corbin said.
What the exhibit in the 36,000-square-foot, $25 million museum will do is present the public with some Long treasures.
Among them: the only existing photograph of Long's body lying in state, an event that thousands of mostly poor, country folk flocked to; and the doors to the private bar in his uptown New Orleans home depicting the cadre of characters in his turbulent life.