FIFTY-SIX years ago tomorrow, one of "the two most dangerous men in America" was assassinated. Now they want to exhume the body of his assassin. Yes, I'm talking about Huey Long, who was shot by Dr. Carl Weiss on Sept. 8, 1935, in Baton Rouge, La., and died two days later.
Long was at the time a U.S. senator from Louisiana and de facto governor of Louisiana. He spent more time in New Orleans and Baton Rouge than in Washington. No governor before or since ever so dominated the political life and apparatus of any state. He often acted clownish, but there was method to his craziness. "It's all very well for us to laugh over Huey," President Franklin D. Roosevelt is supposed to have told advisers, "But actually we have to remember at all times that he really is one of the two most dangerous men in the country."
By dangerous, he said, he meant that if the effects of the Depression were not alleviated, Americans would grow as impatient with democracy as Germans and Italians had, and Long from the left or Gen. Douglas MacArthur from the right would acquire dictatorial powers, a la Hitler and Mussolini.
Long was routinely described as a "dictator." For example, he was referred to as "Louisiana Dictator" in the Sun headline Sept. 9, 1935, about his being shot. He himself rejected the label. Asked to compare himself to Hitler, he once said, "Don't liken me to that sonofabitch." But another time he mused of his absolute control over Louisiana, "A perfect democracy can come close to looking like a dictatorship."
FDR's immediate fear of Long had to do with his running as a losing third-party candidate in 1936, not his taking over the government. One of the president's closest political advisers thought Long might get 6 million votes, or about 12-15 percent, all of it from Democrats. He might have carried several Southern and Midwestern states. He might have tipped the election to a Republican. (Who would fail, it was expected, paving the way for Long to win in 1940, is the way the Long for president scenario went.)
No one is sure why Dr. Weiss shot Long. He didn't live to tell about it, since Long's bodyguards pumped 61 bullet holes in him.
The team that will exhume his body next month is looking for evidence of a tumor or drug addiction that might explain things. It also plans to try to tell from the entry angles of his wounds if there might in fact be anything to lingering rumors that he was never in a position to shoot Long and thus a mere cover up for the real assassination.
That this could be done now sounds bizarre, but Long's life and death have always fascinated people with active imaginations. I believe Long has inspired more literature -- novels, movies, plays, an opera -- than any other American politician, including our presidents.
He's like a ghost story. We like to shiver thinking about how close our nation may have come to abandoning its democratic mission.