Louisiana Demagogues F

RAY JENKINS

November 10, 1991|By RAY JENKINS | RAY JENKINS,Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

In a burst of trenchant wit 30 years ago, the late New Yorker magazine writer A. J. Liebling described Louisiana as "the westernmost of the Arab states." The portrayal exquisitely captures that most eccentric of states as an rich mix of oil, spicy food, religious fundamentalism and explosive politics.

David Duke, the enfant terrible of Republican racial politics, fits well into that tradition, and whether or not he wins the governorship of Louisiana this week, he is likely to be a menacing presence on the political landscape for a long time.

Mr. Duke's rise to power has led those with a long memory to draw comparisons to another master of the masses who arose in Louisiana more than half a century ago, the fabled Huey Long.

In many respects the comparison is not fair. Whatever his faults, Huey Long was a serious politician who sought and achieved serious reform, and he did so without tapping the dark undercurrents of racial and religious fears.

Once, when someone compared him to Hitler, Huey roared back: "Don't liken me to that sonofabitch. Anybody that lets his public policies get mixed up with religious prejudice is a plain goddam fool." And that was in 1933, long before the full measure of Hitler's evil became apparent. No doubt Huey, were he alive today, would hold the same low opinion of erstwhile Hitler-admirer, David Duke.

But still there are similarities: Both men arose at a time when Louisiana was in the throes of pervasive economic hardship; both capitalized on widespread fears and frustrations, and both were driven by limitless ambition. So it follows that like Huey Long, David Duke does not aspire merely to be a governor or senator: He wants to be president.

More than half a century after his death, Long faded into obscurity; few recall today just how real was the threat that this man of undisguised dictatorial impulse might achieve his goal.

It can scarcely be denied that Long aspired to be president. He even wrote a book titled "My First Days In The White House." Impossible, you say, for a minor Southern demagogue to win the presidency? Well, one who did believe that such an eventuality was possible was T. Harry Williams, author of the masterful 1969 biography "Huey Long."

By 1935, Long had already reached the Senate and was building a national constituency of frightful proportions with his siren promise to combat the Great Depression by redistributing the wealth. Franklin D. Roosevelt was completing his first term as president, and the Depression still held the nation in its thrall.

The Republicans offered no real alternative beyond impotent platitudes like Herbert Hoover's incantation that "prosperity is just around the corner." Long had already established a national political structure in the form of his "Share Our Wealth Clubs," which were to be found across the country. And, biographer Williams relates, he had a substantial campaign fund secretly contributed by conservative FDR-haters.

His plan was simple: He would run in 1936 as a third party candidate from the left. This would take away enough votes from FDR to ensure the election of the Republican candidate, an obscure Kansas governor named Alf Landon. Long's grand strategy envisioned that the nation's economic sickness would then worsen for four more years, thereby setting the stage for Long to gain the Democratic nomination and win the election in 1940.

"It was a bold plan and also a coldly calculated one," wrote historian Williams. "He was willing to let the country suffer for four years so that he could then save it."

But what might have been was not to be. On Sept. 10, 1935, Huey Long died from an assassin's bullet. He had just turned 42 -- two years older than David Duke is today. (In an eerie coincidence, the body of Long's putative killer was exhumed, in an ongoing inquiry into the assassination, on the day after Mr. Duke gained a spot in the Louisiana governor's runoff.)

T. Harry Williams summed up Long's turbulent career in these words: "I believe that some men, men of power, can influence the course of history. They appear in response to conditions, but they may alter the conditions, may give a new direction to history. In the process, they may do great good or evil or both, but whatever the case, they leave a different kind of world behind them."

Regardless of the outcome on Saturday, David Duke almost surely will remain a menacing figure on the political landscape. Win or lose, he very likely will challenge George Bush for the presidency in 1992 -- either as a Republican or a third party candidate. In that endeavor, he no doubt will drawing upon the experience of another Southern demagogue of the generation between Huey Long and David Duke -- former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama. But that's another story, for another column.

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