The Kingfish as a scheming, ambitious tyrant

February 02, 1992|By Bruce Clayton

THE KINGFISH AND HIS REALM: THE LIFE AND TIMES

OF HUEY P. LONG.

William Ivy Hair.

Louisiana State University.

406 pages. $24.95. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt considered Huey Long one of the most dangerous men in America. The "Kingfish," as Long liked to be called, had just arrived in Washington, but the junior senator from Louisiana quickly got everyone's attention as the loudest, crudest man in town.

And he had a panacea for Depression America -- "Share Our Wealth." Don't pussyfoot: Smash the rich; redistribute their income. Give everybody a house. Forgive the debts of anybody who can't pay. "Every man a king," Long shouted, and could he yell -- and inflame the masses. Soon his Share Our Wealth clubs had over 7 million members nationwide. Respectable America shuddered.

"What, exactly, was he," asked T. Harry Williams in a huge, Pulitzer-prize winning biography in 1969, "dictator, demagogue, or democrat?" Mr. Williams acknowledged his subject's faults, including some racist asides, but argued that Long (1893-1945) was at heart a well-meaning democrat. He was foolish at times, even harebrained, and ruthless on occasion, but he was sincere in wanting to help the downtrodden. That meant even blacks, whom he never publicly slandered, as did the racist demagogues of his time.

None of that will wash, says William Ivy Hair, a scholar of standing at Georgia College. Dr. Hair, building on many of the familiar facts and his own painstaking research in Louisiana's sordid political and racial history, portrays Long as a scheming, power-mad, ruthless tyrant who cared for no one but himself.

He was an out-of-control engine of ambition. He openly boasted of his ambition for office. After being admitted to the state bar at 21 -- he'd studied a bit of law -- he left the courtroom "running for office."

The slugfest of politics was his only life. True, he had a vague, visceral desire to help the have-nots, Dr. Hair writes, but mainly Long enjoyed denouncing "the interests" and their lackeys and listening to the sweet sound of the "whines and moans" of "pie-eaters when shoved away from the pie."

Elected governor in 1928, he announced he was the "Kingfish," and said he'd be president one day. Anyone in his way was fair game for dirty tricks -- from stuffing ballot boxes to revealing that opponents had relatives in the state mental institution or black blood in their past. When a distraught legislator waved a copy of the state constitution in his face, Long snarled, "I'm the constitution around here now."

When angry legislators, themselves guilty of many of Long's shenanigans, failed to bring the Kingfish down through impeachment, Baltimore's bemused sage, H. L. Mencken, caught the mood of many onlookers: "It was a fight to the death between gorillas and baboons. The whole combat was typical political science in the Hookworm Belt."

In 1932, Louisiana's citizens -- dazzled, amused, inspired or cowed -- elected Long to the U.S. Senate.

The Kingfish was consolidating his dictatorship. He had a puppet successor as governor, a muzzled press, a secret police and a lucrative policy of financial kickbacks from state employees. When told that he had coerced an anti-Long city into accepting his free school textbook program, Long snorted, "I stomped them into distributing the books."

In Dr. Hair's pages, Long gets little praise for his moderate (by his era's standards) approach to the race issue. Dr. Hair carefully documents Long's penchant for racist language, his callous treatment of individual blacks, and his willingness to play the race card when needed in elections.

In general, Dr. Hair argues, the Kingfish did little to help blacks. Since Long "never specifically helped any of the underclass who were unable to help him -- that is, non-voters such as blacks and state prisoners -- the conclusion is inescapable that everything he did in politics was for the purpose of augmenting his own power."

For all his intent of denouncing Long -- whom on one occasion he calls a "moral idiot" -- Dr. Hair notes, with more than a trace of sadness, that much of the Kingfish's politics, particularly in racial matters, was vintage Louisiana, where from the 1890s on life was "degrading for blacks." It's a degradation that the author explores fully.

Although Long the man too often disappears for pages as Dr. Hair chronicles political history, one strength of his book is the detail provided about Long's time and place. It wouldn't do to look up from this solid book and conclude that Long was a product of his time, but his actions are more understandable.

In 1935, a prominent Baton Rouge physician, infuriated upon hearing that Long was about to smear his family name by repeating a decade-old canard about African blood, gunned down Long in the corridor of the Louisiana Capitol. Even a Kingfish must reap what he sows.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of American History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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