The Kingfisher at 100

Thomas V. DiBacco

August 30, 1993|By Thomas V. DiBacco

TOMORROW is the centennial of the birth of Huey P. Long. That may not sound like big news, except in Louisiana, Long's home state, where August 30 is a legal holiday. But it was Long who paved the way for three humble-by-birth Southerners -- Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton -- to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in recent years. And Long helped to provide a context for Texan Ross Perot's high-pitched, iconoclastic bid for the presidency in 1992.

Recall that several of the first presidents were Southerners, specifically, Virginians, but they were from privileged family backgrounds. After Southerner Andrew Johnson, a tailor by trade, became president on Abraham Lincoln's death, the White House was monopolized by Midwesterners and Northerners, save for Woodrow Wilson, whose Southern ties were so nominal (born in Staunton, Va., reared elsewhere) and background so prestigious as to discount his actual place of birth.

The humble-born Long gave some respectability to Southern politicians with their funny accent, idioms and often radical notions of politics. His first forum, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, was his home Huey Long paved the way for three humble-by-birth Southerners

state where he was elected governor in 1928. Using questionable, if not corrupt, methods to improve schools and roads, Long delivered the political goods to poor people. Then he moved on to the U. S. Senate in 1930.

Long's forte in the Great Depression era was being uncommonly common in a political arena dominated by respectable speech and mannerisms (recall Herbert Hoover's starched collars and Franklin Roosevelt's cigarette holder). Long took full advantage of the radio and news-via-the-movies, with speeches conspicuous for their down-home literal basting, shouting and gesticulation. Long was dubbed by one critic as being "like an overgrown small boy with very bad habits indeed."

Comedian Will Rogers, a contemporary, worked for different ends, using the cowboy-as-hero theme to amuse readers of his newspaper column. But cowboys were the in-thing during the 1930s, crude Southerners were another matter. Moreover, Long was deadly serious, believing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was a conservative sham, a footsie relationship between business and government without appreciable benefits to little folk.

"Maybe you see a little change in the men working in the dining room," said Long in one of his speeches, "but back in the kitchen the same old cooks are back there fixing up the vittles and the grub for us that cooked up that mess under [Herbert] Hoover. There has never even been a change in the seasoning."

By 1934, Long announced his Share-Our-Wealth Program, whereby the federal government would confiscate all incomes over $1 million and use the money to guarantee every American a $5,000 home and a $2,000 annual income. "Every man a king," was the way it was decribed in a popular jingle, "Every man a king/ For you can be a millionaire/But there's something belonging to others./There's enough for all people to share."

Claiming five million followers, Long worried FDR confidants about the 1936 race for the White House. Of course, political pros didn't expect Long to win, but feared that he could take enough votes away from the Democrats to elect a Republican. More importantly, Roosevelt was concerned enough to concede a bit to Long's radicalism. His Revenue bill of 1935, called the "Soak the Successful tax" by critics, delighted Huey, who accused the president of "copying my share-the-wealth speeches. . .that I was writing when I was 14 years old. So he's just getting as smart as I was when I was in knee breeches."

When Long was assassinated in September, 1935, it did not mean that his influence on national politics ended. His populist movement was carried on by others, and Roosevelt had to keep in line liberal Southerners who demanded more reform legislation as well as respectable, conservative Southerners who had dominated the Democratic party from the time of the Civil War. Choosing reform-minded Harry S Truman as his running mate in 1944 was a gesture toward Southern liberals, because HST's home state of Missouri, though not technically Southern, was close enough.

To be sure, contemporary Southern politicians with a flair for earthy rhetoric would probably not wish to acknowledge any legacy from the controversial Huey Long, about whom history has not been kind. Robert Penn Warren's highly acclaimed "All The King's Men" (1946) had its corrupt Willie Stark bear a striking resemblance to Long. And Long's career in textbooks has often been described as "dictatorial" and "demagogic."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington, D. C.

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