“Always take the offensive – – – the defensive ain’t worth a damn.”
So said Louisiana’s self designated “Kingfish,” Huey P. Long. Huey took his own advice and remained on the offensive until the day he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.
Huey Pierce Long remains today one of the most fascinating political figures in America’s history. Charlatan, fraud, demagogue, dictator, visionary or messiah; few had neutral feelings about Huey Long. I think it would be fair to say more has been written about Huey Long than any other modern political figure who was not a president of the United States. Long enraptured millions of Americans with his “Share the Wealth” program that promised every family in the United States a home and the equivalent of almost ninety thousand dollars in income annually. Even today, many of Huey Long’s all too few recorded speeches hold up remarkably well; clips of Long speaking remain spellbinding, especially if one ignores some of the “Kingfish’s” gesturing.
With the advent of television, many of the old fashioned orators passed into the pages of history. It is likely difficult for many readers to imagine, but Huey Long was an extraordinarily adept speaker, just as easily able to move his audiences to raucous laughter or tears. Oftentimes dismissed as a backwoods buffoon, Huey Long was an accomplished attorney, possessed of a shrewd, and calculating political mind and the Kingfish was no clown. Many estimable men and women who knew Long privately noted his intelligence and ability. Huey Long was one of those rare politicians who understood people and possessed an innate ability to intuit their fears, hopes and aspirations.
Huey Long was no ideologue; Long was neither a conservative nor a liberal. Long cast himself as the champion of the common man and woman and his populist message resonated with not only with Louisianans, but also millions of Americans. Huey Long had the ability to gage his audience and could speak in coarse and common terms to appeal to the folks in the piney woods, or utilize pitch perfect proper grammar to more educated audiences. Long seemed to have an encyclopedic mind and could extemporaneously speak on just about any topic and once, while filibustering in the United States Senate, regaled his colleagues with his own recipe for “potlikker,” the drippings remaining from cooking greens.
Huey Long spoke long and often about millionaires, greed, and the needs of the many. The Kingfish entertained and enraged one audience by asking how many men owned four suits and not a single hand was raised. Long asked how many owned three suits and then two. Not one hand was raised and the Kingfish then told the audience financier J. P. Morgan allegedly owned one hundred suits or more. Audiences never seemed to notice or care Huey Long himself was sartorially resplendent. Long very well may have owned more suits than J. P. Morgan. Huey Long was exceptionally well tailored and oftentimes wore clothes to be eye-catching or horrifying. The Kingfish wore pink, lavender or lilac shirts adorned with equally colorful ties. Long traveled in luxury automobiles, always accompanied by a plethora of bodyguards due to his fear of assassination, a fear, as it turned out, that was well founded.
Huey Long’s audiences were usually rawboned farmers, hard working people who were hard and lean, oftentimes ill clad and ill nourished. Huey could make those leathery faces smile with very real pleasure or roar with anger.
Huey Long always claimed he was not assailing the wealthy, he merely wished to see that nobody was “too rich” or “too poor.” Long was brilliant in his ability to illustrate situations in terms that anyone could understand. Huey Long spoke about millionaires John D. Rockefeller, Bernard Baruch, and J. P. Morgan as guests at a buffet where everyone in the country was invited. According to Huey, Rockefeller, Morgan and Baruch left with 80% of the food, leaving the rest to feed everyone else in the country. Long said the millionaires had more than they could spend, eat or wear and ought to bring some of the “vittles” back for others to enjoy. The Kingfish scoffed at the notion he intended to destroy capitalism; he retorted he merely wanted the system to work for everyone.
“We do not propose too say that there shall be no rich men. We do not ask to divide the wealth. We only propose that, when one man gets more than he and his children and children’s children can spend or use in their lifetimes, that then we shall say that such person has his share. That means a few million dollars is the limit to what any man can own,” Huey Long explained.
It was Huey Long who brought free textbooks to Louisiana for school children. It was Huey Long who either built or paved most of the roads in Louisiana. It was Huey Long who promoted adult literacy through night courses. It was Huey Long who piped natural gas into New Orleans, providing heat and comfort for residents, as well as lowering their utility bills. Long’s detractors accused him of bankrupting the state when in fact he kept a tight reign on expenditures while building bridges, roads, hospitals, and facilities for education. Long’s Louisiana had the third lowest cost for state government even with his providing so many services to his constituents.
Part of Huey Long’s appeal and popularity was the fact he would speak the unspeakable. People considered it to be the truth, while some opponents flatly claimed he was at his most persuasive when he wasn’t telling the truth.
Huey Long told a surprised conference of educators from Louisiana State University bluntly, “You will find that you cannot do without politicians. They are a necessary evil in this day and time. You may not like getting money from one source and spending it for another. But the thing for school people to do is that if politicians are going to steal, make them steal for the schools.”
Huey Long even acknowledged the plight of the Negro in Louisiana, something few other politicians would dare to do. According to Long’s biographer, T. Harry Williams, when Dr. Hiram Evans, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, announced he would come to Louisiana to campaign against Long, the Kingfish snapped, “Quote me as saying that that Imperial bastard will never set foot in Louisiana, and that when I call him a son-of-a-bitch, I am not using profanity, but referring to the circumstances of his birth.”
Huey P. Long’s personal appearance was not stunning. He was a rather odd looking fellow and without the force of his personality, one might have thought him squat and entirely unremarkable. Instead, Huey was a cartoonist’s dream with reddish ginger colored curly hair that had a habit of flying about everywhere. Long had a very wide mouth and a somewhat bulbous nose, which turned up rather like that of comedian Bob Hope. Long’s chubby face gave him the appearance of a somewhat malevolent cherub.
Long was quick on his feet and was almost unparalleled as a master of ridicule and invective. Huey Long had a rare ability to nickname his opponents and his nicknames, while always uncomplimentary, had some element of truth and stuck to them like tar. In fact, it was Huey Long who bestowed his own nickname of the Kingfish upon himself. Long was amused by the “Kingfish” character from the “Amos and Andy” radio show and he would snatch up the telephone receiver and bark, “This is the Kingfish speakin’.”
Huey Long dubbed the Mayor of New Orleans, T. Semmes Walmsley, “Turkey Head Walmsley”. It was as unfortunate as it was apt. Walmsley had a beak of a nose that was impossible to miss and a loose chin. Charles Rightor, a state legislator, who suffered from regular intestinal distress, was christened “Ol’ Whistle Britches.”
Huey took an interest in Louisiana State University, expanding the campus, pushing to increase enrollment, which tripled. LSU became recognized as one of the best schools in the Southland. Long did not overlook the disadvantaged; he lowered tuition while providing more scholarships for poor students. Recognizing the desperate need for more doctors in Louisiana, Huey Long established the LSU medical school, which was fiercely fought by some, causing the Kingfish to retort, “Raise all the hell you want to, print what you want to. But we’re going to have that medical school and every qualified poor boy can go.”
Long paid for his building programs and services by shifting the tax burden from the poor to those whom could best afford it. Oil producers bore the brunt of the taxation to pay for free textbooks; Standard Oil, owned by the richest man in the country, John D. Rockefeller, was livid. Standard Oil was a very real force in Louisiana politics and the conglomerate fought back. Standard Oil financed much of Governor Long’s opposition and tried to force him out of office.
Long narrowly avoided being impeached as governor and unable to either defeat or impeach Huey Long, Standard Oil was still able to stall much of Long’s legislative agenda. Left with few other options, Standard Oil threatened to leave the State of Louisiana.
“If they got to leave, they can go to Hell and stay there,” Huey Long replied.
Governor Huey Long retaliated against Standard Oil by running for the United States Senate. No ordinary politician, Long sought to reestablish his political power in Louisiana and demonstrate he was as popular as ever with the people. A Senate race would not only show he was still popular with the public, but help to consolidate his political power in Louisiana. Running for the U. S. Senate was hardly unusual for any governor, but Long made no secret that he intended to remain in office as chief executive for almost two years until the expiration of his term before taking his seat in the Senate. Long’s opponents were aghast and sputtered in outrage at his effrontery. It was a gamble that would have paid off for very few politicians.
Long challenged eighteen-year incumbent Senator Joseph E. Ransdell, whom Huey derided as the “old feather duster” for his wispy goatee.
Randsell was a rather genteel pro-business Democrat who had been in Congress since 1899. He was particularly ill prepared to face a challenge from the relentless Huey Long.
Long beat Senator Ransdell easily, winning more than fifty seven percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. The defeat ended Ransdell’s long Congressional career and true to his word, Huey Long remained both governor and United State senator from Louisiana for almost two years. One reason Long chose not to leave the governor’s chair was because he refused to vacate the office in favor of a hostile lieutenant governor. Long departed for Washington, D. C. only after installing Oscar K. Allen as governor. O. K. Allen was so accommodating and amiable that Huey’s brother, Earl, once derided the governor by saying, “A leaf blew in on O. K.’s desk…and he signed it.”
Huey Long was a nominal Democrat, but he never hesitated to criticize either the Republican or Democratic Party. Long once famously compared Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. Huey noted that Hoover was a hoot owl, while Roosevelt was a “scrootch” owl.
Huey went on to explain the difference.
“A hoot owl bangs into the roost and knocks the hen clean off, and catches her while falling. But a scrootch owl slips into the roost and scrootches up to the hen and talks softly to her. And the hen just falls in love with him, and the first thing you know, there ain’t no hen.”
Huey turned his ability to ridicule on FDR, referring to Roosevelt’s having been a guest on millionaire Vincent Astor’s luxurious yacht, the Nourmahal.
“Prince Franklin,” Huey sneered, “Knight of the Nourmahal, enjoying himself on that $5,000,000 yacht, with Vincent Astor and royalty, while the farmers starve. Hooray for the President! Let’s send him off again.”
Roosevelt recognized Huey Long as a legitimate threat to his continued incumbency and considered him one of the two most dangerous men in the country; the other being General Douglas MacArthur. Huey clearly had presidential ambitions and hinted that he intended to run on a third party ticket in 1936 to take enough votes away from FDR to elect the Republican candidate. Huey calculated a GOP president would make things so bad, he could be elected in 1940.
President Roosevelt struck back at Huey and his machine, pressing Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to have the Internal Revenue Service investigate the Kingfish and his allies.
The colorful Kingfish perhaps summed up his tumultuous life and politics best.
“I was born into politics, a wedded man with a storm for a bride,” Huey said.