Huey Long:  A Retrospective

the little dictator      cartoon

"I ain't no fish! I'm gonna pick another name, maybe one with a lion or a tiger on it"

-Huey P. Long, after wining the Senate seat

  Huey Pierce Long was born in Winnfield, Winn Parish, Louisiana on August 30, 1893; the eighth of nine children of a farmer.  Winn Parish was a stronghold of the Populist movement in the 1890's, and Socialist sentiments were strong in the area during the years before World War I.  As a small boy, Long  absorbed many of the ideas that came out of this Populist-Socialist traditions.  He attended high school in Winnfield, but, imperious even as a youth, he quarreled with the school authorities and left before graduation.  He sold vegetable oil door-to-door for four years.  He conducted a cake-baking contest in Shreveport.  The winner was Rose McConnell;  they married in 1913.  He told her that he would hold a secondary state office and would then become, in succession, governor, senator, and president.; a job that allowed him to travel to several states, including Oklahoma.  He attended the University of Oklahoma briefly to study law.  He decided to become a lawyer and enrolled in the law school of Tulane University.  He took courses for a year and was admitted to the bar.  He began practicing law in his native state in 1915; first in Winnfield, but later moved to Shreveport.  Long prospered as a lawyer, but had only used law as a jumping board into politics.  He was elected a member of the Louisiana railroad commission in 1918; and later, in 1921, it enlarged in power and became known as the Public Service Commission. Huey called himself "Kingfish" after a popular radio character.



"This state shows every need for a constructive administration, devoted to the protection and expansion of labor and capital, industry, and agriculture, all working toward the efficiency of our courts, public schools, freedom in religious beliefs and reduction in taxation and burdens of government, and toward liberating our state and our institutions from the ever growing modern tendency of monopoly and concentration of power."

- Huey P. Long; announcing his candidacy for governor

 

Louisiana Governor- In 1924, Long ran for governor and lost, but ran again four years later; on the platform of building better roads and free textbooks for all school children.  Long won.  He was the first major Southern politician to put aside appeals to racism.  He established a powerful and ruthless political machine.  His support was based upon the poverty-stricken rural population of the state, to whom he appealed through his apparent willingness to despoil the rich and give to the poor.  The building of bridges, roads, hospitals, and a modern educational system were all sponsored by Long.  His program met with unrelenting opposition from conservatives; who attempted to remove him from office by impeachment on charges that included bribery and misuse of state funds. Long defeated the move after persuading 15 senators, a sufficient number to thwart impeachment, to sign a round robin that they would not vote to convict.  This ordeal hardened him and he decided to build a power structure that his enemies could never prevail against.

In 1930, Long, in the middle of his governorship, ran for the U.S. Senate and won.  He had a falling out with his Lieutenant Governor, Paul Cyr and was determined not to have Cyr succeed him.  He promised the people of Louisiana that he would not leave the office of governor in the hands of his lieutenant governor,  "even for a minute". The power struggle between Long and Cyr was almost comical.  In October 1931, Cyr went so far as to seek a Justice of the Peace and took the oath of office as governor, stating that Huey had vacated the office as soon as he was chosen U.S. Senator.  In a dramatic play, for he was in no real danger of being displaced by Cyr's attempted coup d'etat, Huey called out the National Guard, the sate police, and the highway police.  Motorized troops circled the governor's mansion and the governor's office "to prevent Cyr from seizing them," as one story in the Times-Picayune retold. 

Huey soon turned the tables.  By taking the oath of office as governor, Cyr, had vacated his own office.  The president of the Senate, Alvin O. King,a supporter of Long, took the office of lieutenant governor as succession dictates.  Huey stated to a reporter, "[Cyr] is no longer lieutenant governor, and he is now nothing."  In a mockery to Cyr's action, countless Louisianians went before notary publics to take the oath as Louisiana governor.  Long took his seat in the Senate in 1932, when his handpicked successor, was elected to the office and began carrying out Long's programs according to his orders.


                                      United States Senator- Long supported the newly elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1932 Democratic convention.  They worked together at first, but soon broke away from the President.  He thought that Roosevelt was not acting with the sufficient energy to alleviate the depression and, more important, that the New Deal was not attacking the fundamental problem of the maldistribution of wealth.

He decided to create his own wealth redistribution program, which he called "Share Our Wealth".  It proposed heavy estate and income taxes that would prevent any family from owning a fortune of more than $5 million and enjoying an annual income of more than $1 million.  He proclaimed that this program would make "every man a king"  The revenue thus derived, the government would support a large public-works program and subsidies to education.  His most radical proposal being the government would guarantee to every family a debt-free "homestead" of $5,000 and an annual income of between $2000 - $3,000.

Long was called a dictator and a fascist after gaining almost complete control of all branches of Louisiana's government.  It was soon rumored, and feared, that he would become president and model the nation on Louisiana.  Long had announced his intentions for the presidency in August, 1935.

  The Assassination- Sunday, September 8, 1935, Huey Long came to the capitol building he helped build in Baton Rouge.  He had called a special meeting of the state legislature.  One of the many things on the evening's agenda was a bill to gerrymander (rearrange the boundaries of) the district of one of Long's political enemies, Judge Benjamin Pavy.

The events that followed have been a mystery for decades.  Walking down the corridor of the Capitol Building, Long is thought to have been greeted by Pavy's son-in-law, Dr. Carl Weiss, a physician practicing in Baton Rouge.  Then, as reported by witnesses, Weiss shot Long at close range in the abdomen.  Long cried out and then stumbled down the cooridor.  Weiss was immediately shot and killed by Long's bodyguards.  The number of shots fired is not known.  All told, 30 bullet wounds were found in front of Weiss' body, 29 in the back, and 2 in the head, but it was impossible to tell how many were caused by the same bullet entering and exiting.

Huey had disappeared from view.  Jimmie O'Connor, an associate, found the senator in an isolated stairwell.  He was rushed to Our Lady of the Lake Sanitarium.  Long whispered "I wonder why he shot me," to O'Connor.  When he was informed of his assailant, Huey shook his head, saying, "I don't know him."  Dr. Arthur Vidrine, the physician attending Long, discovered that the bullet, from a .22 caliber pistol, had entered the upper right portion of his abdomen and emerged from the back.  It was necessary to perform surgery to keep the senator from bleeding to death.  Huey Long sent for 2 of the finest surgeons in New Orleans to perform the surgery, but they were delayed in traffic and wouldn't make it to the hospital in time.  It fell on Dr. Vidrine to perform the surgery.  During the two hour surgery, Dr. Vidrine repaired two small wounds in the colon and sutured the abdomen closed.  When the two surgeons arrived from New Orleans, they were shocked to find that Vidrine hadn't performed a simple procedure to test for blood in urine.  This test would have shown that the kidney had also been injured by the bullet.  They would need to perform another surgery to fix this, but Long was too weak to handle another operation.  It was a matter of time.  On his death bed, he was said to have pleaded, "God, don't let me die!  I have so much to do!"  At 4:06 a.m., on September 10, Huey Long died.  His widow, Rose, completed his Senate term.


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