Huey Long, the masterful Louisiana politician on whom Robert Penn Warren modeled Willie Stark, was a brilliant man who became virtual dictator of the state of Louisiana. His charismatic stump speeches, his flamboyant style of dress, his ability to communicate with the common folk, and his remarkable capacity to make corruption the lifeblood of Louisiana politics have intrigued and stimulated filmmakers, writers, and serious political and social historians.
The American South was deeply conservative, but periodically waves of radical populism roiled its waters. In the post-Civil War era, radical agrarian social movements rose to protest the plight of farmers caught in the riptide of the market economy. In addition, southern industrial workers, chiefly railroad employees, labored mightily to unionize for shorter hours, higher pay, and safer working conditions. By the 1890s, these agrarians and urban laborers coalesced into the People’s Party and posed a serious challenge to the conservative elite who had ignored the dire conditions under which many southerners lived. These waves crested, then crashed upon the bulwark conservatives had erected with their superior resources and widespread use of violence and ballot box fraud.
Long’s career represents a resurgence of this southern populist tradition. Born in 1893, Long worked as a traveling salesman, then enrolled in Tulane University’s law school and absorbed law so rapidly that within eight months he had passed the bar exam. He entered politics in 1918 and captured the devotion of common people so completely that by 1928 he was governor. As governor, Long popularized a vision of government that would work to lift up the poor, improve the state, and keep corporations from running roughshod over the people. In 1930, as the Great Depression hit, voters elected him to the United States Senate, a seat he took two years later, not wishing to relinquish the governorship sooner. As Senator Long continued to tighten his grip on Louisiana politics, he prepared for a presidential bid. His 1935 “Share Our Wealth” program, which proposed confiscating much of the richest Americans’ wealth to finance guaranteed minimum incomes and decent livings for all Americans, served as the basis for that bid. Although Long was sketchy on his plan’s details, suffering Americans found in him a savior. He was assassinated in 1935, before he could run for president.
Long was not without fierce critics during his lifetime, and historians agree that he and his political machine took corruption to extremes and helped institutionalize it in Louisiana’s political culture. They disagree, however, on Long’s motives. Was he, as some have argued, simply an unscrupulous opportunist who used any means necessary to gain and retain power? Or, like Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark, was he a flawed man who set out to help Louisiana’s poor, but was corrupted by power?
Regardless of how modern scholars have interpreted Long, he was enormously popular with Louisianans (and was quickly gaining a national following with his “Share Our Wealth” scheme). Parents named their sons after him. Large crowds gathered to hear him speak; his speeches dignified working men and women, aroused political excitement, and provided the best entertainment around in the days before television. Huey talked big, but he also delivered. Louisianans could point to significant improvements in the state’s infrastructure and public works -- new bridges and roads, new hospitals and schools, and money lavished upon Louisiana State University helped make it one of the finest schools in the South. The people of Louisiana were grateful to Huey for their state’s physical transformation and for the jobs he created. All these he presented as his free gifts to the people. In reality, they were purchased at an enormous cost.
Long accomplished so much in part because his political machine’s wheels were greased by forced campaign contributions from state employees, and by readily provided kickbacks from those who wished to do business with the state government. Patronage was distributed to supporters, and enemies found themselves unemployed. Long largely financed public works with taxes on corporations and through the sale of bonds. Taxpayers’ immediate financial contribution thus remained minimal as they saddled future generations with enormous debt, and as voters accepted corruption and infrastructure improvements without substantive reforms that genuinely raised the standard of living for the poor and the working class. Long produced results, but the results came at a price. Perhaps the greatest price came from a failure to hold lawmakers accountable to honest government and to the needs of all people, a price that damaged and almost destroyed the democratic process in Louisiana.