If you have traveled to or live in Louisiana, I think you will agree that it is one American’s most unique states. The City of New Orleans has a storied past on its own and each year, it attracts millions of visitors, curious to see Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the world-famous French Quarter. Baton Rouge proudly serves as the state’s capitol and an icon on the landscape of the deep south. However, there is also a dark history of Louisiana, one that filled with racism, corruption, crime and poverty. Louisianans with a long memory will remember that there once lived a governor who ruled the state with an iron grip until his reign was ended by an assassin’s bullet. He was Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the 40th Governor of Louisiana who left a complicated legacy that is nothing short of surreal.
Long’s self-proclaimed title of “Kingfish” matched his unrelenting quest for absolute power and projection of himself as the only person that mattered in any room he was in. Richard D. White examines his reign and the effect it had on politics in Louisiana and the United States. To say that America had not seen a candidate like him before would be an understatement. He exploded onto the scene and in the process seized control of the highest office in the state. Interestingly, Long never finished high school and today, that alone would earn him few votes. But in the late 1920s and after the depression, illiteracy was a far more common problem than it is today. Long understood this and had an uncanny ability to reach millions of people that felt as if they had been forgotten by the wealthy. Louisiana was often viewed as a backward place full of backward people that cam from the swamps. This casual prejudice against Louisiana, was found in many places in American politics and helped provide the spark for Long’s infamous reign and determination to make Louisiana the example to be followed by the rest of America.
From the start, Long was far from what anyone would have considered a candidate for public office. Boastful, confrontational, brutish and vulgar, Long earned the disgust of the political establishment but the hearts of poor white Americans. His popularity soared has he talked of improving the economy, providing free textbooks, building roads and other projects to improve the state. And while he did accomplish many of those things, his darker side tended to overshadow the good deeds and put him on a collision course with Washington, D.C. and his destiny, which he met on on September 8, 1935 when Dr. Carl Weiss fired a single and fatal shot. The story from start to finish is captured beautifully by White and will leave readers in shock at Long’s endless antics.
White takes us back in time to an era before air conditioning and political correctness. As I read the book, I felt as if I were sitting in the gallery watching Long launch into yet another vicious tirade against a perceived enemy. I found myself in shock at his actions and the vindictiveness in which he carried out his agenda. Corruption had plagued the south for years and New Orleans has long been known as a place where one can go to have a good time and find any vice known to man. The brash openness with which Long operated would result today in impeachment, indictment and undoubtedly prison. But this was the 1930s and Louisiana was like the wild west with pistol packing politicians who sometimes resulted to fisticuffs to settle disputes. Long himself brawled on more than one occasion after cooler heads failed to prevail.
In many ways, Long was everything that most Americans have come to despise and distrust. He was loud, obnoxious, uncouth, racist, flamboyant, drank too much and had enemies all across America. His larger than life persona and constant attacks on others, attracted the eyes of the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Long’s battle with Roosevelt is explored in the book and highlights how serious of a threat Long became to the establishment. In Europe, Adolf Hitler had risen to power using a nationalist and populist platform. Here in America, there were many that feared Long could mimic his success. Long had no desire to be compared to Hitler but failed to recognize his own racism which is on ugly display in the book. And as the author points out, the true irony is that Long’s outlandish behavior did more to prevent Louisiana from becoming a true democracy than it did to push the state forward. While he was an advocate for the advancement of disenfranchised people, he had no intention of giving those advancements to Black Americans and his actions towards them are one of the darkest stains on his legacy. He truly did have the ability to change Louisiana in many ways, but ultimately became his own worst enemy as he became drunk with power and engulfed by paranoia.
Eighty-three years have passed since Long’s death and today is rarely mentioned in conversation. Visitors to Baton Rouge take photos in front of the statue erected in his honor but it is anyone’s guess if they know the story of his life. Richard White presents a clear and concise biography of the Kingfish who made himself the God of Louisiana. This is a good look at the life and death of Huey P. Long.