On September 8, 1931, as on almost every day of his exceptionally eventful life, Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana was a man on a mission. On what was meant to be a brief and busy visit, he strode through the capitol building in Baton Rouge, which is still—at 450 feet—the tallest capitol in the United States. It had been built in the depths of the Depression under the sole direction of Long, who was then governor. As if to symbolize his supremacy over the state, he had an apartment built on the 24th floor for his exclusive use.
Long had returned to his proud creation to oversee the destruction of a political opponent; under his direction the state legislature eliminated the district of Judge Benjamin Pavy. Minutes later, Pavy’s enraged son-in-law, Dr. Carl Weiss, shot Long with a pistol. Long’s bodyguards opened fire, striking Weiss 60 times.The blood of the assassin and his victim flashed scarlet on the black and white marble floor.
Even with a bullet lodged in his abdomen, Long kept moving, staggering outside to a car that whisked him to a hospital. But despite the doctors’ efforts, Long passed away in the early hours of September 10, moaning near the end, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” The “Kingfish”, who had dominated Louisiana politics and ridden a wave of populism to national fame, was no more.
His tumultuous life had begun just 42 years before in the small town of Winnfield, Louisiana, where he was one of nine children born to a small farmer and his deeply religious wife. Despite being bright and precocious, and winning a scholarship, he never graduated from high school and was unable to go to college. By sheer drive and determination, he later attended law school and passed the bar exam without graduating. His ferocious ambition had one overriding object: Huey Long was determined to become president of the United States.
But first he would enjoy a spectacular legal career that would include an appearance before the United States Supreme Court; an impressed Chief Justice William Howard Taft called Long “the most brilliant lawyer who ever practiced” before him. Tireless and charismatic, he made his first run for governor at the age of 31 and was defeated. He never lost again, taking the governorship four years later and quickly cementing his total control over the politics of the state.
Populism is nothing new in American politics. Andrew Jackson introduced it in the 19th century and Donald Trump rode it to the White House in the 21st, but Huey Long was its supreme 20th century practitioner. He railed against the rich and privileged, denouncing the elites and championing the common man. Though he never hesitated to appeal to the racist instincts of his constituents when he deemed it expedient, his message was primarily economic: in one speech he declared, “I’m for the poor man — all poor men, black and white, they all gotta have a chance. They gotta have a home, a job, and a decent education for their children. ‘Every man a king’ — that’s my slogan.”
Long ran for the United States Senate in 1930 and won handily; in a particularly brazen move, he delayed being sworn in as a senator for nearly a year so that he could continue to exercise his powers as governor. Once in Washington, he established himself as one of the most radical and redistributionist figures in Congress.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took the oath of office fourteen months after Long was sworn in as a senator, viewed the Louisianan with alarm. Long scorned Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, proposing instead a “Share our Wealth” plan that would impose confiscatory taxes on the rich and provide a guaranteed family income and lavish benefits for the poor. As he put it in a radio address, “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 that a few million dollars is the limit to what any one man can own.”
With these and other measures he hoped to position himself for a run against Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936, or perhaps an independent run for the presidency. He was hardly subtle about his ambition, writing a book entitled My First Days in the White House. No wonder Roosevelt considered Long one of the two most dangerous men in America (the other was Douglas MacArthur).
A womanizer who loved fast cars, food, and drink, he was flagrantly corrupt and rarely let the facts get in the way of a good speech. As governor, he pressed a pliant legislature to vest enormous power in his hands, leading some to brand him a dictator. He fought off an attempt to impeach him, saying of his opponents, “I used to try to get things done by saying ‘please’. Now I dynamite them out of my path.”
But as so often before and since, populism proved a poisoned chalice. His presidential dreams would be unfulfilled, and his fellow Louisianans would never reach the promised land of prosperity for all. Careless of the storms of passion stirred by his rhetoric and actions, Long met his tawdry end in the limestone tower he built in Baton Rouge, a bloodstained monument to his own vanity.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.