Kingfish

“Kingfish” is a biography of Huey Long written by Richard White. Long was a Louisiana Democrat governor and later U.S. senator and controlled virtually every aspect of the state government from 1929 until he was shot to death in 1935 at age 42. This was true even though he held no state office after 1932 when he became senator and had his hand picked supporter elected as governor who did Long’s bidding. Once he obtained power he used corrupt means to get his supporters in power at all levels of government, including the Judiciary and Election Commission, and ruled the state as a dictator all the while lining his own pockets with kickbacks, including from protecting the Mob’s illegal gambling machines. Crude and vindictive and known for using Biblical phrases along with foul-mouth curses, Long retaliated against anyone that stood in his way including putting a special tax on newspapers that did not support him, firing government employees and replacing them with his supporters and even firing a motorcycle cop that gave his son a speeding ticket. He deployed the State Police and even the National Guard as his own personal police force. Louisiana had long had a corrupt government run by Delta planters, wealthy businessmen, and New Orleans political bosses, which decided the results of elections beforehand, but Long at first bypassed them and then later won them to his side and took the corruption to a new extreme.

Long was able to obtain and keep his power by appealing directly to the common, mostly poor voters in the electorate which gave him wide support throughout his political career despite his open corruption. His motto was “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown”. His generous state programs included internal improvements, education and health reforms, free school books and an adult-literacy program. He paved large stretches of the state’s poor roads and built many new bridges. Despite this, the lot of the poor did not increase materially by the end of Long’s reign as he increasingly ignored their interests as he gained power and lined his own and his supporters in industry’s pockets. He paid for the state expenditures by increasing taxes and borrowing large sums of money during the Depression, raising the state debt from 11 million to 150 million.

At the time of his death, Long had his eye on the Presidency. He turned against President Roosevelt due to his New Deal not going far enough for Long, saying that he could out promise him. From the floor of the Senate he promoted his hopelessly unrealistic, if widely popular, Share Our Wealth program which would have confiscated the wealth of the rich to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of one-third of the average family homestead value and income. In the end, he did not get his chance to run for President as he was gunned down by the son-in-law of a Louisiana political opponent that was being gerrymandered out of his seat by Long.

The book is well written and researched and I enjoyed reading it. However, it was depressing at times to read about all of the corruption of Long and his all-encompassing lust for power for which he would not stop at anything. It was a reminder of the political corruption that democracies can provide when not ruled by a God fearing electorate that honors the rule of law.