Book Reviews


 

KingFish: The Reign of Huey P. Long

by Richard White

Review by Richard Sheppard

 

Former depression-era Louisiana Governor Huey Long is one of those blazing figures who recurs infrequently but inevitably in American life and who nearly defy description. Oh, we can describe Huey: shrewd, relentlessly political, power-mad, vindictive, partisan, generous, ambitious. And tireless in temporal pursuits large and small. We can understand he was a whip smart boy from back-roads Louisiana who understood the crazy quilt nature of the state's ethnic and religious voting blocs better than anyone else prior, or likely since. Huey was what might be termed a "Cadillac populist" shouting up for the little man while attiring himself in the finest clothing and perks. In at least one picture contained in this book, he looks literally possessed, ranting a speech of furious intensity. His tireless style played well across Louisiana's disparate population; and he knew perfectly which buttons to press for which audience. When he was elected Governor, he turned the state into a patronage mill, but did manage to fulfill his two primary populist pledges: build roads and give the kiddies schoolbooks. He built the state's architecturally-pleasing state capitol building and named it for himself. (He's buried alongside).

His power in Louisiana was so vast, he needed to expand it to Washington, and he was duly elected Senator. A nominal FDR ally, his played-well-at-home antics unsettled the staid U.S. Senate and he was only a marginal player on the national scene. Roosevelt distanced himself from the fiery senator. Despite his unaccomplished senate tenure, and being away off in Washington, Long, through a hand-picked proxy in the Governor's office and a state government stuffed with Huey appointees, maintained an iron-grip on Louisiana's power-levers. Finally, his uneasy alliance with the chemical and petroleum interests frayed as he eyed increasing their taxes. These powerful interests gradually aligned with Huey's opponents, corrupt themselves, but appalled and envious at the scope of Huey's gargantuan graft. In the end, a disgruntled doctor who held a job-related grudge against Huey shot him down, perhaps but not proven to be in league with Huey's increasing roster of enemies. You can argue about the justification of the shooting, but given how Huey Long lived, being gunned down seems a suitably dramatic if little-known end to a colorful, craven, and uniquely bombastic American political career.