As a child I had a number of heroes. Willie Mays, centerfielder for the New York/San Francisco Giants with that spectacular over-the-shoulder catch, and Linus Van Pelt of Peanuts fame, philosophising on God and humanity while sucking his thumb and holding a security blanket, were two such. And another of my many childhood heroes was no less than Huey P. Long, Governor and Senator from the great state of Louisiana who was gunned down outside the State Capitol in 1935 at the age of 42. Today is his birthday. And I’d like to celebrate a great man with great contradictions. He remains a hero of mine to this day.
My lefty friends could never understand my appreciation of Huey. Sure wasn’t he the closest thing to a dictator that America ever had? Wasn’t he a demagogue, a populist, a danger to the rule of law? And he wasn’t even a socialist, had little understanding of the underlying flaws of the capitalist system. That is a common perception. But this glides over the cruel realities that was his time and assumes his excesses (of which were many) were the essence of his political character. History, however, is never so simple.
In the early 20th century Louisiana was one of the poorest states in the Union. It was a fiefdom of a few hundred families, all subservient to corporate concerns, in particular Standard Oil who exploited the state’s natural resources while literally writing the tax laws. The system of Government was weak, little more than a network of bribery and influence-peddling with more than half the population disenfranchised by poll taxes. Most children couldn’t go to the few schools that existed because they couldn’t afford textbooks, health care was non-existent, infrastructure was in a pre-industrial state (there were only 350 miles of paved roads), and poverty and illiteracy were rife. It was literally the stuff of a John Steinbeck novel or a Woody Guthrie song.
Enter Huey Long at the age of 35, running for Governor. His platform was simple but far-reaching: tax the wealthy and corporate interests, and build schools, hospitals, roads and bridges. But if his platform was simple, his refiguring of political forces was quite sophisticated. Hitherto, one of the main fault lines in Louisiana was between the ‘protestant’ North and ‘catholic’ South of the State. Being a former Baptist College student from the North he worked tirelessly to win over the South – on a platform to unite the two ends of the state on a new fault line: the poor farmer and city/town worker against the rich. He offered the people a choice: ‘Either Standard Oil is going to run this state, or I am.’ The voters overwhelmingly opted for Huey.
And he was true to his word:
- Within a few years there were 9,700 miles of new roads and 111 bridges – a quantum leap in transport infrastructure.
- He established a public school in every community and provided free textbooks and transport for all students. He opened up higher education for thousands through new scholarships and initiated a massive literacy program, enabling 100,000 adults to read.
- He expanded the health care system by establishing new medical schools along with clinics and hospitals in the poorest parts of the state – providing free treatment.
None of this came without a cost. When he proposed a 5-cent per oil barrel tax to subsidise his social programme (which included cheap gas to households), his opponents, supported by corporate interests and the state media (unsurprisingly all the newspapers opposed Huey vehemently), moved to impeach him on grounds of corruption, bribery and blasphemy. When the impeachment came to trial, though, Huey had managed to win over a minimum of a third of the Senate, thus defeating his opponents.
‘Win over’, of course, was a euphemism: he bought them out with state jobs, and probably cash. Huey fired hundreds of opponents in the state bureaucracy. Just as his predecessors did, he rewarded his supporters with jobs and favours (an American tradition going back to the early 19th century with President Andrew Jackson’s unapologetic policy of: ‘To the victor belongs the spoils’). This was how the system was played. And Huey played it extremely well.
And he fought fire with fire. When a local school board refused to hand out his free textbooks (on the grounds that families shouldn’t be forced to accept ‘state charity’) he broke them by starving them of state funds. When the Lt. Governor, an avowed opponent, tried to stage an illegal coup d’etat, Huey surrounded the state capital with the National Guard and forced his lieutenant out. He eventually tired of the right-wing opposition within certain local government areas and effectively abolished them:
"I used to get things done by saying please. Now I dynamite them out of my path.’
But the portrayal of Huey as a thug was a bit rich, coming from some of the quarters. When they couldn’t defeat him at the polls or out-bribe him, his opponents formed a para-military group and moved on Baton Rouge, the State capitol. Huey, by then a Senator but who still ‘ruled’ the state through his ally, Governor Allen, declared martial law, called out the National Guard and forbade public gatherings. The ‘putsch’ was defeated after brief skirmishes.
And the charge of anti-democracy sits uneasily alongside Huey’s democratic revolution. He repealed the poll tax which resulted in a doubling of the electoral rolls. He distributed leaflets to every household assuring people they could vote, instructing them to ignore the ‘rats and thieves’ who might try to prevent them from exercising their new franchise.
Yes, the media made much of his gun toting and his armed guards (he was constantly receiving death threats). But he was anti-war. After rejecting a naval appropriations bill in the Senate, he said:
“I would prefer to vote this billion dollars to feed the starving rather than for more battleships to kill somebody.”
If all this was Louisiana politics ‘red-in-tooth-and-claw’ it was marked by Huey’s unique (for a southern politician) position on racism. He never played the ‘race card’. Indeed, he provoked considerable opposition because he made state services available to everyone, regardless of race:
“I’m for the poor man – all poor men, black and white, they all gotta have a chance.”
When the Ku Klux Klan denounced him as 'unAmerican' Huey responded in kind, calling the KKK Imperial Wizard a ‘son of a bitch . . I am not using profanity, but am referring to the circumstances of his birth." He also suggested that if the KKK didn’t watch out they would end up ‘with their toes up.’
Huey is probably best known for his ‘Share the Wealth’ programme which he proposed as a US Senator, and which was widely seen as a launching pad for a Presidential bid. It embodied his radical egalitarian approach to politics:
- Limit annual income to one million dollars each
- Limit inheritances to five million dollars each
- Guarantee every family an annual income of $2,000 (or one-third the national average)
- Free college education and vocational training
- Old-age pensions for all persons over 60
- Veterans benefits and healthcare
- A 30 hour work week
- A four week vacation for every worker
Many scorned this ‘demagoguery’, even on the Left (though Americans today would certainly love to have the educational, health and labour market benefits Huey was seeking over 70 years ago) Certainly, Huey never saw himself as a socialist. His radicalism derived, as much of American radicalism does, from a progressive reading of the Bible. His analysis was that in the US wealth was far too concentrated and needed to be expropriated and redistributed in order to fuel consumption – a classic Keynesian prescription. He didn’t want to ‘overthrow the system’, merely to democratise it - imbued with a moral dimension:
“Greed, avarice and selfishness of the money masters have seized the control of all these good things. They let the food rot because the hungry cannot buy it; they let the clothes fall to pieces because the naked cannot buy them; they let the walls fall from the houses because they had rather have people walking the streets than to have their greed curbed. So in this land of plenty, the decay of humanity is at hand.’
But before he could achieve his greatest ambition – to become President – he was gunned down by a disturbed medical student (conspiracy theories abound, of course, but the lone gunman theory seems to be correct).
Huey is not a man for our times. It’s hard to transplant the past into the present. He was a man for his times, in his place – both brilliant and flawed. But there are two lessons from his legacy from which we can still learn today:
First, his belief that people, through the democratic process, can use the machinery of the state to make a better life for themselves – to resolve their individual struggles through political means.
But secondly, and more profoundly, Huey taught us the one lesson that resonates throughout history and for which he is both loved and maligned. He taught us that, however you define them - whether they are the owners of Standard Oil or the wealthy plantationists of St. Francisville or, like today, the faceless global forces that are ravaging our societies, our planet, our very souls – it is still the same:
‘The rich are the enemy.’
The political project is as ever it was – to unite people, regardless of race, religion or any other feature of our humanity, around a programme of prosperity, democracy and peace.
Happy Birthday, Huey. You are not forgotten.