I need to learn not to fire my guns too soon. I hit on this a while ago in a piece titled “Louisiana Oil; From The Kingfish to Deepwater Horizon” and then I thought, “No, more should be said about Huey Long.”
As a quick recap… In our Public School System’s version of History class we, our parents, and our children are asked to memorize names, dates and places, but not the ones we should remember the most. And never the ones whose memory will help us out.
Here is a clip which Ken Burns picked for the beginning of his Documentary on Huey Pierce Long, Jr. (August 30, 1893 – September 10, 1935) I did not use Ken’s film for the source, but I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t.
Many people don’t know it but Huey, as a Senator, came up with a Share The Wealth Program which featured the well known motto “Every Man A King”, though it is seldom remembered that it continued; “But No One Wears A Crown”. The line was taken from a Williams Jennings Bryant speech.
(Note; Remember, the below figures date from the 30’s, but also keep in mind that it is our present day lemming-like acceptance of the totally unnecessary, and completely destructive effects of inflation that contributes the most in making these figures seem so ludicrously small. Whenever the US has been on the Gold Standard inflation has dropped almost to zero.)
“The key planks of the Share The Wealth platform included:
- No person would be allowed to accumulate a personal net worth of more than 300 times the average family fortune, which would limit personal assets to between $5 million and $8 million. A graduated capital levy tax would be assessed on all persons with a net worth exceeding $1 million.
- Annual incomes would be limited to $1 million and inheritances would be capped at $5 million.
- Every family was to be furnished with a homestead allowance of not less than one-third the average family wealth of the country. Every family was to be guaranteed an annual family income of at least $2,000 to $2,500, or not less than one-third of the average annual family income in the United States. Yearly income, however, cannot exceed more than 300 times the size of the average family income.
- An old-age pension would be made available for all persons over 60.
- To balance agricultural production, the government would preserve/store surplus goods, abolishing the practice of destroying surplus food and other necessities due to lack of purchasing power.
- Veterans would be paid what they were owed (a pension and healthcare benefits).
- Free education and training for all students to have equal opportunities in all schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions for training in the professions and vocations of life.
- The raising of revenue and taxes for the support of this program was to come from the reduction of swollen fortunes from the top, as well as for the support of public works to give employment whenever there may be any slackening necessary in private enterprise.”
Little wonder he was killed, huh? Investigative Journalist, Greg Palast has said that the popularity of Long and his movement caused Roosevelt to water this down into what became known as “The New Deal”. I can see this, but that is an awful lot of water.
It also involved a petition which had already been signed by over a million Americans. Though originally a Roosevelt supporter, Long, a Democrat, split with Roosevelt in 1933 and set his sights on the White House in 1936. The people of the United States, having suffered through the Hoover administration’s botched economic policies – which resemble ours today in many respects – were impatient, to say the least. Word of what Long had done for Louisiana had reached the ears of most Americans, many of whom had not seen much improvement in FDR’s first couple of years.
Here is a clip from Hollywood’s first handling of the fictional account, inspired by Long, which came out as the book and films; “All The Kings Men”. A side note; when I was a child this was a book on our bookshelf. I asked about it and was told what it was, but as a very small child I was not interested in it at all. Nowhere in my Catholic private school education was I ever told enough about Huey Long to spark my interest in reading that book. This is American history I had to discover all by myself. (Mom should ask for a refund)
Sounded familiar right? Below is the later version of the same speech, delivered by Sean Penn. Sean does a much better job on it, of course, but from this late vantage point, and no support from the schools, it is just entertainment today. Another sound byte in a sea of them.
Having promised to take on Standard Oil, once elected Huey Long set about doing just that. Standard Oil had been removing Louisiana Oil, but had made a sweet deal with a previous corrupt politician that didn’t require them to pay anything for it. Governor Long decided that he would tax the oil to pay for free school books for Louisiana children.
Standard Oil was not impressed by this young upstart and refused to cooperate. Governor Long mobilized the Louisiana National Guard and seized Standard Oil property, namely the oil fields in the State. Standard Oil agreed, begrudgingly, to pay Louisiana for their Oil, and the Governor let them have the oil fields back. In the same way that the next clip is a remake of the previous clip, the story of Hugo Chavez and Big Oil in his country sounds like a remake of the Huey Long Story.
They were both democratically elected, over and over, and yet they were both referred to as dictators. The similarities continue though as both Huey and Hugo were both populists and popular with the people. Those of you who have seen Oliver Stone’s “South Of The Border” will know that Hugo, before his death, used to drive his own SUV, windows down, no security running alongside, and the people would run out to greet him and shake his hand. Stage managed by Stone, and Hugo? Perhaps, but as with corruption, if one side stage manages, the other side has to or get left behind.
There is propaganda and there is propaganda, all degrees of it. Below is a rather brash example, but remember, at that time, with the limitations of communications it was effective. Note how early spin doctors handle his gubernatorial impeachment and it’s failure. Was there corruption in Huey’s administrations? His detractors say so and there most assuredly was, but some people who were present say differently. One survivor of those times has said that he did not break the law, but rather used it. If the law prevented him from doing something, he would get busy and get a law passed that would let him do it.
I think it is safe to say that there was a good amount of corruption in Huey’s administration, but it can’t be said that he was the first in Louisiana or even the best at it, and he was a corrupt politician who was working for the people. For those who don’t know, until Huey Long showed up Louisiana more closely resembled an oil colony than an actual State. The only things that was a constant theme in Louisiana was corruption and oil. The people he fought were just as, or more corrupt, and corruption was a way of life in Louisiana at the time, as it is now. If we were shooting a movie for Hollywood the part would of course call for a shining and spotless hero, but in real life, faced with such corruption such a character could not enjoy much success for very long. It might be that the people of Louisiana, would have preferred help from someone who was a glowing example of goodness and right, but at that time Huey was the only politician who had taken any interest in them at all.
One thing was certain though, when Huey took control of the Governor’s office there were only three hundred miles of paved roads and three maj0r bridges in all of Louisiana, and the State was the second most illiterate in the country. When he became Governor he built over 1500 miles of concrete, over 700 miles of asphalt, and over 2500 miles of gravel roads. He also built 111 bridges, started night schools for illiterate adults and free textbooks for all schoolchildren in Louisiana.
In Louisiana they practice a different type of law based more on French and Spanish Law than English Common Law. Huey attended the first year of a three year Law curriculum at Tulane University, applied to take the Louisiana Bar, and passed it easily. In truth, Huey told his family at an early age that he was going to win a small political position, run for Governor and win, move on to the Senate, and finally the White House, all of which he had done except the last, of course. An assassin’s bullet ended his life, and his presidential campaign, in the newly completed State House in Baton Rouge on Sept. 08, 1935. The Statehouse was the site of his office and eventually his grave; Huey P. Long is buried on the lawn there today. This does not sound like the same Huey Long that has been described to us in our history lessons, does it?
Huey died two days later on September 10, 1935, eleven days after his 42nd birthday. His last words were, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.”