Review of Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long, by Richard D. White, Jr.

5 Apr

A consummate dictator, Huey P. Long ruled over Depression-era Louisiana while serving as governor and senator and left one of the more unique legacies in American political history. His imprint on his home state is remarkable even to this day, and appears as all the more so when one realizes how brief was but stunningly complete was his reign. In a mere seven years in office (1928-1935), he managed to take over Louisiana politics and become a nationally-known figure with presidential ambitions. I recently had a chance to listen to an audiobook version of Richard D. White, Jr.’s acclaimed biography of this legendary figure, Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long.  I found it to be worthy of the praise it has received as perhaps the best account of the life of this giant in Southern political history.

White recently retired from his position as the dean of the Ourso College of Business at LSU, having served as professor of public administration prior. Previous to the publication of Kingfish, he authored Roosevelt the Reformer: Theodore Roosevelt as Civil Service Commissioner 1889—1895.  White paints a detailed portrait of his subject in his biography of Long, tracking him from his humble north Louisiana roots all the way to the height of his power, when an assassin’s bullet cut him down in halls of the skyscraper capitol he caused to be built in Baton Rouge. By any measure it is an incredible story of ambition and accomplishment, but also one of greed, corruption, and an unusual—one might say perverse—hunger for power. By the time Carl Weiss steps out from the shadows in the corridors of the capitol on September 10, 1935 with his .32-caliber semiautomatic handgun, looking to settle a personal grudge, readers are almost rooting for someone to cut Long down to size.

It is undeniable that Long did a lot for Louisiana. The roads and bridges he built modernized its antiquated transportation infrastructure, for example, and his investment in Louisiana State University transformed it from a struggling local school to an institution of national standing. His commitment to give Louisiana schoolchildren free textbooks at a time in which they were expected to pay for them (and not all families could afford such an expense) was a vital plank on his gubernatorial platform. But Long always had an angle for self-aggrandizement in anything he did, and he would pursue and punish anyone whom he believed to not be loyal to him in his pursuit of power. By that I mean not just political foes, but their families, friends, and businesses. No vendetta was too small for him to devote time to ensuring personal ruin, as he was a petty, vindictive, and self-righteous man. Long ran Louisiana with a mafia-boss style that struck fear into anyone who dared oppose him at the height of his power in an administration that comes as close as any in American history to a totalitarian regime.

Long had an unusual self-confidence and persuasiveness, which he combined with an unmatched work ethic and energy that overwhelmed his opponents and enabled his rise. He was able to in short order take over Louisiana politics owing to these qualities and the fact that he campaigned to everyday citizens in words they could understand with a populist-style message about the need to reform a system that he alleged kept them in poverty. He railed against the wealthy and powerful corporations, proposing what can only be described as communist schemes to cap individual incomes and spread collective wealth. A bitter enemy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had designs on the presidency. The relatively short period of his reign, a whirlwind of despotism and boundless ambition rendered palatable to his subjects by numerous and substantial tangible positive improvements in Louisiana, are unlike anything before or after in local American politics. Kingfish tells a remarkable, entertaining, and enlightening tale. It is well worth a read if you have an interest in learning why the name Huey P. Long still looms so large in Southern history.

JMB

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