Huey Long by T. Harry Williams

Huey Long by T. Harry Williams

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Huey Long by T. Harry Williams
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book entitled Huey Long by T. Harry Williams, the reader is given an interesting perspective into perhaps the most controversial American politician of the 20th century. The book is lengthy and wordy, but still a very easy read and very informative. For a larger than life kind of guy like Huey Long, a man that cannot be confined to just pages in a book, the questions arises if Williams strips away the myth surrounding Huey, or does he further add to the mythical quality of a politician whom many people still chose sides over to this day. Some of the most ambitious plan for Louisiana were laid out under the Long administration, but was Long really for the people as he said, or was there a more personal drive behind his plans. Is Williams’s biography of Long at all bias, or is it a fair account that lets the reader decide who Long was. In a book that’s about 800 pages, one would need much more space to write review of Williams’ book, but I hope to touch on each topic mentioned above.
The book starts off mentioning the state of the State of Louisiana at the time when Huey Long was rising to power. Louisiana was at the bottom of the list for income, literacy, and property value in the 1920’s. According to Williams, “Educational and other services were poor for the additional reason that the ruling hierarchy was little interested in using what resources the state had available to provide services and was even less interested in employing the power of the state to create new resources so that more services could be supported…” The poor people of Louisiana were the ones that Long reached out to and identified with. There is no argument that from the beginning, Long had his eyes set on the Presidency. Long knew that to get that far he need the support of the people. Long was able to gain that support he needed with the ambitious “share our wealth” campaign. Long also took on Standard Oil, the biggest companies in the South. To the poor folks of Louisiana, Long was a hero who stood up for them, but to many of the States wealthy, he had started to make many enemies.

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Long first ran for Governor in 1924 and lost when he was 30 years old. Long’s platform for his first race was road construction, increased support for public schools, improvements for the courts, free textbooks for school children, and state warehouses for storing farmers crops. According to Williams, “He approved the right of labor to organize, and he condemned the use of injunctions in labor disputes, corporate influence on government, and concentrated wealth .... He had said what he stood for--an increased role for the state government in the economy--and if he decided to denounce in his own style the things he had said he was against, blood might indeed appear on the moon.”
According to Williams, the concentration of wealth in America had been a long time concern for Long which fully formed during his time Law School. While reading “Huey Long”, it is easy to see why some of the states more prominent members would have been shocked by a man like Long. Long’s overt, in your face style of politics was supposed to make the established order squeal. Nicknames, sound trucks, circulars, and radio speeches all had the desired effect for Long, as Williams attests to in his book. Of course Long bent the truth, but he was still from rural Louisiana and had more in common with the small town citizens than the rich upper class in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Long was simply born with the wit, personality, drive and memory to lead these people of rural Louisiana; People who by far outnumbered the city dwellers in the State.
Williams includes little about the early life of Long, probably because not too much is known about this time in his life. Williams creates his biography from years of research and oral histories of family, friends, and acquaintances of Longs. There were some stories in the book that clearly contradicted one another, but this lets the reader know that Williams tried to present all information available. When given a chance to take a positive or negative view of Long’s policies or views, Williams usually will take the side of supporting Long. Williams does provide much supporting evidence of his stance, adding to the wordiness of the book, but a necessity none the less.
When Long won the Governorship of Louisiana in 1928, he turned his talking into action. Long raised severance taxes on natural resources to help pay for textbooks for public and private schools. During Long’s term as Governor, Long built over 2300 miles of paved roads, 111 bridges, and employed 10 percent of the road builders in the State. He moved to abolish the practices of strait-jacketing and chaining and introduced dental care at mental institutions. The States first inmate rehabilitation program was also started under Long at Angola. Long implemented an adult literacy program in Louisiana that mostly served African-Americans, despite the racism of the overwhelming white majority. Many of his progressive policies were unthinkable to large sectors of his electorate, but the size of his programs drew in people who supported him in some areas and not others.
What was it about Long that made people hate him so much? Long did abuse his powers in office, but he was hardly the first in Louisiana history to do so. Long did appoint many family members and friends to government jobs, and often gave State jobs to those who had supported his campaign. As Long gave speeches about sharing the wealth, he was amassing more wealth than most others in the State, and wearing expensive suits as he gave those speeches. These flaws mentioned above do not sound too different than your average politician today. What set Long apart from the fascists was his belief in the democratic process. Long would, as Williams demonstrates in his opening paragraph, do just about anything to get people's votes except lie to them about what he'd do. What Williams reveals to us in “Huey Long”, is a man who bent every fiber in his body to force it into the same mold as his will. Louisiana was his because the people of Louisiana had given it to him, and they'd done that because he told them in no uncertain terms what he was going to do with it. That directness and honesty set Long apart from his predecessors in and of itself, apart from his radical message.
Long put Louisiana and himself into the national spotlight when he became senator in 1932. In the Capitol, he advocated legislation that would prohibit family incomes of more than one million dollars a year (or three hundred times the annual family income) and prevent ownership of more than five million dollars (or three hundred times the average family value) by any one family. He attacked his own party's leadership in the Senate, denouncing them as corporation attorneys in the pockets of big business, and producing lists of the clients of their law firms. Long openly broke with President Roosevelt when it became clear to him the President wasn't advancing on redistribution of wealth. Siding with progressive Republicans from the Midwest farm states, Long rammed through an extension of bankruptcy privileges to farmers hit hard by the Depression, over the objections of the administration. After he denounced his old enemy, Standard Oil, for bankrolling Bolivia in its oilfield war with Paraguay, the grateful Paraguayans named a stronghold "Senator Huey Long Fort." The Share Our Wealth Society rose from nothing in early 1934 to 27,431 chapters, in every state, with a total membership of more than four and a half million, in less than two years. Tourists in Washington, Williams recounts, wanted to see: "White House, Monument, Capitol-and the Kingfish." People responded to Huey as they did to nothing else at the time. According to Williams, "After one of his radio speeches and during one of his encounters with the Roosevelt administration, more than thirty thousand letters a day poured in for twenty-four consecutive days." One could not deny Long’s ability to captivate an audience.
Williams details the political life of Long exhaustively. Williams’ book is sometimes hard to follow, as many chapters in the book will cover events happening during the same time. Also, the events in the book often seem condensed into too short of a time frame. This is maybe to be expected when writing such an extensive biography about a man who has grown into a myth. The myth of Long seems though to be perpetuated by Williams. The inner Huey is never really known. The book seems to be extensively researched and benefits greatly from being written at a time when many of Long's cohorts and enemies were still alive and accessible. The book goes to great lengths to describe Long's conservative, status quo preserving enemies. William's book also goes to great lengths to point out the legitimate achievements, against bitter resistance, of Long's machine - roads, bridges and education being top of the list. The achievements were real and, only a few years before they occurred, had seemed impossible. Long made them happen by force of will, strange political instincts and a willingness to do anything to achieve his goals. Williams is quite vigorous not so much in defense of Long as in definition of the man and his vision. Quite a long book, but well worth the read.
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