Six decades after his violent death, Huey Pierce Long remains the most dominant personality in Louisiana political history. No governor in America wielded as much power—indeed Long probably is the nearest thing to a political dictator the United States has yet seen. Some scholars argue that Louisiana politics is still defined in terms of Longs and Anti-Longs.

 

Huey Long is remembered for his flamboyant but unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 1923 and for subsequent victorious races for the governorship in 1927 and the U.S. Senate in 1930. Louisianians had never witnessed campaigns in which automobiles, loudspeakers, and aggressive, personal grass-roots campaigning were featured. Long achieved notoriety portraying himself as the champion of the little man and the foe of big business interests and city politicians. After being elected to the United States Senate, Long shocked the nation when he threatened to challenge President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party in the upcoming 1936 presidential election, promoting his vague “Share Our Wealth” plan as a radical alternative to the New Deal. Long’s brief but tumultuous career ended on September 8, 1935, when he was shot in the Louisiana Capitol corridor. He died two days later.

 

Admirers credit Long for breaking the long-time political control of Louisiana’s business-industrial interests, building roads, bridges and hospitals, contributing to the growth of Louisiana State University, providing free textbooks to Louisiana school children and creating jobs in depression times for a multitude of followers. Opponents emphasize his high-handed manipulation of state legislators for his own purposes, as well as questionable practices regarding taxation and the use of public monies. Finally, they allege he was guilty of bribery and fraud, and of collaborating with leaders of organized crime.

 

But who was Huey Long? What did he achieve as governor and as United States senator? How has his career affected Louisiana history? In 1993, at a symposium at Louisiana Tech University commemorating the centennial of Long’s birth, eight historians addressed these questions, building upon and sometimes challenging earlier biographies, notably the Pulitzer prize-winning Huey Long by T. Harry Williams, The Kingfish and His Realm: The Life and Times of Huey P. Long  by William Ivy Hair, and Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men. Three other speakers, two journalists and a criminal investigator, examined the controversial circumstances surrounding Long’s death.

 

Alan Brinkley analyzes Williams’ and Warren’s depiction of Long and concludes that Warren is the more perceptive because he detects the danger of granting power to a leader in order to rationalize neglect of personal political responsibility. According to Glen Jeansonne, Long’s pursuit of power was an end in itself and overrode any desire to promote the welfare of Louisianians. Huey’s book, My First Days in the White House, Edward F. Haas claims, reveals clues to what Long might have aspired to but probably could not have fulfilled had he been elected president. Henry C. Dethloff contrasts Long’s program to Populist reform and concludes that Longism contradicted Populism. In his essay, Matthew J. Schott criticizes favorable interpretations of Long, such as that of T. Harry Williams, and rejects the “moral relativism” that has characterized recent political biography.

 

Looking at Longs and Anti-Longs, Mark T. Carleton concludes that Huey Long’s detrimental politics continue to dominate Louisiana. That the Mafia began to expand in Louisiana under Long’s rule is the thesis of Michael Kurtz. Finally, Glenn R. Conrad revisits the problem of political biography, comparing the works of T. Harry Williams and William Ivy Hair.

 

In the forum on Long’s death, Ed Reed and David Zinman offer quite different challenges to the official version that the senator died as a result of a premeditated assassination attempt by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss. For his part, Captain Donald Moreau, who headed the reopened Louisiana State Police inquiry in 1992, holds to the conclusion of the original 1935 investigation that Weiss sacrificed his life for personal reasons and because he deplored Long’s dictatorial political practices.