Governor, senator, and potential presidential nominee, Huey Pierce Long Jr. would have been as fascinating a politician in the current era as he was in his own. By all accounts he was crass, commanding, and vengeful, with massive popularity as a Depression Era populist who was further to the left than Franklin Roosevelt and touted a campaign slogan of “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.”
Long rose from the extremely impoverished Winn Parish in Louisiana to the national political stage with zeal, towering ambition, and a charismatic knack for attracting followers and powerful devotees. Here are 10 facts about the ostentatious politician who gave himself the nickname "The Kingfish."
1. HE WAS A TALENTED STUDENT WHO WAS EXPELLED BEFORE GRADUATING.
Since there was no public school in Winn Parish when he was growing up, Huey Long was home-schooled before his father and other neighbors pooled money together for a teacher to create a “subscription school.” He started at public school in fourth grade, and later managed to convince his teachers to let him skip seventh grade. He was on the cusp of graduating from Winnfield High School in 1910 following the 11th grade when a 12th grade was added to the curriculum.
Long was kicked out of school for circulating a pamphlet decrying the extra year and, as a result, he never finished high school (though he was awarded a diploma posthumously). As revenge for his expulsion, he launched a petition calling for the principal to be fired and got enough signatures from the townspeople to see the principal removed.
2. HE RECEIVED A SCHOLARSHIP TO LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY, BUT STILL COULDN’T AFFORD TO GO.
Though he didn't graduate high school, Long's talent for winning arguments got him noticed by colleges. Long came in third at a Louisiana state debate competition, and won a scholarship to LSU as a result. Since room, board, and textbooks weren’t included in the offer, Long had to pass on the opportunity. Instead, he worked as a traveling salesman, hawking medicines and books all over the state.
3. HE PASSED THE BAR EXAM AFTER ONLY ONE YEAR OF LAW SCHOOL.
After half-heartedly trying his hand at seminary school at Oklahoma Baptist University at his mother’s insistence, Long—who claimed to have a photographic memory—later transferred to the University of Oklahoma College of Law, but was distracted by the local casinos and ended up staying for just one semester. In 1914 he attended Tulane University Law School for only a year before convincing the school board to let him take an oral bar exam. He passed and moved back to Winnfield as a lawyer.
4. HE WASN’T AFRAID TO GET HIS KNUCKLES BLOODY.
Long was irascible and, more than once, physically assaulted those who challenged him. That included a newspaper editor and one elderly, outgoing governor who called Long a liar (and was punched in the face by Long as a result). He was also accused of blackmailing and bullying his opponents, including a Baptist minister whom he tricked into entering a hotel room he’d staged with liquor and a prostitute. Beyond bloody knuckles, Long also got his hands dirty by rigging elections with fraudulent votes from “Babe Ruth,” “Charlie Chaplin,” "Clara Bow," and other celebrities.
5. HE WAS A HERO TO THE POOR.
Long’s mandate when he became governor of Louisiana in 1928 (with 96.1 percent of the vote) was to aid the poor with publicly-funded projects, including new roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools and free textbooks for students. Before he took office, Louisiana had a 25 percent literacy rate, only 300 miles of paved roads, and three major bridges. By the end of his term, adult literacy programs had taught 175,000 to read, and there were 9000 miles of roads and more than 100 bridges. A lifelong enemy of the oil industry after Standard Oil caused him to lose money on an investment by refusing to buy any of his well’s oil, Long pushed for a tax on petroleum products to help fund his social programs, also enacting a tax on the wealthy to benefit the poor.
He invested in LSU’s campus, ordered construction on a new capitol building, and effectively gave Louisiana a head start with the kinds of programs President Roosevelt would enact nationwide in response to the Great Depression. However, Long was also anti-union, opposed progressive child labor laws, saw the state debt balloon under his leadership, and failed to bring economic growth to the very people who supported him.
6. HE RAN THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE LIKE A DICTATORSHIP.
In Freedom From Fear, historian David Kennedy wrote that Long lorded over “the closest thing to a dictatorship that America has ever known.” In winning the governor’s mansion, Long overturned the power of the Regular Democratic Organization political machine (also known as the Choctaw Club) and ousted hundreds of political opponents from jobs in the state bureaucracy, replacing them with loyalists who paid part of their salary into his campaign war chest. He strong-armed and cajoled legislators, diminished Standard Oil’s power in governance, installed Oscar K. Allen as a puppet governor to follow his orders once he became a United States senator, and reportedly had armed thugs change voter rolls, all while overseeing a massive redistribution of wealth in the state.
7. AN ATTEMPT TO IMPEACH HIM TURNED INTO A RIOT.
In 1929, Shreveport representative Cecil Morgan, who was aligned with the Choctaw Club, sought to impeach Long on a variety of charges, including of corruption, incompetence, and blasphemy. Speaker of the House John B. Fournet, who was loyal to Long, moved to adjourn the special session abruptly and faked a vote count to say that the adjournment motion had passed. Enraged, Morgan’s and Long’s allies attacked each other.
According to Huey Long’s Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal For Dictatorship, the right honorable lawmakers “beat each other with ink wells, slugged with both fists. Shirts were torn off, eyes gouged, heads butted on desks,” in what would become known as “Bloody Monday.”
8. LONG STAYED ON AS GOVERNOR FOR THE FIRST YEAR OF HIS TENURE AS A SENATOR.
His term as a United States senator should have begun March 4, 1931, but he stayed almost long enough to finish his four-year term as governor through the following year. His entrenchment blocked his rival, Lieutenant Governor Paul N. Cyr, from assuming the governorship. In October 1931, Cyr declared himself the rightful governor, citing Long’s election to a different office, so Long had the state National Guard surround the capitol, and then successfully argued to the Louisiana Supreme Court that Cyr had left the office of lieutenant governor vacant by declaring himself governor. Cyr was blocked from both positions, and Long’s ally Alvin King became lieutenant governor before assuming the top post in January 1932. Long then handpicked Oscar K. Allen as his successor; Allen easily won the special election, and Long felt comfortable finally leaving Louisiana for Washington, D.C.
9. FDR CONSIDERED HIM ONE OF THE "MOST DANGEROUS MEN IN THE COUNTRY."
Long was initially a big supporter of President Roosevelt, but he acted as one of his most vocal critics when, in Long's opinion, federal programs didn’t go far enough to redistribute wealth. Roosevelt once said, “It’s all very well for us to laugh over Huey, but he really is one of the two most dangerous men in the country.” The laughter was meant for Long’s flamboyancy, loud costume-esque attire, and flagrant self-serving speeches. The fear was for his incisive political acumen, devoted voting bloc, and revenge-obsessed modus operandi. (The other “most dangerous” man Roosevelt referred to was General Douglas MacArthur.)
10. HE WAS ASSASSINATED BEFORE HE COULD RUN FOR PRESIDENT.
Having always planned to seek the top office, Long wrote a book called My First Days in the White House, which (fictionally, and with much hubris) recounted how the people backed his message with such fervor that they whisked him into the presidency with a roar that drowned out the outgoing president. Before he could make that fantasy a reality, he was killed by the son-in-law of an ousted political rival.
In 1935, Long lorded over a special session of the state legislature to influence a vote to remove Judge Benjamin Pavy from his seat, which was the last in a long line of humiliations Long had dealt the Pavy family. After the vote removed Pavy from office, Pavy’s son-in-law, Carl Weiss, shot Long with a revolver. Long died on September 10, 1935. My First Days in the White House was published posthumously.