Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Kingfish's Last Gasp

Magnet # 337: Louisiana State Capitol Building

Material: Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By: Me

This is the day that put the Louisiana State Capitol on the map, albeit it a rather unflattering manner. It was when, back in 1935, former Louisiana Governor Huey Long was gunned down there. Two days later, he died from his wounds. And though he is gone, Long has hardly been forgotten. Even now, he remains both one of the most despised, corrupt, and ruthless politicians in United States history and also one of the most beloved historical figures in Louisiana, credited with bringing the struggling state into more modernized, affluent times.

Huey Long was born into a middle-class family in rural Winnfield, Louisiana in 1893. He had eight brothers and sisters and as he grew, he proved to be very intelligent and excelled at school, where he was said to have a photographic memory. As a young adult, Long worked as a traveling salesman, trained to be a preacher, but finally ended up becoming a lawyer after he conned his way into taking the bar exam having only studied one year at the Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. Before long, he was taking on the Standard Oil Company, suing them for unfair business practices. The move gave him a certain amount of fame and Long turned his attention to public service. His first bid to become Governor of Louisiana in 1924 failed, but he managed to gain support from the rural poor of the state, a base which had gone ignored in the past, by campaigning in rural areas. In 1928, he ran again under the slogan "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown." He split the vote and was able to win. Long was quick to reward his supporters and punish others by firing state employees from the very top to the very bottom and hiring on those who had supported him. Of course, they were expected to donate part of their salaries into Long's campaign funds. He set out creating roads, schools, hospitals, and bridges. Those who opposed his efforts were often bullied into submission. Eventually, Long's enemies tried to have him impeached, but after that failed, he was only more ruthless. The Kingfish, as Long came to be known, went on to become a U.S. Senator from Louisiana, where he butted heads with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Long had once supported. Oddly enough, he was able to maintain more control in his home state than he was able to exert in Congress. His bullying tactics failed to impress his fellow members of Congress, and not one of the measures he introduced in three years passed, despite the fact that the Democrats, his own party, had a firm hold on Congress. But he continued his fight, becoming more devoted to his concept of Share Our Wealth, or the redistribution of wealth. In Louisiana, he continued to exert his control, having his allies pass bills on his behalf. He continued to enrage his enemies, a fact which finally caught up with him on September 8 of 1953. On that day, he was in the new Louisiana State Capitol, a building which he had been greatly influential in creating, when he was confronted by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss. Long was in the process of destroying the career of Weiss' father-in-law, a judge who opposed Long's policies. Shots were fired and Long himself was struck. But no one was certain who shot him, and Weiss certainly couldn't say - Long's bodyguards and the police shot him 32 times. Many believe that one of his bodyguard's bullets is what hit Long, and that Weiss had only punched him in the mouth. After the Kingfish passed, tens of thousands came to pay their respects to Long's body when it lay in state at the rotunda of the Louisiana State Capitol.

After Long's death, his second and final novel, My First Days in the White House, was published. It spoke of the changes he would enact when he was elected President - no one could ever accuse him of modesty. And though he was dead, the Long political machine and family controlled Louisiana state politics for decades to come. Even now, the state seems to have a love hate relationship with him. He is buried on the grounds of the Louisiana State Capitol, with a statue of the man himself over the tomb, looking at the building he helped create. And yet, not far away, in the Old Louisiana State Capital, there is a locked box on display that is believed to have held the money Long forced his employees to contribute to his campaign. Thanks to Long, Louisiana gained some of the most advanced roads in all the nation and 100,000 adults learned to read. But he nearly bankrupted the state, and corrupted politics to a point that many had never seen before in the United States, with many calling him a dictator. Even Franklin Roosevelt compared Long's rapid rise in popularity to that of Hilter's and Mussolini's. It's hard to know just what to make of the Kingfish all these years after his death, but it seems that he will continue to be debated, particularly in Louisiana, for many years to come.

2 comments:

  1. Elizabeth,
    Thanks for all the intersting facts about Huey Long.

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  2. Sure - love him or loathe him, you can't help being a little fascinated by the Kingfish.

    ReplyDelete