Sunday, July 17, 2016

"He felt the right resentments and hated the right people..."

Huey Long is one of the most interesting figures in the history of American politics. He was also one of the most dangerous. FDR considered him one of the "two most dangerous men in America." I read T. Harry Williams' excellent Huey Long years ago and I think Ken Burns' documentary about the man is one of his best. The current issue of the Weekly Standard includes a fine article by Geoffrey Norman, "The Shadow of the Kingfish," a great short introduction. Somehow Long seems relevant to both sides of our contemporary partisan divide. From Norman:
.... Long had an instinctive, almost feral feeling for the wounds and woes suffered by the common man during those bleak years. In 1933 unemployment nationally reached nearly 25 percent. In Long's Louisiana, if you were poor and lived in the rural portions of the state, life had been plenty hard before the Depression. And then it got worse.

Long was not himself what was once called "poor white trash," but he was not above encouraging people to think he was. Among the dozens of stories about his gift for empathetic and improvisational speech-making, there is one about how in the middle of a campaign speech, he asked the crowd of hard-pressed farmers, sharecroppers, laborers, and generally put-upon and burdened voters, "How many of you wear silk socks?" No hands went up. "How many wear cotton socks?" When he saw hands raised in answer, Long raised a pant leg and showed the crowd that he, too, wore cotton socks. "And how many of you have holes in your socks?" The hands went up again, and now Long took off a shoe and showed the audience his big toe, sticking through a hole in his sock. At that moment, and perhaps for evermore, the people in that audience were his. Even if they knew he wasn't really one of them.
If he wasn't born poor and could have worn silk socks from very early in his political career, it didn't matter. Huey Long made the visceral connection and at its roots, it was pure. He felt the right resentments and hated the right people and institutions. ....

.... He attacked Joe Robinson, the leader of the Senate's Democrats—nominally his party—as an ally of Herbert Hoover and then accused him of being in the grip of his corporate law clients back in Arkansas. Long went on to name those clients and then went after Robinson's looks, saying, "he doesn't look really as well with his hair dyed."

This was typical of Long, who enjoyed mocking opponents at a personal level. (One inevitably thinks of parallels with a current presidential hopeful.) He would give his opponents nicknames that his rural Louisiana audiences found amusing. For instance, U.S. Senator Joseph "Feather Duster" Ransdell, New Orleans mayor T. Semmes "Turkey Head" Walmsley, and Esmond "Shinola" Phelps, of the New Orleans family that published the Times-Picayune for decades. ....

He pushed his Share the Wealth plan, which was far too radical for Roosevelt and might, indeed, have been too radical for anyone until the advent of Bernie Sanders. The scheme called for heavy and escalating taxation on fortunes of more than $1 million. A limit of $5 million on inheritances. (Long believed the Bible sanctioned this, and that taxing estates was protection against the accumulation of great fortunes.) He called, additionally, for a $1 billion program to pay college tuition for needy students.

It was extreme and radical and—according to the economists who studied it—impossible. It would require confiscation of incomes over $4,000 in order to provide guaranteed subsidies of $1,400 to the poor. The plan was widely dismissed as impractical and utopian.

But not to Huey Long and not to his growing national following. As Roosevelt's New Deal attempted to gain traction against the Depression, Share the Wealth looked like a promising alternative to people who were struggling. So Huey created a Share Our Wealth Society and gave a nationwide radio speech to launch it. He urged listeners to "join with us." And people did. There were 3 million members by the end of 1934 and more than 7.5 million members of 27,000 local clubs by summer 1935. .... [more]