The Kingfish

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White, Richard D, Jr (2006) Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long. NY: Random House.

“I can take this Roosevelt…He’s scared of me….I can out-promise him and he knows it.” Except for a bullet fired into the Kingfish by a physician – a Carl Weiss on September 7, 1935 – Yalta could well have been the site for a meeting of Kingfish, Churchill, and Stalin. It might have gone better or worse. It certainly would have gone differently.

This Hell raiser dropout became Louisiana governor in 1928, his campaign: “I am one of you…either barefoot or in cotton socks with holes in them.” (He lied about his affluent rearing) His people – the rural folks who were used to generations of despots – turned out in thousands and tens of thousands to watch him sweat and pump his arms and hear his rants. (Senator Long once performed a solo filibuster for 15 hours.)

He got free books for students, tripled LSU’s faculty to 400 and enrollment from 1600 to 7000, and in night programs taught 175,000 illiterate citizens to read. He also developed a state highway system, slapped taxes on big oil, abolished the poll tax, established a homestead tax exemption, , equalized salaries for black and white teachers, put a bridge across the Mississippi, and built hospitals and a twenty-plus story state capitol.

He gave some of his best speeches when drunk and could be refined or classic crude. He also used patronage, thugs, gossip, radio broadcasts, and the Louisiana National Guard to crush anyone who disagreed with him. He killed no one but a lot of his opposition left town. And the Kingfish was often up all night writing bills and getting them passed the next day.

Long is also part of a chapter at a different level: you can find that greater poverty leads to stronger dictators whether in Russia, Germany, or in modern America. Long was a tyrant, a socialist, a re-distributor of wealth. He was also an opportunist who made a lot of money running the peoples’ government. Long and Hitler used similar techniques – take from the wealthy, stock the stores, and expand your control – and amassed similar popularity. And both forgot their electorate when they overreached for power.

An LSU faculty remarked: “There are many things that Huey has done that I don’t approve of. But on the whole he has done a great deal of good.  And if I had to choose between him without democracy and getting back the old crowd, without the good he has done, I should choose Huey. After all, democracy isn’t any good if it doesn’t work. Do you really think freedom is so important?” And a lot of our modern dilemma is deciding whether Obama, our modern Huey, feeds on chaos or if he is simply incompetent.

Related books: All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren), It Can’t Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis), Weak Links: Stabilizers of Complex Systems from Proteins to Social Networks (Peter Csermely), Rebellion: Physics to Personal Will (J.F. Brody), The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us (Frank, R. & Cook, P.) Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State (Götz Aly), Linked: The New Science of Networks (Barabási, A-L).


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