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In the history of the United States, we've had plenty of strong-man presidents who've managed to force through legislation, sway public opinion, and mostly get their way despite that annoying system of checks and balances.
But through all that, there's one thing we know is true:
We don't do dictators.
Nope. No Stalins or Hitlers or Chairman Maos, no Assads or Putins or Kims for us.
But here's a question you probably haven't asked yourself before: in the history of the U.S., who came closest?
Well, most historians' votes would probably go to a traveling salesman from the backwoods of Louisiana, now largely forgotten by most Americans.
That salesman's name was Huey Pierce Long Jr. of Winn Parish, Louisiana, and in the 1920s and '30s, Huey rocketed through the ranks from country lawyer to two-bit politician to governor to senator to presidential candidate. Long was a politician like nobody had ever seen: a colorful, vulgar, boisterous, ruthless bully who had nothing but contempt for the establishment and who threatened, bribed, fired, jailed, or beat up any political opponents who didn't see the wisdom of caving in to his demands.
The people loved him.
During the Great Depression, Long found himself in the perfect position to take political advantage of the worst economic disaster in the nation's history. In doing so, he became—depending on who you asked—either the democratic champion of poor working folks or a dangerous, dictatorial demagogue.
In 1934, he gave a speech that put the question to millions of Americans.
Their answer? He was their champion.
Long got his political start by battling big business in Louisiana and defending the poor folks who'd been shut out of opportunities for education and financial security. He won elections by traveling thousands of miles across Louisiana dirt roads to stump and make speeches and kiss babies in every backwoods corner of the state. Speechifyin' was his strong point. Long once told an interviewer that "I can't remember back to a time when my mouth wasn't open whenever there was a chance to make a speech" (source). And boy, was it one big mouth. Even his political enemies (and there were plenty) recognized an oratorical genius when they saw one.
Long saw that most Louisianans were living in desperate poverty, without access to basic education, proper medical care, or decent roads. He saw that the political machine that ran Louisiana from the time of Reconstruction had become a corrupt and bloated mess that only benefited Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the fat cats who lived there.
Long set out to change this.
As governor, he brought Louisiana into the 20th century by giving out free textbooks, building schools and universities and roads, reducing electricity costs and property taxes, and abolishing the poll tax—all mostly paid for by increasing taxes on the wealthy. African-Americans, who'd been especially disenfranchised by the political system in the South, benefited from the new voting rights and social programs Long instituted.
But building schools and roads wasn't enough for Long, who saw wealth inequality as a result of a basic unfairness in how capitalism operated in the U.S., a system that allowed a handful of men to own most of the nation's resources, wealth, and political power. People were going hungry in the middle of abundance because a few men were gobbling it all up. As a senator, Long proposed an ambitious program to redistribute this wealth; he called it the Share Our Wealth Plan. And on February 23, 1934, he explained the plan to America in a radio speech. Historians call it the "Every Man a King" (or "Share our Wealth, or Every Man a King") speech, after the motto that exemplified the ideals of his platform.
With 30 minutes of airtime donated by NBC, Long laid out his simple solution. By limiting the amount of wealth any given greedy individual might own (he's looking at you, J.P. Morgan) and distributing the rest to the neediest, there'd be enough food and clothing and cars and radios for everyone in the country. In practice, the plan was impossible, but at the time, it appealed to the jobless and the disenfranchised. This was good for Long's political ambitions, since about one in four Americans was unemployed at the time of the speech and a heck of a lot more were stuck in poverty and had been their entire lives (and their parents', grandparents', and their grandparents' lives, for that matter).
Letters of support buried Long's office after the speech. Share Our Wealth chapters were set up all over the country and a populist movement was born. But while Huey Long was promising to make every man a king, he was also strong-arming and brutally punishing his political enemies, playing fast and loose with the law, extorting kickbacks, and keeping a stranglehold over Louisiana politics. When he was elected senator in 1932, he refused to give up being the governor of Louisiana; when his term as governor finally ended, he installed a man who'd do exactly what he ordered. "The only kind of a band in which Huey Long can play," a newspaper editor once observed, "is a one-man band" (source).
Long scared people. In July 1935, one commentator wrote, "Unlike the German intelligentsia, who could not judge from experience what Hitler might do, Americans may turn the pages of Louisiana's recent history for…insight into the sort of country we would have if Long became our Hitler" (source). Huey countered that "A man is not a dictator when he is given a commission from the people and carries it out" (source).
America never got to find out.
Long was assassinated in 1935 before he could get his hands on the presidency. Dictator or democrat, his "Every Man a King" speech is a great example of his legacy. It's Long talking directly to the people in clear and simple language without coming across as a high-and-mighty politician, asking them to help him overthrow the establishment.
Does history repeat itself?
Consider this: a historic flood swamps the city of New Orleans, disproportionately affecting the St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes where most of the city's poor live. The city government doesn't do much to help them out, even though the richer neighborhoods of the city recover and go on to do just fine.
Just a few years later, a financial meltdown the likes of which the U.S. hasn't seen in half a century hits the poor the hardest; in the subsequent years, the rich get richer—obscenely rich, in fact. Angry at the political power and wealth of the 1%, a popular movement rises up to demand a fair share of the economic pie for all Americans. And into the fray strides a flamboyant, larger-than-life politician who's proud to be outside the establishment, harnesses the people's anger, and promises to overturn political and financial business as usual.
Think we're talking about Hurricane Katrina, the 2007 financial meltdown, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a couple of 2016 candidates for the presidency? Nope, this was our nation in the late 1920s and early 1930s—Depression-era America—and Huey Long was the voice of the poor and struggling, not Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.
So you gotta ask yourself: is there actually something to the argument that the American financial system just keeps on favoring the rich at the expense of the poor? Is wealth inequality baked into the system? More importantly, what's the solution?
Not socialism, for sure; America's pretty touchy when it comes to socialism, which is collective ownership and equal distribution of wealth. The American idea is that there are no limits to what an individual can achieve through hard work and smart decisions. The thought of putting limits on what you could earn or own is totally un-American. Want to own 300 cars? No problem. Amass a fortune of 80 billion dollars? Good for you.
And let's be clear: just because someone has a fortune of 80 billion dollars doesn't mean that amount is being taken from the poor. Great wealth in the hands of decent people can create jobs and value for others. It's not a zero-sum game.
Still, something is going on when top CEOs make about 300 times more than the average worker today when in 1968 it was just 20 times (source). In a 2015 speech, Bernie Sanders said, "The issue of wealth and income inequality, to my mind, is the great moral issue of our time. It is the great economic issue of our time and it is the great political issue of our time. Let me be as clear as I can be: there is something profoundly wrong when today, the top one-tenth of 1% own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%" (source).
Income inequality is as high today as it was in Huey Long's day, so it's hard to be as optimistic as Long was when he said that the solution was simple. When billionaire Warren Buffet complained that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary (yep, he was complaining), it tells you that just redistributing income won't do the trick. Tax laws can favor the wealthy, and the wealthy tend to either make those tax laws or lobby the people who make them.
So why haven't we seen another Huey Long?
First of all, we have a political climate hostile to wealth redistribution. (As Bernie Sanders told us, he's a Democratic Socialist—it's different.) But it's also because much of Long's Share Our Wealth Plan is now a reality. The social safety net, imperfect as it is, protects poor families and seniors in a way it didn't in Huey's day. Everyday consumer goods like phones and TVs are available to most people; Social Security and food assistance help many, but not all, Americans avoid hunger; Medicaid allows the neediest to have access to health care. We have universal public education and need-based college scholarships.
But there's a lot of work still to be done to ensure that everybody gets a shot at the American dream of a good job, good schools, and good health.
Do we need another Huey Long to lead the fight for the 99%? Sorry, but history can't repeat itself in that particular way.
There will never be another Huey Long.
The Official Huey Long Website
As you can imagine, there's some bias as to which side of the narrative the site prefers to discuss. Still, it's a good resource on some facts about Long and an affectionate look at the man himself.
A Treasure Trove of Primary Sources
Louisiana has been digitizing its history for some time now, so a lot of context and aftermath of Longist Louisiana can be found at this digital history archive.
Share Our Wealth
Here's the man himself, expounding in 1934. He trots out the "100 lunches" story but this time it's barbecue. Long often said he gave his best speeches while drunk; we think this is one of those times.
The Soapbox on Huey Long
An interview with the granddaughter of Huey Long and the administrator of the Huey Long Website. It's an interesting perspective on the man and his life, if decidedly biased (naturally). Even so, there are a number of points where dissension in the family comes through.
A Brief (Very Brief) Biopic
This newsreel about the Huey's life has some great clips of his speeches. You can see why people called him one of the great orators of all time, although "orator" seems a little highfalutin' to describe his rants.
Ken Burns Freebies
You have to buy the DVD to see the full version of Burns' biopic of Long, but here are a few clips.
Huey Explains It All
So that's the difference between Democrats and Republicans…
Coulda Won a Grammy
Huey co-wrote a song called "Every Man a King" that became an unofficial anthem of Louisiana. He's a better orator than a singer, as you'll see here. Randy Newman recorded his own arrangement in 1974; we think he meant it as satire.
Huey, Louis, and the News
Long and legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong are part of a permanent exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge. Not everyone thinks it's a match made in heaven.
Back in Time
On the 80th anniversary of Long's assassination, Time magazine takes a look back at his short, tempestuous political career.
We Dig Carl Weiss
Well, some people did. In 1991, Weiss' body was exhumed to perform some forensic examinations in order to figure out if he really killed Long.
Stating that "The 2016 presidential campaign season doesn't have a monopoly on charismatic, polarizing candidates with unconventional political ideas," the Saturday Evening Post reruns an article from 1935 about Huey's career.
Antiques Roadshow's Take
We guess you could consider Huey Long an antique at this point. Anyway, A.R. produced a colorful profile of a colorful politician after someone brought in a campaign poster for appraisal.
Huey Long: The Movie
The New York Times interviews Ken Burns, whose Long biopic had just been released.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a southern populist politician's rise to power in the 1930s was inspired in part by the colorful career of Huey Long. The title's supposedly a reference to the "Every Man a King" speech.
If I Did It (Won the Presidency, That Is)
Long couldn't wait for someone to write his presidential biography, so he did it himself.
All the King's Men (1949)
The 1949 adaptation of Warren's novel won the Oscar for Best Picture. Huey Long would've loved that.
All the King's Men (2006)
A 2006 remake of the 1949 award-winning film won Sean Penn a "Stinker Award" nomination for Worst Fake Accent: Male; the movie got a Worst Movie nom.
Feel the Burn(s)
Ken Burns' first bio-documentary was about the Kingfish. The PBS site for the film has a cool timeline of Long's life with an accompanying timeline about what the rest of the world was doing during that time.
Did He or Didn't He?
As the trailer to the film 61 Bullets hints, some people wonder whether Dr. Carl Weiss really killed Huey. Warning: the site contains a graphic image of a bullet-ridden Dr. Weiss.
John Goodman, of Course
Who else to play Huey Long in a TNT made-for-TV movie? Critics thought he was the best thing about the otherwise meh Kingfish.
All About Me
Huey Long hoped that lots of people would write about him, but just in case, he wrote an autobiography.
John Dos Passos also wrote a novel about a politician who seems suspiciously like our boy Huey.
But Wait, There's More
Long was figured to be the inspiration for six—count 'em—novels, and somebody just had to write a book about that. Here it is.
Just a Family Man
Long looks harmless here with his wife and family.
Long brings his message to the people of Louisiana.
Larger Than Life
Long towers over the state in this sculpture in Louisiana.
Large in Life
A painting of Long's assassination made the cover of Life magazine in 1937.
Long in Mid-Sentence
A typical speechifyin' pose.
The Most Dangerous Man in America
So why did he have to be surrounded by armed guards all the time?