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Huey Pierce Long, the “Kingfish,” was likely the most colorful politician in modern American history. As Governor of Louisiana, he ruled with an iron fist. As Senator, he continued to rule as Puppet Master.
He was brilliant, cunning, charismatic, devious. Divinized in life and immortalized in death, his legend only fails in its ability to capture the true myth of the titanic Man. Robert Penn Warren based his famous Willie Stark on Long in All the King’s Men. Yet, historians tell us that the fictionalized account succeeds most by showing that history is altogether stranger than all the yarns one could spin. Warren was unable to capture the apotheosis of Long—mostly because of our intuition that devils don’t fall upwards.
The poor people loved him. He fought the imperious Standard Oil Company and beat them at every turn. He provided free school books, medical care, and built more roads than any Governor in history. He was hailed as the “Southern Marx,” for his policy of wealth redistribution almost by any means necessary. “Every man a king,” said Long, “but no one wears a crown.” This was his motto.
Though, in fact, he ruled as one by Divine Right and brooked no rivals. He stayed on past his term as Governor despite no constitutional provision. His successor, O.K. Allen, was an empty suit, doing whatever Long instructed him to do.
True stories of his antics could be multiplied ad nauseam, but one of my favorites that demonstrates that he was a man completely unencumbered by humility was his policy on bridges. At the time of his reign, Louisiana was basically a state comprised of islands and peninsulas that made travel difficult. Isolation and desolation were the earmarks of much of the Pelican State. So Huey Pierce Long built an impressive 111 bridges and 13,000 miles of roads. And because he built them, he thought they should bear his name. Many people are familiar with the famous Huey P. Long bridge in Jefferson Parish, but not as many know that every bridge he built is a Huey P. Long bridge.
A few years ago, while living in a small parish in LA, one of those old bridges was scheduled for demolition. I talked to the guys at the construction site and asked what would become of the sign. “It’ll go in the river,” the foreman replied. So on the day it was to be dynamited, I showed up and asked for it. They boosted me up in a bucket, and gave me a hammer and a crowbar. I tore down the old sign riddled with bullet holes and dents from thrown beer bottles and other projectiles.
Sitting in the little shed beside my house is a rusted piece of history, the legacy of a demagogue—the Huey P. Long/ O.K. Allen Bridge sign that once hung across the Ouachita river in a sleepy village in Louisiana.
FDR feared Long as the only man who could unseat him. But Carl Weiss shot and killed Long in the Louisiana Capitol building before Roosevelt’s fears were realized. But Long ‘s true legacy is not roads and bridges, or political shenanigans, his lasting legacy was the long line of Longs that followed him, running the state until just a year or so ago. 2020 was the first time in 100 years that a member of the Long family didn’t sit in government.