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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Adventurous Short Life of Huey P. Long

From Washington Lawyer, December 2010

By Jacob A. Stein


It is so with all great characters. Their faults are not mud spots, but structural outcroppings, of an indivisible piece with their personality. But there is a special reason for the inveterate illegality, or if you prefer, wickedness, of your true adventurer, which is inherent in the concept of Adventure itself. Adventure is the irreconcilable enemy of law; the adventurer must be unsocial, if not in the deepest sense anti-social, because he is essentially a free individualist.

—William Bolitho

Last week I saw on television a group of ambitious young people at a political rally. They advocated a return to individual rights, as the Constitution intended, and this would end the recession. On one of the banners were the words “Every Man a King.” Another poster announced in bold type that there is no difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

Did they know they were repeating what Huey P. Long said during the Great Depression? I doubt it. What a tale Huey could tell these amateurs.

Huey P. Long was born in 1893 in a small Louisiana town. Without finishing high school, he left home (as all true adventurers must do) and worked as a door-to-door salesman. He was good at it. Friends urged him to take that skill into the courtroom.

He entered Tulane University Law School, not for credit but to get enough law to pass the bar exam. In those days Louisiana required neither a law degree nor a written exam to be admitted to the bar. A candidate gained admission by convincing a small committee of elders of the bar that the candidate knew the law.

Huey convinced the elders he was qualified, and in 1915, at age 21, he became Louisiana’s youngest lawyer. His ambition was not to be a great lawyer. He once said: “I came out of that courtroom running for office.”

William Ivy Hair, one of Huey’s biographers, said the young lawyer was running against time:

For he was in the grip of impatient and boundless ambition; clocks and calendars represented the enemy. His obsession with time had begun and would grow worse. Huey Long could not have known—although he acted as if he did—that on the day he became Louisiana’s youngest lawyer he already had lived more than half his life.

In 1924, with no staff and no money, he ran for governor of Louisiana. He lost. He was not discouraged. He knew he had more energy, more stump speaking ability, and more theatrics than anyone in Louisiana or any other place. What he needed was a constituency. He found it among the small-town poor.

The next time around, in 1928, he promised his constituency that he would tax the rich oil men, pave the small-town roads, open hospitals for the needy, and supply textbooks and teachers for the public schools. Best of all, Huey promised to make “Every Man a King.” He was elected, and he kept most of his promises.

How did he do it? We learn how he did it by reading Robert Penn Warren’s prize-winning 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Huey P. Long is the central character, under the name Willie Stark. In one of the scenes, Governor Willie Stark visits a local judge who is sponsoring a senatorial candidate Stark dislikes. When Stark cannot persuade the judge to sponsor Stark’s candidate, he resorts to the way he gets people to do his bidding—he finds some dirt and threatens to make it public. Stark’s aide, when asked to find the dirt on the judge, says the judge is clean.

Stark knows better: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

In 1930 Huey, while governor, saw that his way to the presidency was to become a national figure, such as being the senator from Louisiana. He won the Senate seat and retained absolute control of Louisiana, its legislature, its state militia, its judiciary, its everything. He put in place an acting governor who agreed to clear everything with Huey when he was away in Washington, D.C.

Satisfied with his absolute control of Louisiana, he took his Senate seat and let it be known he was there to discredit the Republicans and the Democrats. As part of his plan to be president, he told the crowds and the press about a cure-all patent medicine, High Popalorum and Low Popahirum. The only difference between them was that High Popalorum was made by pulling the tree bark off from the top of the tree and pulling it down to the bottom. Low Popahirum was made by the bark off the same tree by pulling it up from the bottom to the top. “Folks, do you get it? High Popalorum from the top down and Low Popahirum from the bottom up. There you have the difference between these Republicans and these Democrats.”

Huey was confident that his Share the Wealth program would out-demagogue President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Huey was looking toward the 1936 presidential election.

On September 8, 1935, Huey returned to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to make sure things still were under his control. He was approached near the governor’s office by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, a 28-year-old ophthalmologist who was determined to kill Huey. He shot Huey at close range. Huey died two days later. Huey Long’s bodyguards killed Dr. Weiss.

Mr. Stein is at [email protected]. Stein’s new book, Eulogy of Lawyers, can be obtained from The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. by calling 800-422-6686, e-mailing [email protected], or visiting www.lawbookexchange.com.