Huey Long would have been right in the middle of the current presidential election if he were still alive. He began a legacy of a long list of Louisiana politicians who had national aspirations. Later governors John McKeithen, Edwin Edwards, Buddy Roemer and Bobby Jindal all fell by the wayside in the quest for national office.
A primer for anyone studying Louisiana politics is Robert Penn Warren’s book “All the King’s Men,” a Pulitzer Prize wining novel based on the life of Huey Long.
Warren was a close observer of the Long dynasty while teaching at LSU in the 1940s. I re-read the novel recently and noticed an eerie resemblance to much of the rhetoric emanating from both President Trump and many of the aspiring Democratic Party candidates today. Warren’s candidate is told:
“Just stir ‘em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more. Pinch ’em in the soft place. They aren’t alive, most of ‘em, and haven’t been for 20 years. It’s up to you to give ‘em something to stir ‘em up and make ‘em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That’s what they come for. Tell ‘em anything. But for Sweet Jesus sake, don’t try to improve their minds.”
The New York Times remembered Huey Long recently as a candidate who had “no belt he was unwilling to hit below. He had a paranoid style of attack. Long relied on threats and insults. There was an ozone stink of violence at his rallies; hecklers were dealt with severely.”
Is it fair to compare Long’s tactics to the campaign of Donald Trump? Could Trump end up as a demagogue like Warren’s character, and like Huey Long himself? Probably not. Trump has build a successful movement on running against the establishment, and the Trump campaign apparently feels that the incendiary means being used as a electioneering tactic justifies the end for the current a Trump presidency.
Louisiana’s musical poet laureate Randy Newman (“Louisiana-They’re goanna’ wash us away”) wrote about Long in his song “Kingfish,” that certainly has a broad appeal to a number of current democratic presidential candidates.
Everybody gather ‘round
Loosen up your suspenders
Hunker down on the ground
I’m a cracker
And you are too
But don’t I take good care of you?
Author Dwight Garner reminds us that the title of “All the King’s Men” comes from the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.” Political campaigns in Louisiana and across the country too often are based on attacks and attempts to tear down the present way we govern. But it’s not difficult to posture and pontificate on what’s wrong with the current system.
It’s easy to break things. The challenge is how you put them back together again. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men” couldn’t do it for Humpty Dumpty. We should wonder if any of the current presidential candidates can put aside taking the low road, but rather offer a vision of what should be right for America. For now, don’t count on it.