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Huey Long (1985)

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Ken Burns' portrait of Louisiana governor/U.S. senator Huey Long.

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Cast

Credited cast:
Huey Long ...
Himself (archive footage)
Russell Long ...
Himself (as Russell B. Long)
David McCullough ...
Narrator
Jennings Randolph ...
Himself - Senator of West Virginia
...
Himself
I.F. Stone ...
Himself
...
Himself
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Ken Burns' portrait of Louisiana governor/U.S. senator Huey Long.

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28 September 1985 (USA)  »

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Did You Know?

Quotes

Huey Long: I have the pleasure to undertake to describe to you--
[A photographer's flashbulb explodes with a loud bang and a flash. A long pause and laughter from all.]
Huey Long: Now you see there? That bomb didn't explode until tonight.
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The Kingfish, Warts and Glory
24 July 2005 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Huey Pierce Long never became President of the United States. He hoped to, and (probably for the best) a gunshot stopped him. I say probably because there is considerable debate over him to this day.

If you love democracy, with a balance of power approach as in the Federal Constitution (or the states for that matter) Long is an evil aberration. He used the normal methods of rising up the political ladder as a state railway commissioner, a state senator, Governor, and U.S. Senator. On his way up he found ways of reducing the opposition to a set of shrill, impotent voices, and of manipulating the state legislature, the judiciary, and the local governments to do what he wanted. For all intents and purposes Louisiana was a dictatorship under Huey. And once he got into the U.S. Senate, he planned to spread his influence until he was in the White House, and could do the same thing there.

Therefore, his death by gunshot in the state capital building at Baton Rouge, La. on September 18, 1935, was a lucky break. Whether he was shot by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss (the son-in-law of an opponent who'd been racially smeared by Long) or by a trigger happy guard who was joining in the shooting of Weiss does not matter - he would have been bad news for American Democracy.

But here's the problem. Huey did not come from a state that had a history of two party democracy. Most of the states in the south were dominated for decades by the Democratic Party (which was opposed to big business in theory, but also highly racist towards African-Americans and minorities). So when he studied how to get higher in office, he learned how his predecessors did it. He also noted the success of others in other states at turning them into fiefdoms - like Senator Hiram Johnson of California.

Secondly, although his methods were crude and resembled fascist or communist models, Huey actually did do a lot of good for his state. One has to study the man's career in light of previous Democrats who were elected to public office. Huey came from the parishes - the back country, and knew the needs of the farmers (both white, Cajun, and black), and how they were neglected in favor of the large cities, particularly New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He was smart, and managed to get a college education, and eventually became a lawyer (a very good one - he actually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court). The Governors and the legislators and the judiciary were extremely conservative (the popular term in use was "Bourbons"). Huey, as he built up his machine, delivered services, such as roads and highways and power, to the countryside. He also improved school conditions for the countryside.

While still willing to use racial slurs (as with Dr. Weiss's father-in-law) Huey actually got more jobs going for the African-American community. He could also display anti-Semitism when he wished, but when someone pointed out that when he did that he resembled Hitler, Huey became furious: "Don't ever compare me to that son-of-a-bitch!", he yelled, "Every fool whose ever gone against those people has wrecked his state's economy!!" Not a comment of love, but obviously of sense.

Huey was an opportunist. To raise revenues in Louisiana he invited Lucky Luciano to install one armed bandits throughout the state. But he also could sacrifice for reasonable grounds. He signed a law reducing the cotton production from Louisiana to build up prices for the cotton outside the state.

So he is not an easy figure to totally condemn or admire. Ken Burns documentary on "the Kingfish" (Huey used that name, based on a character on the radio show AMOS AND ANDY, for himself) gives a fairly good balanced view. Burns shows what was frighteningly close to happening, but he does show that Huey was more than a power seeker or a buffoon (as some enemies suggested). While not as detailed as the Burns documentaries on THE CIVIL WAR, JAZZ, or BASEBALL, it is a good place to start studying this remarkable political career.


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