- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

KINGFISH: THE REIGN OF HUEY P. LONG

By Richard D. White Jr.

Random House, $25.95, 344 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY CLAUDE R. MARX

“Larger than life” is a cliche writers sometimes use when they cannot think of a

more precise way to describe someone. In the case of Huey P. Long, the late United States senator and Louisiana governor, such a description is indeed appropriate.

Long ruled (some would say terrorized) Louisiana during the 1920s and 30s, his achievements and antics fodder for many movies and books, both fiction and nonfiction. So the natural question is: Do we need another Long biography?

After reading “Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long,” one must conclude, probably not. Richard D. White, Jr. has written a readable if uninspiring book that doesn’t break much new ground. Mr. White tries so hard to be balanced that at times Long seems colorless, which he most certainly was not.

The model for Willie Stark in the novel and movie “All the King’s Men,” Long governed as a combination king and dictator, although sometimes a benevolent one. In a state that has had more than its share of corrupt politicians — Louisiana’s former governor, Edwin Edwards, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for shaking down riverboat casino owners and license applicants — Huey Long has a special place.

Mr. White, a professor of public administration at Louisiana State University, comes down on the side of Long’s critics, though at times expresses grudging respect for the lovable rogue. “Huey defied description. While his critics portrayed him as a demagogue or dictator, neither term completely captured his penchant for uplifting Louisiana’s poor while simultaneously crushing the rich and powerful,’ he writes. “Addicted to power, he sadly wasted his enormous talent and the opportunity to be a great democrat.’

Mr. White has a solid grasp of Louisiana’s history and politics and paints a vivid picture of the state and nation during the early decades of the 20th century. Moreover, he does not make the mistake of judging Long by modern standards. But his narrative is bogged down by turgid prose befitting an academic treatise rather than a compelling tale of a colorful character.

Consider the fascinating material that Mr. White had to work with. As he pursued his goals, Long strong-armed and browbeat lawmakers, manipulated election results and even sent troops into cities that did not obey his orders. In some cases, Long’s allies faced criminal prosecution and were convicted.

In addition, the author contends that many of Long’s policies produced few tangible achievements. “Other than giving free schoolbooks, he did little to improve the state’s woeful level of education and paid scant attention to elementary and secondary schools,’ Mr. White writes. “Academic freedom existed at his caprice and he crushed any university student or professor who disagreed with him.’

Moroever, Long fought oil companies and newspapers (attempting to impose punitive taxes on those who opposed him) in his quest to portray himself as a populist. He was not really a populist, however, and was happy to help certain entrenched interests if doing so enhanced his power.

If Long had confined his efforts to state issues, he would be long forgotten except to Louisiana history buffs. It was his attempt to expand to other states his “share our wealth’ agenda (which included levying a capital tax on millionaires) that put him on the national radar.

He initially supported the New Deal but then became one of its strongest opponents when it seemed politically beneficial to do so. His populist rhetoric — which both amused and angered people — frightened President Roosevelt, who feared that Long might challenge him for the presidency in 1936. That challenge never materialized because Long was assassinated in 1935 by the son-in-law of a political foe.

Seventy-one years after Long’s death, his legacy is still being debated. Mr. White’s book, a solid though undramatic summary of the late politician’s life, adds little to the debate.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the recently published book, “The Divided States of America.’

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