Sept. 8, 1935, was one of those always - remember - where - you - were - when -you-heard-about-it days, for those who were alive during that turbulent political time. Years later, Betty Carter, matriarch of an esteemed family with roots in Mississippi and New Orleans, would reveal that when she heard the news she rushed to the closet of her husband, renowned journalist Hodding Carter. She was relieved to see that his white suit was still hanging there, sparing him from being linked to the clothing description of the assailant who shot Huey Long that day.
Many righteous people with a sense of good government, including Hodding Carter, hated Huey Long. Many poor people, who needed social services, and politicos, who needed jobs, admired the man. For all sides their passions were about to escalate.
On the day that Huey Long was shot his legend was born. Huey was gone, but Longism became a doctrine, until well into the 1960s elections in Louisiana that would be described not as Democrat vs. Republican or Liberal vs. Democrat but rather Pro-Long vs. Anti-Long. The impact of Longism would extend even deeper. Huey Long was elected governor in 1928. He would have already been busy campaigning the year before, 1927, a time of two significant events. One was the great flood and the other was the birth of Edwin Edwards. Long capitalized on the plight and despair of the poor and homeless in shaping his populist message. Edwards would grow up hearing that message and seeing politics that was both powerful and roguish. His political influence, weaned on Longism, would last into the 1980s.
Longism would introduce quite a cast of characters including O.K. Allen, the ultimate puppet governor, Richard Leche, whose term as governor ended in a federal penitentiary and, most notably, Earl Long, Huey’s younger brother. Prior to Edwards, Earl would serve more terms as governor than anyone else. He would also create his own power base and legends.
Some of the political progeny would have admirable careers. Russell Long, Huey’s son, became a respected U.S. Senator yielding great power as chairman of the Senate’s Finance Committee. Gills Long, a Long family cousin, went to congress and had the courage to vote the right way on then sensitive civil rights issues, but paid the price politically.
From the time he was elected to the day he died, Huey Long was only in public office seven years. Since he was elected to the senate during his term as governor, he did not even serve a full term in that office. Yet he would shape the state’s politics.
Despite the efforts of contemporary good government forces and despite Louisiana having experienced scandal-free government at the mansion level for more than a decade, the Long mystique still characterizes the state.
Seventy years later, it is time to bury the image. •
This article appears in the Summer 2005 issue of Louisiana Life