Long had two political careers, both of them extraordinary. The first was in his native Louisiana. There he rose from modest beginnings in the poor hill country to become a successful lawyer, a public service commissioner, and, in 1928, the most powerful governor in the history of the state, perhaps in the history of any state. Capitalizing on widespread public discontent with years of corrupt, myopic, conservative rule, Long developed a fervent popular following. He used it to build a power structure through which he dominated virtually every institution of government. In time, the legislature, the state bureaucracy, the courts, even local governments fell firmly under his control. He used that power to expand the state’s underdeveloped infrastructure and social services, building bridges, roads, hospitals, and schools. He also revised the tax codes to place a larger burden on corporations. But power was for him an end in itself-a point made particularly vivid in Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men, whose central character, Willy Stark, was inspired by Long. Within a few years, Long had developed a national reputation as the ‘dictator’ of Louisiana. At home, he was known simply as the ‘Kingfish.’
Beginning in 1932, when he resigned the governorship to enter the U.S. Senate, Long began a national political career that at times appeared boundless. He took little interest in the Senate, using it principally to advance his larger national ambitions. At first, he was an energetic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But by the middle of 1933, he had broken with the president and struck out on his own. Long voiced populist resentments that many depression-era Americans felt toward ‘wealthy plutocrats’ and ‘bloated fortunes.’ He promised, through his implausible Share-Our-Wealth Plan, a radical redistribution of wealth: confiscatory taxes would scale down large fortunes, and the revenue would be used to guarantee everyone a minimum annual income of twenty-five hundred dollars. By 1935, he had launched his own national political organization (the Share-Our-Wealth clubs) and was talking openly of running for president the next year against Roosevelt. The crude public opinion polls of the time indicated that he could not win, but that he might tip the balance in a close race. In fact, the ‘Long threat,’ as Democratic politicians described it, was probably less serious than it appeared. Long’s national organization was flimsy and decentralized, and he showed no ability to form effective alliances with the many other dissident leaders of the time, whose support he would have needed for an effective national campaign.
In any case, Long never had a chance to demonstrate his national potential. In September of 1935, he returned to Baton Rouge to supervise a special session of the state legislature (which, like the rest of the Louisiana government, he continued to control as completely while serving in the Senate as he had while governor). As Long walked down a marble corridor in the new state capitol he had built several years before, the son-in-law of one of his ruined political opponents stepped from behind a pillar and shot him. He died several days later, talking politics to the end.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.