Huey Long Vs. The Media : Throughline Huey Pierce Long: you either loved him, or hated him. He combined progressive economic ideas with an autocratic streak, earning him thousands of adoring fans and fearful enemies. Long went from traveling salesman to Louisiana governor, and then US senator, through his mastery of the media. Then once in power, he waged a war against it.

Huey Long Vs. The Media

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Hey, everyone - Rund here. So if you've been listening to the credits in our episodes the last few weeks, you might have heard the name Laine Kaplan-Levenson. Laine is the newest producer on THROUGHLINE, and they're amazing. Before coming to work with us, Laine hosted their own history show called "TriPod" at NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans.


The show focused on Louisiana history. And Laine also made this short series called "Sticky Wicket" that's about Louisiana politicians and the press, and one particular episode in that series really stuck out to us. It's about the politician Huey Long. He was active in politics in the 1920s and '30s in Louisiana and was able to achieve a rare feat in American politics - serving as both U.S. senator and governor of a state.

ABDELFATAH: And the reason why his story matters today, why it's so relevant, is because at the moment we're living in. Populist politics, anti-establishment rhetoric, politicians fighting the press have become a regular part of the political landscape, but Huey Long exemplified all that decades ago.

ARABLOUEI: In this episode, called "Huey Long Vs. The Media," Laine explores just how far Huey Long was willing to take his fight against the establishment and the media. Let's just say he took it really far, and things got weird.

ABDELFATAH: All right, so here it is - our very own Laine Kaplan-Levenson telling the story of Louisiana's infamous politician, Huey Long.


LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: It's a hot, sweaty New Orleans summer day. Customers at a French Quarter restaurant escape from the heat to celebrate the birthday of a Louisiana politician. There's cake. There's cocktails. There's a band. He's turning 125.

UNIDENTIFIED IMPERSONATOR: (Impersonating Huey Long) Huey Long. Good to meet you. My friends call me the Kingfish. I call myself that and order the rest of them to do it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The place, Kingfish, is even named for him, but the large man holding court is, of course, a Huey Long impersonator. He's dressed in a double-breasted linen suit and straw top hat to embody the former governor-turned-senator-turned-assassinated presidential candidate. And he owns the room, cracking jokes...

UNIDENTIFIED IMPERSONATOR: (Impersonating Huey Long) This is Louisiana. Vote early, and vote twice.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...Singing his own personal theme song...

UNIDENTIFIED IMPERSONATOR: (Impersonating Huey Long, singing) Every man a king, for you can be a millionaire...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...And he charms the socks off his guests just like the born-to-be politician was known to do. This is the real Huey Long.


HUEY LONG: I was elected railroad commissioner of Louisiana in 1918, and they tried to impeach me in 1920. When they failed to impeach me in 1920, they indicted me in 1921. Now, when I wiggled through that, I managed to become governor in 1928, and they impeached me in 1929.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Louisiana politics is infamous for corruption, populism and cult of personality types, and Huey Pierce Long, aka the Kingfish, is like the state mascot of these theatrics. He was a polarizing force with thousands of adoring fans and fearful enemies. So why, 80 years after his death, do some still celebrate his birthday, while others, when he was still alive, wanted him dead?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I can't remember any Saturday night that I went anywhere that we didn't talk about killing Huey Long. It was a normal conversation.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, how a kid named Huey Long grew into a fiery politician.

ARABLOUEI: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Presenting his excellency Huey Pierce Long, the dictator of Louisiana, the enigma who is making many Americans regret that the United States ever purchased Louisiana.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Huey Long rose to power through his mastery of the media, and then, once in power, he waged a war against it. And the roots of this war trace all the way back to little boy Huey.

ALECIA LONG: Huey Long was an unusual child and always had a very sort of defensive streak about being told what to do.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Alecia Long is a historian at Louisiana State University, and let it be known, she is not related to Huey Long.

LONG: And in fact, a student had a mug made for me last semester that says, Alecia P. Long, not related to Huey P. Long.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Long was born on August 30, 1893, in Winfield, a poor, small rural town in the piney woods of central Louisiana. He was No. 7 of 9 children and had an immediate disregard for the rules. For instance, after sixth grade, he decided he didn't want to go to seventh grade. So when summer ended, he just showed up to eighth grade.

LONG: This is a sort of overweening sense of ego and entitlement that presents itself in him very, very young.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In high school, he gets in a fight with the principal and gets expelled. So he becomes a traveling salesman.

LONG: He just has the gift of gab. He can buttonhole people. He can talk to anyone. But he also has an extraordinary ability to remember people's names and to remember material that they share with him.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Then Huey decides to go to law school. But in typical Long fashion, he doesn't want to finish law school.

LONG: But takes the bar exam and is successful at doing so. He always has a kind of speedy and irregular path to success.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And he had a very specific kind of success in mind.

LONG: He planned to become governor and then senator, and then he was going to run for president.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Long's political career begins in 1918, when he's 25 years old. He goes to work for the Louisiana Railroad Commission. It only takes him four years to become the chairman of the state Public Service Commission. Then, in 1924, at age 31, he runs for governor.

LONG: He loses that race and then immediately starts running again.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Long's agenda straight out of the gate is all anti-establishment all the time. He'd seen big corporations strip his hometown of Winnfield of its oil and lumber without benefit to locals. So he campaigned as a man of the people, in bold opposition to corporate interests.

LONG: Particularly Standard Oil Company, which he sorts of sets up as a political enemy of his.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: He called Standard Oil the invisible empire run by petroleumites (ph) and insisted they pay a tax on every barrel of oil. No one had stood up to the oil and gas industry in Louisiana like this, and the press was like, who is this guy? The Times-Picayune waged an editorial battle against Long's proposed oil tax. Long retaliated by arguing that the press was conspiring against his promises to the common man. And he was making promises.


LONG: Widening roads, providing for flood; extending the power lines into the rural areas; and if we had any time left, some of us who've grown old would go back to school and learn some of the things that we forgot since we've become grown and maybe learn some of the things now that they didn't know anything about when we were young and were able to go to school.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was the late 1920s - the rich were getting richer; the poor getting poorer. He was telling rural folks he could make life better. And he meets just the man to help him make that happen.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: William K. Henderson was a Shreveport millionaire. You know how wealthy people love taking up hobbies? Well, Henderson got obsessed with the newest technology - radio. He buys a local station and renames it after himself - KWKH. I met Joey Kent, one of Henderson's distant relatives.

JOEY KENT: He would get on the radio at night, fix himself a big glass of scotch usually, turn on the microphone, and his sign-on was...


WILLIAM K HENDERSON: Hello, world, doggone you.

KENT: That's how he would start his address. And he would just talk on whatever topic was bothering him. He was our nation's first shock jock.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Like Long, Henderson was not a man who followed the rules. He started upping KWKH's broadcast power, and suddenly, this tiny station in northern Louisiana was being heard everywhere.

KENT: The federal government started receiving complaints from farmers in Canada that they couldn't get their crop reports because there was some old man jawing about the federal government on the radio all night long.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The FCC was actually formed in part to regulate Henderson's antics. When Long and Henderson meet over some business in Shreveport, a sort of bromance begins. Henderson loves Long's populist agenda and gives $10,000 - the equivalent of $125,000 today - towards Long's campaign. The slogan of the campaign was, every man a king, and Long wrote a song for it that became a huge hit. Everybody sang it.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Every man a king, every man a king. For...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) You can be a millionaire. But there's something belonging to others. There's enough for all people to share.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) When it's sunny June and December soon or in the wintertime or spring...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) There'll be peace without end, every neighbor a friend, with every man a king.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: On top of that $10,000, Henderson also gave Huey unlimited airtime and helped him spread the Long gospel.

KENT: Henderson would follow him to regional campaign events and set up remote broadcasting.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Remote broadcasting made possible by what were called sound trucks.

KENT: Henderson had a car outfitted with a loudspeaker and all wired up to where all he had to do was drive up next to the stage, plug in a couple of wires, and Huey's broadcasting not only very loudly over megaphones to the audience, but he's going out over the radio airwaves.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Which were being heard in well over 30 states.

KENT: I actually have a photo of a Jeep. And if you opened it up, it would look like a control room here at the radio station - dials and knobs. And he would just drive up there, plug in and start broadcasting.


LONG: Seventy-five to 80 to 85% of the people not only give up their property year after year, but they go further and further and further into economic slavery...

KENT: He sounded a little country, but he was a little tabloid at the same time. And so this aided Huey's populist platform, I believe, in that he appeared to the listening audience to be that Everyman that he was fighting for.

LONG: I mean, it was kind of a circus.


LONG: It's a kind of visceral gut politics, and he's good at it, and people respond to it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Footage of these speeches show him ranting and raving, waving his fists so wildly you think he might accidentally punch himself in the face. A reporter once described his arm as a saw cutting through the air. He could go for hours with no notes. He'd be sweating through his linen suit with his flat-top hat matting down his fiery red hair.

He did this in hundreds of towns that were usually ignored by politicians. And he would broadcast from anywhere, often which he did from a hotel room in his pajamas. Think about Long's competitors for a minute, who could maybe buy some time on the local radio station or get some press coverage of their campaign. But Long was capable of a constant stream without having to lift a finger.

KENT: You have an immediacy that hasn't been seen in this country before. This is tweeting in the 1928 era.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The fan mail poured in. Hundreds of thousands of people wrote to Huey, and he'd respond to them directly on air.


LONG: Here's another letter from a poor woman. She says this - we do not have shoes and clothing to keep us warm. You go to the RA office to ask for help, they look at you slant-eyed just as good to say, what sort of a creature are you, and what zoo did you escape from?

KENT: So we see a new form of interactive radio coming into play with the Henderson empire that hadn't existed before.


LONG: Won't you write me tonight? Won't you write me tomorrow? Write to me, Huey P. Long. I'll send you the...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It works. He wins the election by the largest margin in the state's history, and Louisiana is suddenly divided by those who would die for their new governor and those who want him dead.


LONG: I thank you.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Once governor, Huey tore down the old governor's mansion and built a new one for himself that looked like an exact replica of the White House, just smaller. In his new home, he starts consolidating his power. He rules that he has to approve the appointment of all school teachers, police and firemen. He requires all guns to be registered with the State Bureau of Criminal Identification, an agency he created which was essentially his own secret police. The mainstream newspapers harshly critiqued these moves.

ALEX MCMANUS: Huey was portrayed as a monster.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Alex McManus is a professor at the University of South Alabama.

MCMANUS: They had initially underestimated him and portrayed him as a kind of country buffoon. And when he became governor, it soon became apparent that he was extremely able politically. And that was embarrassing for the press. And one tends to, I think, be wary of people that you have severely underestimated.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But they still thought he was a buffoon and were disgusted by his behavior. He picked his nose, pulled wax out of his ear, tugged wedgies out of his rear end - all of which, Alex says...

MCMANUS: He did quite deliberately. It was very popular with his base. They liked the fact that somebody who could be seen to be a country, backwards guy - one of their own - had come into the corridors of power and was not bending the knee.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was like a big middle finger to the old regulars, which resulted in a lot of bad press.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In fact, the entire state of Louisiana is in the grip of a decidedly un-American dictatorship of the loudest character the national political scene has heard in a generation. Long is the name, and long is the way this unusual man has come in the last seven years.

JACK MCGUIRE: He once said that it's very difficult to determine the difference between a perfect democracy and a dictatorship, and what we have in Louisiana is a perfect democracy.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is Jack McGuire, who co-wrote "Louisiana Governors: Rulers, Rascals, And Reformers."

MCGUIRE: By 1930, The Times-Picayune was already warning that Huey Long wanted to establish a dictatorship in Louisiana. He tried to intimidate it. He tried to buy it. He tried to threaten it. He tried to blackmail it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: He coined the phrase the lying newspapers.

MCGUIRE: The lying newspapers, they never tell the truth about me.


MCGUIRE: It was just total hyperbole.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Hyperbole and lies. In one instance, the NAACP's magazine Crisis interviewed Long about an anti-lynching bill that was up in the legislature. The reporter showed up to Long's hotel room to find him in his PJs, of course. And when he mentioned the bill, Long cut him off and said there were no lynchings in Louisiana that year. The thing is there were seven, but his supporters don't care about these lies.

MCGUIRE: They weren't that interested in what newspapers said about him.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: All they cared about was that he was making good on his promises. He was building roads and bridges. He was feeding the hungry with free lunch. He was increasing the literacy rate for white and people of color. It was the Great Depression, and he was changing poor people's lives, and they stood by him. It was all about his base.

ARABLOUEI: In a minute, Huey Long comes into the national spotlight but wouldn't stay there for long.

ABDELFATAH: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When the LSU student newspaper The Reveille was preparing to publish a negative editorial about him, Long barged into the college newsroom.

MCGUIRE: And as soon as he saw that box on the front page, he said, you're going to be out of my university tomorrow. You are going to be gone. And he balled it up, and he threw it in my father's face.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That's right. Jack's dad was one of those student journalists. The dean of LSU ordered him not to publish the paper and to apologize to Long. Jack's father and seven other students refused and got expelled. Long then took his attack on the press statewide when he proposed a 2% tax on all newspaper profits.

MCGUIRE: He said it's a tax on the lying newspapers. It's two cents a lie, and they tell millions of them.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Huey Long fought for the tax all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was ultimately declared unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment. He tried.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The censorship didn't stop with proposed taxes or college expulsions. Long's solution to all this bad press - start his own newspaper.

MCGUIRE: His determination was, I'm going to tell the people what they should know about me.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And so the Louisiana Progress is born. Alecia Long.

LONG: It's his own sort of Fox News, right? I mean, he controls that message. It's sort of his version of state media, and as far as he's concerned, at that point, the state is Huey Long.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: He uses public money to fund his propaganda newspaper, and all state employees are forced to subscribe and sell subscriptions. Circulation shoots up, and the Louisiana Progress becomes well-known, mostly for its cartoons.

LONG: He finds ways to make fun of his opponents physically, right? So he refers to T. Semmes Walmsley, who was the mayor of New Orleans, as Turkey Neck Walmsley. And so he's always portrayed in Long's newspaper outlets, I mean, essentially as a turkey. It's a very powerful way to diminish people.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Alecia Long sees Donald Trump do this all the time.

LONG: So, you know, Little Marco Rubio is, you know, sort of one way to do it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Don't worry about it, Little Marco, I will.

MARCO RUBIO: Well, let's hear it, Big Don.

TRUMP: Don't worry about it.


TRUMP: Don't worry about it, Little Marco.

WALLACE: Gentlemen...

TRUMP: You want to show them...

WALLACE: Gentlemen, you got to...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Long also went after journalists, sometimes physically.

LONG: Yeah, this happens on at least two occasions.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Here's one of them. It starts at a country club on Long Island. Rumor has it Long was so drunk that he went to the men's room and accidentally peed on the man next to him. That man was like, why is this dude peeing on me? - and punched Long in the face.

LONG: And when he comes back to Louisiana via train, he still has the black eye. And the press understandably is waiting for him, and they're going to try to capture an image of him with a black eye. And when he gets off the train, he is surrounded by bodyguards. And by this time, he is constantly surrounded by a group of aggressive, some might say trigger-happy bodyguards. And he objects to being photographed and essentially sics his bodyguards on the awaiting journalists. And in one case, a journalist is beaten up, and his camera is broken.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And yet these attacks don't slow down Long's coverage. In fact, it does the exact opposite. The States-Item, The Times-Picayune - these newspapers are his sworn enemies, but they can't seem to get enough of him. He's a good story.

Huey Long goes national when he's elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932. Soon after, he unveils his famous Share Our Wealth program.


LONG: Four percent of the American people own 85% of the wealth of America, and over 70% of the people of America don't own enough to pay the debts that they owe.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is basically the Bernie Sanders agenda but for the Great Depression. He wanted a limit on how much wealth an individual could hold - $5 million, about 60 million in today's money. Anything made beyond that, you got to give away. In his Share The Wealth speeches, he compares the economy to a classic American barbecue.


LONG: How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what's intended for 9/10 of the people to eat? The only way you'll ever be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub he ain't got no business with.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The irony is that, over time, Long himself becomes quite ostentatious - silk suits, bright colors...

LONG: Southern male dandy kind of clothing. It would have been considered garish by wealthy people, but I think for poor people, it's just part of the show.


LONG: Give them a yacht. Give them a palace. Send them to Reno and give them a new wife when they want it if that's what they want.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: His day job is not paying for these suits. Long and his yes men were involved in a ton of shady business - getting kickbacks from state contracts, oil leases and many of the corporate interests they publicly lampooned. But his base was willing to give him a pass because they were getting something.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He promised, and he gave them new roads, free bridges instead of toll bridges, a new state capitol and, to himself, a new governor's mansion, upping the state's debt 300% but giving jobs to thousands who will vote for Huey Long.

MCGUIRE: Huey Long may have taken away their rights, but they gave them up willingly for what they got in return for it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: After one of his radio speeches, Long got more than 720,000 letters. The president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, didn't get anything near that much, which made him nervous.

MCGUIRE: Franklin Roosevelt told one of his aides that the two most dangerous men in the country were General Douglas MacArthur and Huey Long.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: FDR's fears came home to roost when Long announced he'd run against the president in the 1936 election. He expanded his Louisiana Progress newspaper into the American Progress and continued to push his populist agenda and attack his opponents.

MCGUIRE: At that time, you either loved Huey or hated him, and you had families that were broken, you know, over it - whether you were pro-Long or whether you were anti-Long.

LONG: And there is a lot of talk about whether it might be better to assassinate him than to let him go on. I mean, it is common discussion among people. It reaches a point in which people are routinely having discussions about whether or not assassinating this figure might be the only way to deal with him.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Long knew about these discussions and assumed he would be assassinated. Still, he wrote a book titled "My First Days In The White House," a kind of fan fiction autobiography of the beginning of his presidency. But those days would never happen. On September 8, 1936, Long was shot in the stomach while walking down a hallway of the Louisiana State Capitol. It's largely agreed that his assassin was Dr. Carl Weiss, a relative of one of Long's political enemies, though some argue it was actually one of his own bodyguards. Long's men immediately gunned down Dr. Weiss, but they couldn't save the 42-year-old senator. His last words were, God, don't let me die. I have so much to do.

Remember where we began - at Huey Long's 125th birthday party. I went to that party to see who would choose to brave the summer heat to celebrate a man many have called America's very own dictator. The answer - a lot of people, including Bill Hudson (ph) and Barbara Ballard (ph).

Excuse me, can I ask you all if you're here for the Huey Long party?


BARBARA BALLARD: We're absolutely dressed for it.

HUDSON: ...Look at us.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Yeah, you look amazing.

HUDSON: Well, thank you so much.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: They really did. Barbara was in a big white floppy hat, Bill was in seersucker, and each held a frothy Ramos gin fizz, Huey's favorite cocktail.

HUDSON: He was a politician of the day. Every man a king, right?

BALLARD: Huey Long was a genius. I think he did a lot of bad things, but we all do bad things. He did a lot of good things.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Barbara is fond of Huey Long because of his flaws and the fact that he was in your face about them.

BALLARD: It's kind like Donald Trump today. Look. I'm just doing what I told you I would do. These people voted for me and elected me president, and now you're criticizing me for doing exactly what I told you I was going to do. He was the same way. So happy birthday, Huey (laughter).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A need to be noticed at any cost - that's what Alex McManus from the University of Southern Alabama says really links these two politicians.

MCMANUS: And if the circus came to town and the elephants were walking by, Huey would have to pick up a stone and throw it at one of the elephants because he just couldn't stand not being the center of attention, even if it was negative attention.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And it was the media that gave him all the attention he ever could have dreamed of.

MCMANUS: I might as well be talking about Donald Trump. He was the best copy they ever had. So while they hated him in one sense, in another sense, he was the goose that was laying the golden eggs.

LONG: And, see, this is a very critical thing to kind of think through for the media about how you cover a politician who you believe might be engaged in things that are potentially illegal or unwise. And yet, at the same time, your obligation is to cover the news, and you also have a profit motive. And when someone is good news, it's hard not to cover them, even if you find part of what they're doing objectionable.

And so there's a real sticky wicket in a lot of this about the kind of symbiotic relationship between media outlets and a politician like Huey Long. You could not ignore him, so you have to cover him even if you're covering him critically, which keeps him at the forefront.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: At the end of the day, the news is a business, but it's also how people stay informed in a democracy. So you tell the story.

LONG: You cannot ignore this story, but in covering it, you also help this political figure who you believe might be doing things that are bad or dangerous or damaging for the country. You're also simultaneously empowering this person. It's exhausting, but it's also invigorating. It's hard to turn it off.

ABDELFATAH: That was our very own Laine Kaplan-Levenson with the story of Huey Long.


ARABLOUEI: "Sticky Wicket" was originally a collaboration between WWNO New Orleans Public Radio, WRKF Baton Rouge and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities with support from The Federation of State Humanities Councils and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. Thanks for listening.

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