Customer Reviews: Huey Long
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on May 9, 2004
Academic historians spend a lot of time complaining about the merits of so called popular history. This is of course mostly due to the fact that popular histories outsell what the academics turn out causing the academics to cry foul. I have read a fair amount of both types of history and have always felt that if the academics would turn out books that weren't so dull they could attract readers also. In his biography of Huey Long, T. Harry Williams delivers absolute proof that academics can turn out extremely interesting books. This book is fascinating from cover to cover and anyone who is considering a career in government should read this biography of one of the cleverest politicians of all time.
Historians often crucify the Kingfish but Williams doesn't follow that course. He simply presents the story and lets the reader decide whether Long was a hero or a villain. Huey's tactics were ruthless there is no doubt but in order to break the power of the Bourbon ruling class of Louisiana there was little alternative. This elite ruling class was thoroughly entrenched and had been grinding the people of Louisiana under their feet for years. Long may have indeed become a dictator but he broke the power of the Bourbons and brought Louisiana out of the 18th century. Huey's list of accomplishments is far too long for a review of this type but there is one area that must be mentioned. Huey gave to the people of Louisiana the key that would open the door to a brighter future by finally giving people a chance to get an education. For the first time children in Louisiana received free textbooks and LSU was built into a major institution of higher learning. He also created a medical school at LSU so those qualified citizens of the State that couldn't pay the high tuition at Tulane could still become doctors. Not only did this let the children of the middle class attend medical school, but also it also greatly improved the access of the people to medical care.
There is of course no doubt that Long had his bad side also and Williams doesn't cover it up. This is a very fair and balanced biography and the author's writing style is marvelous. Do not let the size of this work intimidate you, there are no tedious sections and chapters that will make your eyelids heavy. Williams relies heavily on oral history in this book. He has done dozens if not hundreds of interviews with Long's family, his associates, his supporters, and his enemies. Most of Long's communications were face to face or over the phone so this method was critical to the success of this work, and a success it is.
Many biographies are credited with being the definitive work on the subject's life. Sometimes with justification, sometimes without. In this case there is great justification for the definitive label. Nothing before or since has come close to Williams' work. If you want to understand the Kingfish, Louisiana politics, or just study a political genus at work, this is the book to read hands down.
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on August 20, 2003
Since reading Williams' great bio of Huey Long, I have become fascinated by the Kingfish and have been looking for anything about him to absorb. That says a lot about the book. While Caro's books on LBJ are considered the gold standard of political bios, this book is slightly better. It is so detailed and so fascinating that you can breeze through the nearly 1000 pages in no time.
I suppose the one thing that stands out is how Williams is able to effectively show that Long was not the political boogeyman he is often painted as by historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and many others. Yes, Huey was a flawed man and showed some dictatorial shades. But he also did many great things for Louisiana and was forced to use political heavy-handedness to deal with the vicious party machines that had controlled Louisiana prior to Long's emergence in 1928.
One could argue that Williams was a little too pro-Kingfish. He attempts to tone down many of Huey's character flaws and doesn't spend much time on Long's movement of state militia troops into New Orleans in an attempt to oust Mayor Walmsley. Nevertheless, despite this flaw, the book does well to balance against the very anti- Long views espoused by most historians.
I would suggest reading this book along with Garry Bouldard's book on Long's "siege" of New Orleans, and Ken Burn's outstanding Long biodrama. Both are available here on Amazon. Either way, this book was the best biography I have ever read and I would recommend it to any one with an interest in politics or with an interest in reading a compelling book.
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on November 28, 2000
This is a fascinating book about a controversial political figure who is now probably largely forgotten. Huey Long was a politician from Louisiana. He initially trained as a lawyer and although young he had a remarkable record in that profession. He then won election to a regulatory commission and used it as a stepping stone to being governor of the state. Prior to Long the regulatory commission had done little but he attempted to use it as a means of increasing state revenue and controlling big companies. He was able to turn it into an effective body despite only being in his twenties when gaining a position on it.
Long was seen at the time as a populist and a radical. The issues he fought for however would now seem main stream. He was elected on a platform of providing free schoolbooks to children and in surfacing the states roads. (At the time he was elected only some 600 miles of Louisiana's' roads were surfaced.) Other projects he was involved in were the construction of bridges in especially to allow commercial access to New Orleans the upgrading of its port and the provision of natural gas to city dwellers. In addition he also spent funds on education and opened a medical school to increase the number of available medical practitioners. One of his achievements was to expand University Placements in such a way that poorer students would have access to higher education.
His interest in education extended to attempts to provide equality of opportunity in public schools. The quality of education varied from district to district and he set up an equalization fund in an attempt to overcome the problem. He also set up adult literacy classes and reduced adult literacy amongst both white and Afro-Americans substantially.
During the depression he kept highway constructions projects going and these employed large numbers of people. He also personally intervened to protect banks from closing and Louisiana only lost seven banks in the period a very low number.
A range of these projects required revenue. Louisiana was at the time when he became governor a state with a very small revenue base. Long started to expand the revenue base by using regulatory powers to tax mineral extraction and goods movement. His changes led to the richer paying more tax. Prior to his time most income came from a regressive property tax. During his period of government expenditure doubled as the state took on responsibility for infrastructure.
As a result Long was strongly opposed by the political establishment of the state. During his first term he was the subject of an impeachment hearing. It also seemed that some business channeled large sums of money into the hands of his opponents. He was vilified in the press and subject to two inquires when he was elected to the senate.
Often radical politicians know little about the reality of power and its dynamics. They are elected to power and have little understanding of the opposition that they will face and hope that the utterance of a few cliches will not lead to the passing of a program or solid achievement. They assume that decency will be met by decency and are often disappointed. Long however was an absolute realist and from the moment of starting a political career he realized that he had to create a power base and to destroy the old power structures of his state. Prior to Long Louisiana was part of the old democratic South. It was a one party state controlled basically by a wealthy elite in New Orleans. Their view of the role of government was keeping the Negro's out of the system and not taxing big companies.
Long destroyed this group and built his own political machine. This was not easy and he had to fight every inch of the way against entrenched interests. He had amazing political toughness.
Towards the end of his life he was elected to the senate and was attempting to develop a radical movement so that he could become president. His platform was "share out wealth". He wanted to limit individual personal wealth to $1m and to redistribute sums above that amount to the poorer members of society. This was his means of dealing with the depression. He was assassinated in 1935 and if he had not been killed he might have either won the presidential election in 1936 or else split the vote ensuring a republican victory.
The book is quite long being over 800 pages but is easy to read. Some of the material is hilarious. For example in the 30's it seemed that one of New Orleans major banks might collapse due to rumors about its financial status. Long organized a bail out package from President Roosevelt. The problem was that there would the time interval of a day before the money would arrive. Long decided that the only way out was to declare a holiday so that the bank could close for a day prior to the money arriving. The only problem was that the day in question the 4th of February was an unremarkable day in American History. He had historians from a local university up all night trying to find some event to celebrate on this proposed holiday. At last they found that President Wilson had broken diplomatic relations with Germany on that day some 17 years ago. The holiday was proclaimed and the bank was saved.
The book is fascinating and it is about a remarkable figure who towered like a colossus in the history of his state. It is also a book about the reality of political power and is illustrative of how hard vested interests will fight to prevent political change.
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on November 3, 1999
Many on-line reviews of the book critique it as "slow", "plodding", "pro-Long", etc. Any definitive biography by definition covers all available detail on the life of its subject. Harry Williams does that indeed. In fact, by the standards of biographers such s Barbara Tuchmann, it is somewhat restrained. It is probably impossible to be ambivalent regarding Huey Long, but Willimas does look at hims as objectively as could be imagined. He seems to separate Huey the man- often coarse and boorish- with Long the master politician. Indeed, in the chapter "Power Unto Himself", he points out that Long changed, with the focus of his efforts shifting from what he could do for Louisiana to what he could do for himself. It is a masterful book, and after reading it, one feels tempted to style oneself as an authority on Long. If there is a serious shortcoming, there is no epiloug to analyze the Long legacy, itself huge as personified by brother Earl and son Russell.
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on August 28, 2001
As I picked up this book to learn more about depression era politics, I thought that this would be just another boring book about a politican. But as I kept on reading I started to realize that this is the best biography about powerful politicans. No one except for FDR could match Huey's hold on people and subordiantes. You have to understand that Long controoled all the branches of government in Louisiana. The judicial, legislative, and executive. No one person has been able to control a state the way Long did. What I like more about this book is William's style in telling the story. He puts in boring statistics and the seconds that with an interesting or funny side note, which made the book easier to read. No wonder he recieved the Pulitzer Prize for biography for this book. But what is more important is that Williams helps you and even him in trying to understand the man, which is important when reading any biography. He just didn't tell what he did but why he did it or William's comes to his on conclusions based on his research. It is a lengthy book, but don't worry just sit and read and let yourself be absorbed. You will not regret it. Praise to T. Harry Williams, he has written the best biography that anyone could possibly read. Thanks!
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on June 16, 2004
This was one of the better biographies I've ever read. It was entertaining from start to finish and gave a detailed portrait of the man that was Huey Long, as well as of the world of Great Depression era Louisiana politics. Long was a flamboyant and interesting character. His politics while effective in most cases, were extremely divisive. He was among the first to take advantage of radio and ran extremely sophisticated political campaigns for his time. The book relies heavily on interviews with those who knew him and contains many highly entertaining stories about him. The one minor criticism of the book it that it doesn't talk much about the aftermath of his death. (Long was shot by the son-in-law of a political enemy shortly after he became a national figure and as he was preparing to challenge FDR for the presidency.) All in all, it is an excellent and entertaining read.
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on April 28, 2006
Huey Long was one of the most fascinating characters in American history and T. Harry Williams tells his story better than anyone else. Long rose from absolutely abject poverty to become perhaps the most powerful political leader in Louisiana history and for a time, one of the most influential leaders in the US. This hick from the sticks went to the big city and made good.

The Kingfish was, of course, corrupt, but was genuinely populist. He fought for better education for the poor, the right to organize labor unions, and he pushed adult literacy, which mainly benefited African-Americans. His public works projects employed thousands and built hundreds of roads and bridges. He fought the entrenched and powerful interests in favor of the common man.

T. Harry Williams' work is simply the best on the man and the politician.
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on October 11, 2005
My motive for reading this book was, admittedly, not very historical. Watching TV, reading the newspapers, I concluded that there was a major flood in 1927 which came down the Mississippi. Because the monied of New Orleans feared that the "better part of town" might be in danger, they arranged to dynamite the levees in such a way that would divert the waters into St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Certain eminent domain and financial arrangements were made (and later reneged on) and those who could and would be were evacuated. All the same, many died and many more would made homeless, for the potential benefit to the few. Then, or so I heard, the outrage of the masses in Louisiana at this miscarriage of power and justice by the rich led to the election of Huey P. Long (as champion of the "little guy") as Governor and launched a career.

Well, too bad. This book doesn't go down that road at all. The flood of 1927 is barely touched on. Yes, it happened, but there is no mention of the dynamited dams. Yes, Hoover came down and was in charge of federal relocation and recovery. And in the meantime, Huey was running about the same campaign he would run for the rest of his life: Down with the Rich! Up with the Poor! and All Hail Huey!

Williams' biography is incredibly well documented. You get the feeling that if you just tore out the bibliography, the notes, and the index, you would be forced to write the same book yourself, with one caveat: some parts of the book were written from the author's notes of interviews and private communications the author had with some of the principals who were still alive when it was written through the 1950s and 60s. The author has promised that all the notes have been archived and that while not of them can be released as yet, eventually, they all will be. Williams is quite vigorous not so much in defense of Long as in definition of the man and his vision. If you want to decide for yourself just what sort of man Huey Long was and where he might have been going, this biography is an excellent place to start.
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on June 25, 2002
Williams does much to correct misrepresentations of Huey Long. To label Long a 'dictator' and thus compare him to Stalin, Hitler, Castro or countless others is a joke. Unfortunately, Long has been popularized by Penn's book and Hollywood's "All the King's Men." Consider those largely fictional accounts that bent Long's life to fit a narrative arch and moral: the politician rises to power and inevitably becomes corrupted. In actuality, isn't it possible Huey was a fighter for the people until he was assassinated? That conclusion would render quite a different moral, indeed, about American politics and power and those who challenge it.
While Long grasped relentlessly for power, how did his tactics differ from FDR's Supreme Court packing or Chicago Mayor Daley's election frauds? No doubt Huey wasn't always clean, but has any politician (e.g. LBJ, Slick Willie) who successfully changed the system entirely played by the rules? He also shamefully engaged in 'Willie Horton' type tactics to win the day. But do not disregard that Long's powerful enemies left him little choice if he wanted to achieve anything like social justice in Louisiana.
Huey used the ambiguity in the law to his advantage. And, yes, he became too willing to squash opposition as witnessed by his intimidation of LSU student journalists. But he ran the state little more than GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson ran Wisconsin with his line item veto & micro-management of who received state contracts. Long was, in fact, nearly impeached for taking on Standard Oil. His chances of becoming President were small, and he was only viewed as 'dangerous' by those who wanted to make more than $1MM a year or inherit more than $5MM in 1930s dollars. In reality he would have been marginalized like any other 3rd party candidate. Only his murder places him in the annals of American history.
Long was exceptional in that he called for the deconcentration of wealth & power to protect the free market system Americans believe is at the center of their way of life. Seventy years later, Bill Gates has more personal wealth than the entire GDP of many nations ($80B), and 200 people receive most of the annual economic gains on the planet. Was Long really a 'dangerous' man or just the wind in the desert?
The biography is not too PRO-Long. His biggest abuse was that he managed to put the local governments under the thumb of the state. No other state governor has matched this level of control. But did Long fundamentally change the American system? Dream on. Not possible for such a radical to undermine the influence of wealth on our national politics.
A satisfying read, especially about Long's transformation from salesman to lawyer to politician. Tireseome in the mechanics of the state legislature, but the biography makes up for that in destroying the myth of Long as demogogue and its thorough research. It's only failing, as noted, is that it deals little with the man's legacy.
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on July 6, 2005
It reads like a novel beginning with Huey's childhood through his assassination. The political skills that Huey Long learned throughout his life enabled him to achieve his level of success and T. Harry Williams clearly breaks down those skills so that others interested in politics can learn from one of the best. Although his policies and belief that the ends justify the means many times show Huey's questionable character, Huey Long was a skilled politician and a master at extending his influence and power.

Every politico or aspiring politician should read this book.
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