Top critical review
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detailed but fairly uncritical
on February 9, 2005
This lengthy tome is a fascinating read. Williams captures the Kingfish in all his colorful glory, from his early days as a salesman to his law career (championing, of course, underdogs), from his years on the Louisiana Railroad Commission through his governorship to his time in the U.S. Senate. Long was clearly a talented politician, and one gets the sense that he would have been a powerful figure in Louisiana even had the Depression not come. But Long was able to use the economic woes to increase his standing in the state, to flesh out a very progressive agenda, and to gain national prominence. There is at least mild reason to suspect that had he not been assassinated in September 1935, Long could have given FDR a run for his money in 1936. Williams overstates this case and understates the pure political savvy of Roosevelt, who played a nice game of "triangulation" by adopting some (though never all) of Long's positions and sapping some of his support. (Alan Brinkley demonstrates this brilliantly in his VOICES OF PROTEST.)
This points up one of the book's biggest (almost devasting) flaws: it is overly sympathetic to Long. Williams tells an amazing story, dropping just the right anecdote at just the right time, and he manages to explain the strange, arcane world of Louisiana politics. But too often, he refuses to cast a critical eye on the Kingfish. Sometimes, this takes the shape of the old ends justifying the means excuse: Huey might have resorted to undemocratic means, but it was mostly forgivable since he pursued noble causes that benefited the poor and downtrodden. Other times, Williams blames Long's opposition (which he paints as a bumbling bunch of conservative--though, of course, Democratic--fools) for Long's excesses: since his opponents usually put up weak resistance, if any at all, Long was justified in steamrolling over them. Until almost the very end, until the evidence becomes overwhelming, Williams refuses to criticize Long for his undemocratic methods. He makes the case that power corrupts, but Long became corrupt long before Williams admits he did.
Even so, this is the "classic" biography of Huey Long and very much worth a read for anyone interested in Long, Louisiana, or the Depression era.