This was the date of the Academy Awards in 1949 – before midnight, Broderick Crawford had won Best Actor for his portrayal of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, Best Picture winner.
It was generally believed that author Robert Penn Warren had based Willie Stark on the notorious Huey Long, though Warren denied it. In fact, author Hamilton Basso probably came closest with Cinnamon Seed, a novel that in some cases changes the names of real characters by only one letter.
Basso’s Harry Brand and Warren’s Willie Stark are both pretty unattractive characters, which is too bad, since Huey Long was a real progressive hero, at least until he went mad with power. Governor from 1928 -1932 and Senator from 1932-35, Long was a supporter of FDR. But by the time he got to the Senate, Roosevelt was calling him one of the two most dangerous men in America (MacArthur being the other) and Republicans in Louisiana were forming their own militia to overthrow him.
Huey Long did amazing things for the oppressed of Louisiana – he fought Standard Oil and the plutocrats of New Orleans, he tripled enrollment at Louisiana State University, got the LSU medical school started, created work-study programs for poor students, got rid of the poll tax – which increased voter participation by 75% – built 11 bridges, and quadrupled the miles of paved roads in the state. He built a new Charity Hospital and gave kids free textbooks. At the beginning of the Depression, he was giving people jobs, ultimately 22,000 construction jobs that added up to 10% of the national total.
He took on the banks in Louisiana, imposing such strict regulations that while nearly 5,000 banks failed nationwide, only 7 failed in the state. Long hated the Federal Reserve and blamed it for the Depression.
Huey Long was born in 1893. That means he was governor at the age of 35 and a senator at 39. He accomplished more in seven years than any other American politician except possibly FDR himself.
But his is not an American story – only a Euripides could tell his story. With each of his stellar accomplishments, he became more power-mad until his blind drive to run the world ended in his death. Having had his chosen successor declare martial law in response to his opponents’ paramilitary organization, he was back in Baton Rouge in 1935 trying to get one of his enemies – a judge, as it happened – ousted by special legislation. Walking through the hall of the Capitol with his bodyguards, he was shot by the judge”s son-in-law. Long died two days later.
Long’s wife Rose finished his Senate term and his son Russell B. Long was elected to the Senate in 1948, the only senator ever to succeed both his father and his mother. Russell Long served 40 years, much of it as head of the Senate Finance Committee, well-known for his very conservative position on finance.