Wednesday, January 09, 2008

HUEY LONG by T. Harry Williams

The Book: T. Harry Williams, HUEY LONG. Vintage Books trade paperback, 1981. Good-minus condition; spine is severely creased, pages are badly age-browned.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

One more political book, before I switch to something else tomorrow. (I have lots of political books, and will discuss them at regular intervals between now and the end of the summer.) This is a biography that reads like a novel, the epic story of the most dangerous man in American politics.

Huey Long, the Kingfish, was our own homegrown fascist: a powerfully charismatic man who believed it was not only the state's right but the state's responsibility to redistribute wealth (some of it into his own pockets) and make people act right, whatever he considered "acting right" to be. He ran one of the most powerful political machines in American history, he might have been President of the United States, and he did a lot of good while behaving with absolute disregard for the rule of law.

And then he was shot, in the hallway of the Louisiana State Capitol. History says the assassin was Dr. Carl Weiss, son-in-law of a judge Long had forced out of office. One theory suggests that Long was shot by his own bodyguards, firing at Weiss in a small space; Williams discounts this. Weiss was killed at the scene, and Long died two days later, at the age of 42. His last words were reportedly, "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do."

Huey Long's career inspired Robert Penn Warren's great novel All the King's Men (which I'll discuss here at some point) and Randy Newman's wonderful record Good Old Boys, but the true story is just as fascinating as any fiction could be. Williams looks at Long's extraordinary rise to power, and at the social conditions that allowed it to happen.

I bought this book used at Second Story Books on Dupont Circle, sometime after a trip to Baton Rouge where I saw the plaque on the site of Governor Long's assassination. Louisiana is proud of its unique political culture, and it's still proud of Huey Long.

Five Random Songs

"Deacon Blues," Steely Dan. This song can calm me down in almost any situation. "They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/They call me Deacon Blues."

"Seasons in the Sun," Too Much Joy. A punk cover of the Terry Jacks cheesefest (actually written by Jacques Brel, translated by Rod McKuen). They used to do a great version of this in concert.

"Bronzing the Garbage," The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. To me, horns are the bacon of popular music. Almost every form of popular music is better with horns: ska, punk, rock, blues, even folk-rock. I don't even listen to the words of this song, I just listen to the horns in the background.

"The Rescue Blues," Ryan Adams. This song makes my point: it would be better with a little brass. A trumpet, a trombone, maybe even a saxophone.

"Temptation (7" Edit)," New Order. Great dance music is great music.


Ed Lamb said...

Two of my favorite things -- Robert Penn Warren's _All the King's Men_ and Too Much Joy -- together in one post. I've nothing to add, but dod want to say, "Well done."

-- Ed

Larry said...

With roots deep in Louisana, I remain astounded as to how long the ghost of HPLong has been around. Despite argument to the contrary it is my belief that he still rules much of LA politics. The facy that the bullet holes remin in the marbel wall of the capital bears evidence to his stature. He is the Kingfish of modern cult figures.


Claire said...

You know, I've never read much about Huey Long, despite loving ALl the King's Men. I'll have to pick up this biography.

Anonymous said...

All the Kings Men is one of my favorite books too. That gorgeous opening paragraph setting a tone and establishing a place, and the power of the author to fulfill the promise he makes throughout the remaining story. That book ranks up there with Bleak House (in my opinion) as one of the great openings.

And as for music...sure, horns are good. But what about melodica? Geez, if horns add a little something, then adding a melodica adds a LOT. Just listen to Gang of Four or the Magic Numbers. Or, um, Augustus Pablo. After that the list is tragically short.