After recent study and due consideration I can say with certainty that to call President Trump the reincarnation of Huey P Long, or his literary doppelgänger Willie Stark, is a slander and canard on the latter partially flawed gentlemen.

Both the actual Governor of Louisiana (1928-1932) and the protagonist of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 All the Kings Men, had programs not only promising, but actually helping, the poor – from free medical care to full education to transport infrastructure upon which they could build better lives.  The cronyism and bullying by a once-poor man (Long/Stark) who actually did things to help others while unsavory and even disturbing has a far different arithmetic than that of an always-wealthy man who while governing by bullying and nepotism only does that which will help himself.

I came to this conclusion following a recent trip to New Orleans and Baton Rouge where we were reminded by a serious reading friend that Robert Penn Warren’s great novel had been born in that land, of those people and about events of a 1930s America which, as we all have been fearing, seem to be playing out again, at a national level.  This time the self-declared “King” is not merely a governor, and senator from an impoverished southern state, but the President of the United States.  The core supporters in both times, adjusted for inflation, are the same. The effects of power and policy are not.

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Warren developed the germ of the novel in 1936 in a play called “Proud Flesh.” Whatever his original idea –Willie Stark was originally drawn from a character named Willie Talos, in reference to the brutal character Talus in Edmund Spenser’s late 16th century work The Faerie Queene— or his denials, “Willie Stark was not Huey Long. Willie was only himself…”, the effects of Mussolini in Italy for over 10 years and Hitler’s ascent in 1932 had its effect.  The long social-political investigation into the rise and fall of charismatic men and the mysteries of their power, with some of the richest metaphor and simile slinging in American letters,  came to be seen almost purely as a warning about American fascism.  All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

Two American films were cut from the novel. The first, directed by Robert Rossen, was All The Kings Men, 1949, with Broderick Crawford as a perfect Willie Stark and John Ireland as Jack Burden.  Following so closely on World War II and the near victory of fascism, it pulled from and emphasizes the politics and aroused masses of the novel, leaving aside the long multiple mystery and rich character development.  It is probably due to the film that most who know the title, will remember the populist-gone-demagogue warning portrayed in the film, not the more literary and philosophical avenues in the novel.  The film, by the way, won three 1950 Oscars: Best Picture and two best actors.

The second version of the film, in 2006, by Steven Zaillian, (highly praised for his script for Schindler’s List,) was not so well received.  All reviewers I have read are perplexed, embarrassed or dismissive –of the script, Sean Penn, Jude Law and others. I haven’t seen it, so I won’t pile on.

It was fascinating in reading –listening actually, to a fabulous reading by Michael Emerson on Audible– to discover with what commendable aims Willie Stark/Huey P Long began to enter public life.  Coming out an extremely poor area in a very poor Louisiana, an area which had voted for Eugene Debs in the 1912 Presidential election,  Long — as did Stark– campaigned, and largely followed through, on programs to modernize the state and lift the poor.  Here is an impressive list. 

For the first part of his political life Long was a left-wing populist, pulling President Franklin Roosevelt into a New Deal he might not otherwise have created.  After being elected Senator in 1932, and imagining his own run for President,  he split entirely with Roosevelt.  The infamous Father Coughlin, a right-wing radio show host from Detroit, publisher of the  scurrilous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his parish newspaper, (subsequently published and distributed by Henry Ford), and like Long with an enormous following among the Depression-created poor, became a convenient ally. Roosevelt, who now called him “one of the two most dangerous men in the country,”  sent 32 federal agents to Louisiana.  By the time he was assassinated in September, 1935 (according to one conspiracy theory, ordered by Roosevelt) he was being labeled a “counterfeit Mussolini,” a communist, a fascist and an anti-Semite; he was still wildly popular among the poor in Louisiana.

(According to recent investigation, the assassination was likely from the bullets of his own bodyguards after a punch was thrown by a citizen pleading his case.)

He certainly was a loud and obnoxious user of insult and invective;

“He referred to veteran US Senator Joseph Ransdell, a former ally and his opponent in the 1930 Senate race, as “Old Feather Duster” (because of his wispy goatee); Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley of New Orleans endured the epithet “Turkey Head”; aged former governor J. Y. Sanders was derided as “Buzzard Back” due to his stooped posture; the former governor’s son was regularly marginalized as “Little J. Y.” Few would declare Long a gentleman.

And he used the State National Guard on several occasions as his own personal army, once to attempt a take-over of New Orleans.

What isn’t told in either Warren’s novel nor most available material about Long is the depth and extent and funding of the opposition against him, and his policies.  Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller were at the center of it, however. When he rean for governor, he accused Standard Oil with being among “the world’s greatest criminals,” pointing out that Louisiana’s farmers paid 40 times more in taxes than Standard Oil, on earnings of a third less.

It would be interesting to graph Long’s increase of bellicosity and illegal maneuvers against the various plots and obstructions he faced along the way.  Not often does questionable behavior arise from some dank well in a person’s interior; more likely it makes its appearance in reaction to the behavior of others, judged to be unjust, cruel or seeking power for themselves.

Power changes the brain and it seems to have done so with both Long and Coughlin as well as Willie Stark, about whom you might read.  All began with values of economic equality as well as political, with programs to diminish the power of corporations and the wealthy,  and of uplift for all. The current contender began with nothing close to that.

How to foresee, put a harness on and stop the pull of charismatic bullying to which they turned is a challenge we haven’t yet solved and face to this day.

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Here’s a very good Elizabeth Kolbert, 2006 New Yorker look at the man, occasioned by a new biography that year.  Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long (Random House; $26.95), by Richard D. White, Jr.

A more highly praised biography of Long is an earlier one by T. Harry Williams, Huey Long, 1981

And, if you like, here is a HueyLong website with scarcely a negative word to be found.

And here is Broderick Crawford’s 1947 rendition.

Ken Burns made a 1986 PBS documentary on Long; I haven’t seen it yet.

More than the two American movies have been made with the title.  From Wikipedia

All the King’s Men may also refer to: