Benjamin Stolberg says Huey Long was the first politician who knew how to make power just as the robber barons made money.
1. DEMOS AND DEMAGOGUE
Huey Long was too great a demagogue to be a mere charlatan. The difference seems small but it is important. The charlatan is never more than an amplifier of confusion, often quite “sincere” in confounding himself with his own noise. But the main characteristic of the political charlatan is his enormous activity in evading whatever real issues may come up. The New Deal charlatan, for instance, reconciles all the contradictions of our economy by proving, with fancy-fake statistics, that at bottom these contradictions are really complementary; and in administering these contradictions in a hundred bureaus he of course only deepens them. Upton Sinclair, who is as naive as Dostoevski’s Idiot might be in American politics, would End Poverty in California, and elsewhere, by erecting a rag-tag economy within monopoly capitalism, and then wave the rag to frighten the House of Morgan. Father Coughlin, a definite fascist adventurer who fortunately is a fool, would abolish private credit, without which modern industry would bleed to death, yet he exalts capitalist production. And Doctor Townsend would give everybody over sixty $200 a month to start heavy industry going. Such quacks, of whom undoubtedly we shall have many more, may be as honest as was little Dr. Coué, though most of them are mere publicity hounds in public misery. They have no mass base in any class, no matter how high their temporary office or how many putative millions may follow them today only to turn tomorrow to some other barker.
Huey Long was not that kind. For all his “clownishness” he was not a loud-speaker of bunk. He was a far more dangerous man because he was an expert rider of our social chaos. He was a man of character and mind who despised the charlatans with whom he often dealt. “Coughlin,” he said to me, “is just a political Kate Smith on the air. They’ll get tired of him.” Long used demagogy as an unscrupulous and dangerous art and not as a mere bag of tricks. He was far from being just an opportunist in the sense of jumping at every opportunity. He was a strategist of opportunism whose tactics can be studied in detail by his rise in Louisiana.
Indeed, he was the first American politician who knew how to make power just as our great “robber barons” knew how to make money. Unlike Roosevelt, he did not believe in “experimentation” for its own sake, in the pseudo-statecraft of “trial and error.” His every trial was a bait for some error by his enemies, and nothing amused him as much as baiting the President, whom he came to hate with an almost insane bitterness and whom he outboxed in every round they had. It was he who framed the White House fumbling with the so-called soak-the-rich act. And even his last filibuster, which the editorial wiseacres so solemnly discussed as his “political suicide,” was a brilliant bit of demagogic strategy. Long needed primarily the farmers of the country, especially in the cotton-planting South. Accordinly he stood up and seemed to fight their battle to the last breath of the adjourning Congress. And had he decided to run against Roosevelt next year, there would have been plenty of time to point out, with telling vituperation, that the deficiency bill which he thus killed meant next to nothing; that the President had billions from which to allocate the measly $76,000,000 which was needed to save “the aged, the crippled, and the, widows”; that the President had indeed promised the Democratic Senate leaders that he would allocate this money, should the deficiency bill hold up adjournment; and that the whole social-security program of the Roosevelt Administration, anyway, violated every principle of social insurance.