Huey P. Long is surely the most assassinated figure in American political history. Although he was murdered only once – bullet holes still visible in the marble around the ground floor elevators in his state capital building in Baton Rouge mark the scene of the crime – his memory continues to be the object of shocking distortion. The most recent savaging of the Kingfish was perpetrated by Sally Denton, whose 2012 popular history The Plots Against the President recounts the attempted assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by the anarchist Giuseppe Zangara in Miami and rumored subsequent coup plotting by disgruntled conservatives.* The author works in a lot of background material about major figures of the period, and leaves little doubt that she adores the liberal New York patrician and execrates his political rival as a jumped up nobody from Louisiana. Indeed, so profound is her antipathy toward Long that she makes Zangara appear a more sympathetic figure.
The particular character assassination technique executed by Denton is indirect guilt by association. Denton devotes a chapter to linking Long to archconservative Catholic “radio priest” Father Coughlin and the latter to Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. She writes that Long and Coughlin were “ideologues” whose movements “revealed an American-bred anti-Semitism and an anti-European isolationism that would have enduring national and global consequences.” (p. 60) The problem is that while Denton has a case to make against Father Coughlin, she has none against Long.
That Long railed against plutocracy is indisputable. His homespun denunciations of corporate abuse and economic equality resonated powerfully across the American heartland and caused shivers of fear among the wealthy. That Long exploited anti-Semitism or any other form of bigotry to win votes is utterly false. Almost alone among Southern populist politicians of his era, he eschewed race baiting. He worked to extend public education to both races in Louisiana and in 1934 he drove Hiram Evans, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, out of the state permanently.
Denton’s decision to smear Long with the charge of anti-Semitism becomes even odder because she credits as “a valuable source on Huey Long” (p. 222) Alan Brinkley’s 1983 history Voices of Protest.** Yet if you read Brinkley’s work with even a modicum of care you discover that he makes no such claim.
You can see the same indirect guilt by association character assassination in Jonah Goldberg’s 2008 book Liberal Fascism.*** (Yes, that is actually the book’s title.) The author of this exercise in ideological incoherence does not accuse Long of being an anti-Semite, as such. Instead, he describes one of Adolph Hitler’s early heroes, anti-Semitic Austrian politician Dr. Karl Lueger, as a “Viennese Huey Long of sorts.” (p. 65). Elsewhere in the book Goldberg summons up the courage to attack Long as “the archetypal American fascist.” (143). The author also accuses presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy of being fascists. Presumably they deviated somewhat from the archetype he attempts to conjure.
Why would Sally Denton and Jonah Goldberg both feel the necessity to re-assassinate Huey P. Long by associating him with anti-Semitism? Denton may have been unable to escape from the cartoon version of American history in which Southern populist politicians and working class whites are invariably racist and reactionary. Leftists in America might be white ethnic immigrants or African American but certainly never white, native born and working class. Confronted with the problem that the actual historical Long contradicts that dualism, Denton responds by replacing him with a hateful stereotype. However that does not account for Goldberg. Another possibility is that both Denton and Goldberg recognize the potential for the reemergence of genuine Left populism in the American heartland and have calculated that few accusations would be more damaging to one of its heroes than anti-Semitism. Smearing the Kingfish as a religious bigot could be preemptive mudslinging at a figure who might in the future be recast as populist hero. Huey P. Long was a Southern original and deserves better.
* Sally Denton. 2012. The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
** Alan Brinkley. 1983. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & the Great Depression. New York: Vintage Books.
***Jonah Goldberg. 2008. Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. New York: Random House.