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Huey Long returns, on page and screen

For his first meeting with presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1932, Huey P. Long dressed in his flamboyant Kingfish mode: plaid suit, purple shirt, pink necktie.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For his first meeting with presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1932, Huey P. Long dressed in his flamboyant Kingfish mode: plaid suit, purple shirt, pink necktie.

During lunch, Roosevelt's mother gazed down the table at the United States senator in the garish outfit.

She whispered: "Who is that awful man?"

Seventy years after his assassination, one of America's most infamous politicians still triggers strong curiosity.

In a movie opening Friday, Sean Penn stars as a charismatic Southern politician, modeled after Long, who rises fast and dies young. A new biography reveals that, when he was killed, Long faced probable federal indictments on tax charges. And Louisiana's capital city is in the midst of an ongoing fixation with Long: two permanent museum exhibits, a freshly cleaned, life-sized statue on the Capitol lawn and a new downtown restaurant dubbed Kingfish — the nickname Long gave himself.

Penn says that Long's story remains relevant because Long tried to help the Louisiana poor endure the Great Depression.

"The amount of hope he gave people then, and continues to today ... it's probably the most timely aspect of this story: his finding a way to make people feel recognized," Penn says.

Corruption and autocracy are also part of Long's legacy. Suspicions are rife in Congress and elsewhere that Long-style graft continues to blossom in Louisiana, a state now receiving billions in federal relief money after last year's hurricanes.

"There is a crying need to resurrect Huey and to apply his story to today's Louisiana politics," says Richard D. White Jr., author of "Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long," released earlier this year. "We're getting a huge amount of money, and I'm not very sanguine about our ability to handle it."

Revisiting Long's lifeThe story of the Kingfish has already been used as fodder for fiction, biography and film. It was the basis of the Robert Penn Warren novel, "All the King's Men," winner of a 1947 Pulitzer Prize. Warren's book became an Academy Award-winning movie in 1949, starring Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge.

This year's remake stars Penn, Anthony Hopkins and Kate Winslet.

White says his new biography is intended as an update of "Huey Long," T. Harry Williams' hefty 1970 Pulitzer Prize-winner: "A book that is fun to read but still scholarly done, that's not 900 pages, that gets across Huey Long, this menace to democracy."

Long's story lures people to Winnfield, his rural north Louisiana hometown and site of the state's Political Museum & Hall of Fame. The hall has inducted 100 politicians, but the biggest draw is the Kingfish.

"Everybody knows Huey Long," says Carolyn Phillips, the museum's executive director, "and every one of our international customers, they all say they came because they wanted to see Huey's hometown."

Long was 35 when he won the governor's mansion in 1928, a country boy with a goofy grin. He had transfixed crowds with his stump speeches, flailing arms, jokes and howling about ambitious plans to pave the roads and hand out free school books without raising taxes.

He was impeached the next year — accused of "high crimes and misdemeanors in office, incompetency, corruption, favoritism, oppression in office, gross misconduct." The charges were dropped after Long used a variety of tactics to convince state senators that his impeachment would not serve their interests.

"Huey used promises, threats, bribes, liquor, women and any other stimulant he could devise to secure the votes," White writes.

Long controlled every aspect of state government: Contracts went to political allies; state workers who angered him were fired, along with their relatives. He ordered the governor's mansion torn down, a new one built. New bridges and roads were constructed, plus a 450-foot Art Deco statehouse, still the tallest Capitol in the nation. He wrote a fight song for the Louisiana State University football team, strutted in front of the marching band and told the coach what plays to call.

He lined his pockets, too, forcing state employees to put 10 percent of their salaries into his personal slush fund. He launched Louisiana Progress, his personal newspaper; state workers were forced to subscribe.

Long joked about rewarding his kin with cushy state jobs. He boasted that one of his hires, a distant relative, "does his work better than anybody we got." Asked what the man did, Long replied: "Not a goddamn thing."

He was elected to the Senate in 1930, broke with Roosevelt and said he was running for president. He titled his new book, "My First Days in the White House."

‘A terrible habit’Roosevelt, in turn, launched probes into Long's taxes. The Internal Revenue Service reported: "practically every contract let in Louisiana since Long became governor had been graft-ridden." Federal investigators decided to seek indictments, according to White.

Long was shot to death the same week. The assassin was Carl Weiss, a doctor whose in-laws were in a dispute with Long. Weiss was machine-gunned to death by Long's bodyguards.

Part of his legacy is the string of Louisiana rogues who followed. Earl Long, Huey's brother, had Mafia ties and was locked up in a mental institution while governor. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards was convicted of corruption charges in 2000 and remains in federal prison.

"It's a cultural problem we have in Louisiana," says White, an LSU professor. "Historically, since Huey, we have a terrible habit of not holding our politicians responsible for their actions. We are very different from other states in that respect."

Some disagree. James Carville, the Louisiana-born Democratic strategist, an executive producer for "All the King's Men," says this state's politicians are no worse than others — just more entertaining.

"You have corruption everywhere. At least our crooked politicians had the good sense to amuse us," Carville says.