For the past two months, I’ve been completing work on a book about the assassination of Huey P. Long, expanding on the trilogy I published here on the Bayou Brief last year. The following is an excerpt from the book, Fishing for Kings: The Last Hurrah of Huey P. Long.
If you are interested in reading a version with (rather extensive) footnotes, feel free to contact me personally by emailing lamar at bayoubrief dot com.
I am particularly thankful to LSU’s Bob Mann, author of Legacy to Power: Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, for generously sharing his personal insight about Sen. Long’s life and career and providing me with several primary source documents that were absolutely indispensable to my research. Thank you as well to all of you who support our work here on the Bayou Brief and those who have supported my work personally on Patreon.
In politics, you must help your friends, or you won’t have any.”
Russell Billiu Long, the only senator in American history preceded in office by both of his parents, surprised many people when he announced at the beginning of 1985 that he would not seek another term in office. Even though he’d been in office since 1948, working alongside eight different presidents and during a time of transformational change, from the nation’s spectacular rise as a global superpower during the post-WWII boom to the violence and the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the tumult of Vietnam and Watergate, and the ascendance of the Reagan Revolution, Long was still just 66 years old and enormously popular with his constituents back in Louisiana, many of whom were urging him to return and run for his dad’s old job in Baton Rouge.
The state’s current governor, the flamboyant Cajun populist Edwin W. Edwards, after returning to office for a third term, had been indicted by a federal grand jury on public corruption charges and was now facing trial and the possibility of jail time. Long would consider the idea—the job was almost certainly his if he wanted it—but there was no rush. That election was nearly two years away, and Russell Long knew that two years was an eternity in politics. But a few months after announcing his planned retirement from the Senate, Russell Long did something else even more surprising, something very few people in his position would ever do.
On the morning of Thursday, July 25, 1985, Dorothy “Dot” Turnipseed Svendson, Long’s secretary, awaited the arrival of a Long Island orthopedic surgeon in the 25th-floor lobby of the Helmsley Palace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, a glittering tower of steel and glass built atop the Villard Houses, a complex of lavish 19th-century residences commissioned by media mogul and railroad magnate Henry Villard and designed in the style of Renaissance-era Roman palazzos.
The appointment had been deliberately kept off of the senator’s public schedule. It would only be confirmed weeks later in a brief statement to the press that disclosed almost nothing about the purpose of the meeting or the discussion that took place. The doctor appeared promptly at 7:30 a.m., right on time, and Dot Svendson ushered him into an elevator and up to Long’s suite on the 49th floor.
“Senator,” Dot said as she opened the door, “allow me to introduce Dr. Carl Weiss, Jr.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Long said. “Please call me Russell. I’ve been interested in meeting you for quite some time.” His voice strained with a slight stammer, which he’d had since childhood. It was barely perceptible in person, but over the phone, it sometimes made him sound nervous or disinterested.
“Thank you for agreeing to this,” replied Weiss. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”
Long led him into the suite’s spacious and well-appointed living room, decorated like one of Louis XIV’s salons in Versailles. A white-linen table had been rolled in and set up next to a bank of windows, offering a bird’s eye view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral next door and a marvelous panorama of Manhattan, all the way to the Hudson River. The hotel, which opened its doors only four years before, exuded extravagance, marketing itself as “the most magnificent hotel to open in New York in a century.”
Developer Harry Helmsley put his wife Leona in charge of running the day-to-day operations. She later garnered national press attention for her tyrannical management style and her mistreatment of the hotel staff, earning her the moniker “Queen of Mean” and ultimately a stint in federal prison for tax evasion. “We don’t pay taxes,” she said, notoriously. “Only the little people pay taxes.”
Before sitting down for breakfast, the senator introduced his wife Carolyn, who had popped in to say hello before excusing herself to allow the two men to speak privately. They exchanged some brief small talk.
Weiss told them he’d lived most of his life in New York, even though both sides of his family were from Louisiana. “But when I was a pilot in the Air Force,” he said, “they sent me to Barksdale in Shreveport, though I ended up staying in a house in Plain Dealing.”
“I’m from Yanceyville, North Carolina, a little town much like Plain Dealing,” Carolyn told him.
“A lot like Plain Dealing,” Russell chuckled.
A waiter, an Indian man, neatly outfitted in a trim black suit, who had been sent up to serve the senator and his guest breakfast, asked if they preferred coffee or tea.
“Tea would be fine,” said Carl.
“Coffee,” Russell said. “Decaffeinated.”
It had been 50 years since Carl Weiss’s father, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr., shot Russell Long’s father, the inimitable and electrifying Huey P. Long, Jr., inside of the Louisiana State Capitol, a skyscraper towering over Baton Rouge that had been a monument to Huey even before he was buried beneath its front lawn.
“Neither of us had the power to shape the events that happened on Sept. 8, 1935, although each of us, in his own way, paid a price for something he was powerless to control,” Long wrote in a statement issued on Sept. 6, 1985, acknowledging his meeting with Carl Weiss, Jr.
Russell won his first election to the Senate a day before his 30th birthday, two months after narrowly defeating Shreveport judge and future Louisiana Gov. Robert F. Kennon in the 1948 Democratic primary contest to fill the remaining two years of the unexpired term left vacant with the death of Sen. John H. Overton. At the time, Russell had been serving as Executive Counsel to his Uncle Earl, Huey’s father’s irascible and wily little brother, who had just roared back to political life and reclaimed the governor’s office, defeating his old rival, Sam Houston Jones, in a landslide.
Russell had been on the job for just two days when Overton died but was immediately considered the presumed frontrunner. However, the race between him and Bob Kennon, an anti-Long judge from Minden who finished in third in the governor’s race earlier that year, was far closer than most had anticipated. Russell learned from his mistakes, realizing that his political future would depend on his ability to carve out his own identity, distinct from the Kingfish and Uncle Earl.
In his six subsequent reelection campaigns, he would never again face a serious challenge, building a record as a pragmatic deal-maker—“the Master of Compromise,” he was often called— and amassing greater seniority and accumulating more power in Congress than any other Louisianian in history.
“President-elect Jimmy Carter used to say that he was sent to Washington to run the country [only to discover once he got there that] Russell Long was already running it,” Sen. J. Bennett Johnston told the packed pews of Baton Rouge’s First United Methodist at Long’s funeral in 2003.
Among the nearly 2,000 people who have won election to a full six-year term in the United States Senate, when he finally stepped down in January of 1987, Russell Long—whose tenure spanned 38 years, 13,881 days, to be precise— had served longer than anyone other than John Stennis of Mississippi, Carl Hayden of Arizona, and Richard B. Russell of Georgia. The Georgian Dixiecrat often said that Russell Long was the “second-smartest senator” he’d ever known. The smartest, he claimed, was Russell’s father.
By contrast, Huey Long’s time in office—three years, seven months, and 15 days— is among the 25 briefest, 1,323 days in total, ranking, in terms of brevity, directly ahead of Barack Obama, who spent 1,413 days in the Senate before ascending to the White House.
As the actual day drew nearer—two days, really, Sept. 8, 1985, the 50th anniversary of the shooting, and Sept. 10, 1935, the 50th anniversary of Huey’s death—Russell would be obligated to attend an ever-increasing number of symposia, television interviews, and commemorations. On the afternoon of the 8th, which coincidentally also fell on a Sunday that year, he would be at the scene of the crime, regaling a group of around 150 friends and supporters for more than an hour with some of his favorite stories about his late father and briefly mentioning his contention that Carl Weiss had not acted entirely alone.
“Everyone has an opinion, I suppose, about my father’s assassination,” he said, standing in front of three massive panels featuring photographs and memorabilia from his father’s political career. “I don’t believe it was the act of a single individual. In my view, there were likely other people involved in one respect or another.”
That night, inside of the chambers of the Louisiana House of Representatives, beginning at almost the same exact time the shooting erupted 50 years prior, an invitation-only audience of dignitaries, state and local officials, and historians watched the first-ever screening of the PBS documentary Huey Long by 32-year-old filmmaker Ken Burns. The hour-and-a-half-long documentary, narrated by renowned historian David McCollough, is generally favorable to the Kingfish, though it includes interviews with a number of Huey’s critics, including two of the state’s most virulent anti-Long opinion leaders, former state Rep. Cecil Morgan, the leader of a group of legislators behind Long’s impeachment in 1929 known as the “Dynamite Squad” and who would later spend most of his career as general counsel for Standard Oil, as well as Betty Werlein Carter, an acclaimed writer and publisher who, along with her late husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman Hodding Carter II, owned the Hammond Daily Courier. Werlein Carter was also a member of one of New Orleans’s most prominent families; her paternal grandfather, Philip P. Werlein, founded the iconic store Werlein’s for Music, a Crescent City institution for more than 150 years, and her mother was the legendary suffragette Elizabeth Thomas Werlein, who is widely credited for ensuring the preservation of the French Quarter.
Both Morgan and Werlein Carter offered their own remarkably candid assessments of the general sentiment shared among Long’s opponents at the time of his assassination, which, in some respects, bolsters Russell Long’s belief that Carl Weiss had been part of a larger conspiracy.
“I can’t remember any Saturday night that I went anywhere that we didn’t talk about killing Huey Long,” confessed Werlein Carter. “It was the normal conversation. I suppose that the very strong pro-Long people weren’t talking that way, but the antis certainly. It doesn’t mean you meant to do it. It just meant that you wished that there was some way to rid the state of this incubus.”
Cecil Morgan corroborated her account.
“Every time there was a gathering— I don’t care who the people were that I associated with— every time there was a gathering of two or three people somebody would say, ‘That son of a bitch ought to be shot,’” Morgan recalled. “Somebody would say it in every gathering. And the tension was so extremely high and the feeling was so strong that there was hardly any other conversation throughout the state.”
Russell Long, who was also interviewed in Burns’s film, did not stick around for its premiere. Some suggested that he was “not pleased with some of the more negative aspects” of the documentary, though it is just as likely that his absence was the result of a scheduling conflict. He was heading back to Capitol Hill and preparing an extended speech he would deliver from the Senate floor on Tuesday, which included at least one surprise. He would introduce a motion to enter into the congressional record an important historical document that had previously been nearly impossible to find: A 72–page transcript of the 1935 East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths of 42-year-old Sen. Huey Long and his 29-year-old alleged assassin.
Despite the way the inquest was subsequently characterized by Huey’s opponents and by conspiracists sympathetic to Weiss, the written record, Russell knew, was clear: According to the sworn testimony of no fewer than seven eyewitnesses, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. intentionally shot Huey Long, at near point-blank range, and in response and within a matter of mere seconds, Huey’s bodyguards killed Weiss.
Carl Austin Weiss, Jr. never knew the man who had left him with his name. He was only three months old on the night of Sept. 8, 1935. At 50, he looked distinguished, almost aristocratic, with his mop of dark blonde hair and a perennial tan. He spoke French before he learned English and was built like someone who played a lot of golf and flew his own airplane, which he did.
Russell wanted to know where he’d gone to school—College of the Holy Cross as an undergrad, Columbia for medical school— and why he decided to become a doctor, and Carl told him about how he and his mother had moved to Paris shortly after his father’s death but were eventually forced to return to the states only days before Hitler’s army marched down the Champs-Elysées. As for why he became a doctor, he was probably genetically predisposed, he said, or perhaps the better word was “destined,” for a career in medicine. After all, both his father and his grandfather, Carl Adam Weiss, were physicians.
“I suppose you and I also share a destiny,” Long said. “Both of us lost our fathers because of what occurred on that night 50 years ago, an experience which has had a profound effect on my life and I imagine also on yours.”
It had, of course, Weiss acknowledged, though perhaps not as profound of an effect as it would have, had his mother not gone to great lengths to protect her only child against the ugly truth about his father’s death, which he first discovered at the age of ten while thumbing through the pages of Life magazine. He’d always been curious about his father’s life, but it was only in the past few years that he’d taken an active interest in learning about the circumstances of his death, a subject he’d previously been content to leave to his relatives in Louisiana.
“We would have met sooner, I think, had it not been for some interference by certain members of my family,” Russell admitted. Five years before, Weiss had asked an associate of Russell’s third cousin, Congressman Gillis Long, to relay his request for a meeting, but Gillis unilaterally vetoed the idea without ever mentioning it to Russell. “It would serve no purpose,” Gillis declared.
In fact, he was grateful for the opportunity to meet Carl Weiss, Jr. and had always wondered how life turned out for him. He knew that Carl’s mother Yvonne had believed, quite understandably, that her son could never have a “normal” childhood or an opportunity to make a name for himself if they remained in Louisiana, and he’d heard years before that Carl was a surgeon on Long Island. He was sincerely glad that he’d not only been able to get a world-class education, he’d also managed to build a thriving medical practice. This was what Russell had hoped he would learn about the son of his father’s murderer, and although he knew he didn’t have the answers that Weiss wanted to hear, he empathized with the mission he was on: Carl Weiss, Jr. simply wanted to know more about his dad.
“I’m happy it worked that we could meet here in New York, as opposed to you having to travel to Washington. The accommodations here are much nicer,” Russell said.
Carl also appreciated the convenience; his home in Garden City was 45 minutes from Penn Station on the Long Island Rail Road, which meant he would be able to still get a full afternoon in at his medical clinic.
“I wish to tell you first that I harbor no personal animus toward your father, nor do I have any strong feelings, one way or another, about the events of that night,” Carl said. “Not only because there’s now 50 years of separation, but also because of my own physical separation, as someone who grew up and who still lives and works in New York.” He’d rehearsed his words on the ride into the city.
It wasn’t entirely true. Carl did have strong feelings about the shooting that left his father dead and Huey Long mortally wounded. Of course, it’s also true that despite how unfailingly kind Russell was known to be, he also had strong feelings.
Huey P. Long missed the birth of his eldest son. On Nov. 3, 1918, even though he had already effectively won his first-ever election, narrowly defeating incumbent Burke Bridges for a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission in October’s Democratic runoff, Huey was out on the campaign trail. The general election was on the 5th, and while Huey’s race was uncontested, there were others that remained competitive, including a proposed Constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. (The amendment failed in Louisiana, but fortunately, less than two years later, that was rendered moot when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which Louisiana didn’t get around to doing until 1970).
Only seven years after his father’s death, when registering for the draft, Russell Billiu Long, known as a kid by the nickname “Bucky,” discovered the legal name on his birth certificate was actually Huey Pierce Long, III.
“Mr. Huey P. Long, Jr. and Mrs. Rose McConnell Long are the parents of a 10-pound boy, Huey P. Long III, who arrived in the home of his maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. P. M. McConnell, of Madison Avenue,” the Shreveport Times reported two weeks later. “The paternal grandparent, H.P. Long of Winnfield, welcomes him as his first grandson.”
From her parent’s home in Shreveport, his mother Rose had wrongly assumed her husband would have approved of the name. He didn’t, but neither of them ever got around to officially correcting the mistake.
“I was Huey P. Long, Jr., and I hated being ‘Little Huey’ all my life,” Huey told Rose. “I’m not going to wish that off on a son.”
Huey had eight siblings, including two older brothers, but he was the only one of them constantly living in and diminished under “Hue” Long’s shadow.
This wasn’t the only reason he objected, however. He hadn’t even been sworn into office yet, but already, Huey was thinking about the legacy he would leave behind.
“When a man is in politics, he almost always ends up being repudiated,” Huey said. “It’s better for the boy to have his own name, as if things go badly for me, he can have his own name to make it on.”
Rose knew this about her husband from the very beginning. When they first met, Huey liked to busy himself by writing letters to U.S. senators, seemingly for any reason he could think of, regardless of how trivial or mundane. “I want to let them know I’m here,” he told Rose. “I’m going to be there some day myself.”
Twenty-five years after his death, Rose reflected back on her late husband’s preternatural sense of his own destiny, how he’d mapped out his entire career when he was still a teenager. “It almost gave you the cold chills to hear him tell about it,” she said. “He was measuring it all.”
There’s a particular irony to all of this. From 1927, the year Huey launched his second campaign for governor, until 1937, two years after his death, nearly 1,300 baby boys in Louisiana were named “Huey,” almost all of whom were “Huey P.’s,” comprising slightly more than 52% of all of the Baby Hueys born in the entire country. It went from being the 179th most popular boy’s name in the state to, at one point, the 14th most popular. In response, Huey Long kept a supply of enamel tin mugs engraved with the name “Huey P.,” with enough space to add in a surname, which he would send, along with a personal letter, as an expression of gratitude to the boy’s parents.
“Nothing hurt me more than to change my name to what it had been all my life,” Russell confessed years later. “But if I had not, people would have assumed I was trying to capitalize on my father’s name.”
Russell was 13 when his father finally stepped down as governor and joined the U.S. Senate, taking the seat he’d won nearly 14 months before. Huey’s move to Washington meant that his family would need to move as well, leaving the newly-built Governor’s Mansion and settling in a two-story Mediterranean-style home on Audubon Place Boulevard in New Orleans. Russell, however, was allowed to stay in Baton Rouge for a few more months so he could finish out the school year at University High, initially occupying his father’s suite of rooms at Roy Heidelberg’s hotel before moving into the family home of LSU President James Monroe Smith, whose son Jimmy was one of Russell’s classmates. When the school year wrapped up, he gave his first-ever interview, confessing that he missed his father more than his mother or his siblings down in New Orleans.
“I would rather hear him speak than do almost anything else I know,” he said. Afterward, as he walked the reporter to his car, Russell reminded him of what he’d said at the beginning of their conversation. “When I get big and run for office, I want you to remember the promise you made to vote for me,” he said.
Russell Long’s childhood ended a few minutes after 10 p.m. on the night of Sept. 8, 1935, when the phone pierced through the silence at the Long family home in New Orleans and the panicked voice on the other end of the line, his Uncle Gil McConnell, the superintendent of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, told his 16-year-old nephew that his father had been hurt. “Bucky, your father has been shot. He’s in the hospital, and I believe it would be well for you and your mother and brother and sister to come here. I hope it’s going to be all right, but it’s not good,” McConnell said.
Russell padded down the hallway to his mother’s bedroom and blurted out the bad news as quickly as he could, knowing that any hesitation, any stutter, and he was likely to unravel.
If only for a fraction of a second, he saw the fear and panic in his mother’s face, and then he watched her transform, snapping herself into command and calling out for her other two children, 18-year-old Dolly and 13-year-old Palmer. “Don’t get excited,” she cautioned them, “but Daddy has been shot. We all need to pack right now to go up to Baton Rouge. Bring enough for a few days.”
The phone rang again. This time, it was Jimmy Noe, the acting lieutenant governor, calling from the hospital. “Rose, I’m right next to Huey. The doctor doesn’t think it’s serious, so y’all just be careful and safe on the drive up.”
Shortly before 11 p.m., the Longs piled into Huey’s brand-new, 1935 DeSoto Airflow SG Business Coupe, the same car he’d posed beside in a series of photographs taken earlier in the year in D.C. 16-year-old Russell, commandeered the driver’s seat, cranked up the engine, backed out of the driveway of their home on Audubon Place Boulevard, and bolted for Baton Rouge.
A few miles outside of New Orleans, as they approached the newly-constructed but still unopened Bonnet Carré Spillway, he called out for his younger brother.
“Palmer, you see that wooden barrier up there? I need your help moving it to the side,” he said. “It’ll shave 20 minutes off of the drive.” The two boys cleared the way, and they were back in business, barrelling down the empty road at 90 miles per hour and arriving at the hospital a few minutes after midnight, with just enough time to witness the tail end of Huey’s surgery.
In the hours that followed, as he came to the crushing realization that his father wasn’t going to make it, Russell thought about the man who shot him and about that man’s family and his infant son. He thought about all of the people who had attended that man’s funeral— more than 2,000, they said, including two former governors and a sitting U.S. congressman— and the countless times he’d heard his dad worry about people who said they wanted him dead. He wondered about what the world would be like without Huey Long in it, and he worried for himself.
He also thought about the book he’d just finished, which he’d left on his nightstand in New Orleans. He was sure it contained passages that now seemed much more relevant than they had only a day before.
“As a matter of great, good fortune to me that I had been reading some books by an author of the name Lloyd C. Douglas at that time. One of them was a book from which a popular movie was made, Magnificent Obsession. Another was a book named Forgive Us Our Trespasses, andthe writing I felt like had made a tremendous impact on me,” Russell once recalled. “The latter book, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, as the Good Lord would have it, was something I was able to read before my father’s death, and that convinced me that when people do unkind things toward you, they don’t do it because they have something in for you or because they hate you. They do it either because they’re misguided or because they want something for themselves, perhaps something that they wrongly want for themselves. But that you ought to feel sorry for them because they’re misguided, rather than hate people because they do those kind of things. You ought to try to help them rather than hurt them. That philosophy, I guess, prevented me from being an embittered person, taught me to feel kindly toward people, on the theory that they didn’t know any better.”
By the time Russell reached his forties, his resemblance to Huey was so striking, so astonishingly similar, it was impossible to deny his paternity. Yet, in terms of personality, those closest to the Longs generally agreed that his son Palmer Reid, the youngest of Huey’s three children, was most like his father. “Palmer was my boy,” Huey’s longtime bodyguard Theophile Landry recalled years later. “Russell was more on the reserved side. Palmer was a typical Huey Long in his ways. Brains, Russell had that part of the family, but personality, Palmer had it. Palmer would sell himself to you right now.”
Whereas Huey Long earned the opprobrium of the Washington establishment and the majority of his colleagues in the Senate for his crass and frequently outlandish disregard for the rules of decorum and his unapologetically personal attacks against members who opposed his legislative agenda, it is likely that his son Russell collected and cultivated more lasting, personal friendships in the Senate than anyone in its history.
“The whole thing puzzles the hell out of me,” political scientist Norman J. Ornstein remarked when asked about the “personal dynamics” of Russell Long’s command over the Senate Finance Committee. “It amazes me because he obviously has some kind of personal charisma. Even [liberal environmentalists] like Gaylord Nelson and Abe Ribicoff love Russell Long. You won’t see any revolution coming out of the Finance Committee. He has some personal power over them.”
But however confusing it may have been for Ornstein, there wasn’t any great mystery about Russell Long’s interpersonal relationship skills.
LSU political communications professor Bob Mann, who worked as Russell Long’s press secretary during his final term and later wrote the authorized biography, Legacy to Power: Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, notes that at the beginning of Long’s career, he deliberately reached out to many of his father’s fiercest political adversaries, both in Congress and back home in Louisiana, not necessarily because he hoped to befriend them or charm them into changing their minds but, at the very least, to make it impossible for them to hate him the way they hated his father.
Huey was a flamethrower, a disrupter, and an iconoclast; Russell was a dealmaker, a pragmatist, and an institutionalist. To be sure, Russell was not always well-served by his cautious if not conservative approach. Critics accused him of being too cozy with big business and corporate interests, and his intellectually dishonest embrace of the rhetoric of “state’s rights” in the nascency of the civil rights movement wasn’t exactly a profile in courage. But when one considers the totality of his career, particularly his introduction of the Earned Income Tax Credit and his work on Medicare and Social Security, Russell Long’s legacy is, in many respects, an extension of his father’s animating cause. At their core, both men believed in building a government that serves those most in need and an economy that invests its wealth to lift people out of poverty and into positions of opportunity.
Russell Long had, in fact, made it on his own name, as his father hoped he would, but he also became the most effective champion of his father’s legacy.
Among the numerous occasions throughout his life in which he came to his father’s defense, one, in particular, stands out, a 1947 essay he titled, appropriately enough, “In Defense of My Father.” The essay— written in response to Hamilton Basso’s feature-length article, “The Huey Long Legacy,” in the Dec. 9, 1946 edition of Life magazine— is raw, full-throated, and unfiltered. It’s especially remarkable because in a family known for their bombastic and unapologetically loud-mouthed personalities, to the public, the taciturn and mild-mannered Russell always seemed to be more like his mother’s side of the family than his father’s.
“I venture the assertion that no man of our time has been more abused, vilified, and misrepresented by the American press to its reading public than my father, Huey P. Long,” Russell begins. “Most commonly, he has been accused of being a ruthless dictator who would have destroyed our system of democratic government as well with the charge as a noisy low-grade rabble-rouser. A mass of fictional novels pictures him as possessed of an obsessive lust for sexual indecencies. All glory in the fact that at law there is no right of suit by defendants or relatives of a deceased person who has been libeled. It now appears that Life magazine is desirous of creating the new American legend in which Huey Long is to play the role of Satan to the epic of American democracy.”
Hamilton Basso, a well-regarded New Orleans-born writer, best known for his work, over the course of more than 20 years, as a contributing writer for the New Yorker, was not exactly a disinterested third-party on the subject of Huey Long’s representations in American fiction.He was also the author of two books featuring a character inspired by Huey Long, the first of which, His Sun in Capricorn, was published in 1943 and is mentioned repeatedly throughout his article for Life.
Given that the criticism against Huey Long never relented, even after his death, it may seem somewhat strange that it was Basso’s piece in Life that earned Russell’s ire. No doubt, this is partly because of Life’s popularity and prominence at the time, but it’s also because of Basso’s central thesis. “Basso’s article was the most comprehensive and widely read of several to declare that, despite the fact of his 1935 assassination, the Kingfish, by way of fiction—and much to his eldest son’s continued offense—was still fair game for public vilification,” explains Keith Perry in his book The Kingfish in Fiction: Huey P. Long and the Modern American Novel.
That said, Russell Long also uses the opportunity to address other critics, taking direct aim at how his father had been consistently portrayed by the Louisiana press. “Except for the brief one year period [after] Huey Long was elected governor, during which only a few papers supported him, his opposition included every daily newspaper in the state,” Russell writes, somewhat misleadingly, as he fails to note that his father had been consistently supported by at least one daily, the Lake Charles American Press. “They twisted his every statement, his every act. The fact that they could not defeat him was attributable only to the fact that he was able to convince the majority of the people that the attack was due to his program of taxing the vested interests for the benefit of the State and its masses. To the outside, the Louisiana press explained its failure to defeat him on the theory that the majority of the people of Louisiana were a mass of stupid illiterates in the hands of a rabble-rouser.”
While newspaper editors and publishers would undoubtedly disagree with Russell’s characterization, it would be a mistake to dismiss his opinion as categorically false or irreparably biased. One need not be Huey P. Long’s son to pick up on the smug and condescending tone and the clear contempt that many in the Louisiana press had not only for Long but also for Long’s voters. Russell’s argument may be an oversimplification, but the arguments employed against his father were frequently overstated and often reckless. It’s easy to miss, but at one point in Ken Burns’s documentary, there is a passing reference to an editorial by Hodding Carter II, written before the shooting at the State Capitol, that is nothing short of an outright endorsement of assassinating Huey P. Long.
There is one other aspect of “In Defense of My Father” worth mentioning. Although he does not refer to it by name, Russell directly refutes the basic premise of Harnett T. Kane’s 1941 book Huey Long’s Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship, 1928-1940. Kane, who began covering Long in 1931 as a cub reporter for The New Orleans Item, achieved national recognition and acclaim for his book and, coincidentally, drew the interest of the country’s most well-known “Citizen Kane,” filmmaker Orson Welles, who, at one point, had optioned the book with the hope of directing and starring in a movie about the life of Huey P. Long. The problem with Huey Long’s Louisiana Hayride can be found without ever opening the book: Huey Long died in 1935; Kane’s subtitle suggests he was still in charge, five years later.
The reason for extending his reign beyond the grave, as disingenuous as it may be, is to hold him accountable and responsible for the crimes and the corruption of his political successors and the men who claimed the mantle of his movement, specifically those implicated in the saga known as the Louisiana Scandals of 1939-40 and, among those, principally, the state’s new governor, a former state appeals court judge from New Orleans named Dick Leche, who was convicted of mail fraud for a scheme involving the acquisition of trucks by the state highway department. Leche, who was later granted a full presidential pardon from Harry Truman, is also remembered for once remarking, “When I took the oath of office, I didn’t take any vow of poverty.”
However unsavory or unethical as one may find Huey Long’s methods (even Russell would later acknowledge there were several things his father did with which he disagreed or believed to be wrong), aside from when, as a Public Service Commissioner, he was fined one dollar for defaming the state’s governor, a judgment that would never hold up today, he was never found to have done anything illegal. Federal investigators spent years trying to connect him with criminal wrongdoing but came up empty. Decades after his death, the FBI released a trove of records, including a 306-page dossier outlining these investigations and ultimately concluding that there was no evidence Long had violated any federal statutes.
With respect to Louisiana state law, as many others have aptly pointed out, why would he break the law when he could simply change it?
To be sure, Huey was aware that some of his top political lieutenants weren’t nearly as savvy or as careful as he had been. “If those fellows ever try to use the powers I’ve given them without me to hold them down,” he once said, presciently, “they’ll all land in the penitentiary.”
“The scandals broke four years after Huey Long’s death,” Russell writes. “Every story of an indictment had as much about the fact that the unfortunate man was a friend of the late Huey Long as the facts of the indictment. The term ‘Huey’s heirs’ was used by the press [so frequently] it seemed to be one word. Yet, never was it shown that any alleged irregularity could even be traced back to a time when Huey Long was living. By this standard, everyone having known a man who committed an unlawful act would also be partially to blame.”
Russell had flown to New York the day before so that he could deliver the keynote speech at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Union Pacific Railroad. He told Weiss that he’d been struck by the fact that Elbridge T. “Ebby” Gerry, Sr., a prominent American banker, served as both a director and chairman of the executive board for Union Pacific.
Russell explained that the name “Elbridge” came from Gerry’s great-great-grandfather, one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. Elbridge Gerry was a Massachusetts politician, a former governor and then, briefly, the Vice President under James Madison.
“But he’s probably best known for introducing the political redistricting practice known as ‘gerrymandering,’” Long said. “When he was governor, he signed a law redrawing the lines of the state senate districts, and people thought one of the districts resembled the shape of a salamander. Hence the expression ‘gerrymander.’”
The didactic history lesson was Long’s clever way of steering the conversation to the reason for their meeting. Fifty years after the shooting at the Louisiana State Capitol, there was at least one aspect of the story that remained a mystery. It’s why, to some, Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. ranks as the “unlikeliest” of all American political assassins, and it’s the central reason members of his family and a parade of amateur detectives, conspiracists, and more than a handful of tabloid journalists and opportunistic politicians contend that Weiss was wrongfully blamed for the assassination.
The most commonly accepted explanation of Carl Weiss, Sr.’s motive is that he was likely angered by Huey Long’s efforts to push through a bill designed to gerrymander his father-in-law, Judge Benjamin “Henry” Pavy, out of office. Some also believe Weiss may have been further triggered after hearing a rumor that Huey intended on resurrecting a smear campaign against the judge that falsely alleged the Pavy family— and by extension, the newest member of the family, Carl Weiss, Jr.— had mixed-raced ancestry, which in 1935 Louisiana was just about the most incendiary claim one could make against a white person.
“Based on everything I know about my father’s background and his experiences, there is nothing that suggests he would be a likely political radical,” Carl told Russell. It was a line he’d frequently repeat during the next 38 years of his life, the line he told the press when asked about what he had discussed with Sen. Long.
But Russell knew there was more to Carl Weiss, Sr. than his son had been told or would ever be willing to admit, and he also knew that there were aspects to the story of the events that unfolded on a night in Baton Rouge 50 years ago that simply couldn’t be known.
When recounting their meeting later that day in July of 1985, using his dictaphone to record his impressions of the senator and the details of their discussion that stood out to him, Carl Weiss, Jr. spoke about how deeply moved he was by Russell Long’s uncommon decency. “He was an active listener and a pleasant conversationalist,” Carl noted. “Russell repeatedly expressed the notion of Christian forgiveness…. [and] quoted a preacher whom he enjoys who insists that his listeners shake hands and declare love for their fellow man, a feeling which he does seem to emit.”
Russell Billiu Long, who, even as a teenager, had the wisdom to recognize that his father’s assassin did not know the real Huey Long, only the version imagined by his father’s worst enemies, and who possessed the compassion to forgive that man and the grace to break bread with the man’s son, was a practitioner of extraordinary mercy.