Who Should Be More Famous? Huey Long or Russell Long?

In politics, among other ways of classifying people, there are work horses and show horses. One can look at the Democratic Long family for examples. While as governor, Huey Long (1893-1935) was both a work horse and a show horse through his building roads and free textbooks for schoolchildren, in the Senate he was far more a show horse.

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Although a believer in progressive causes, Long was mercenary in his politics, demonstrating little loyalty to FDR while demanding absolute loyalty from his followers. On the issues of veterans, trade, foreign affairs and the National Industrial Recovery Act, Long bucked Roosevelt. On certain other issues, such as taxes and social insurance, he agitated from Roosevelt’s left with “Share the Wealth” programs, which aimed to redistribute wealth by placing a floor and a ceiling on income and limitations on inheritance. According to biographer T. Harry Williams, his goal was ultimately the presidency, which he sought to win in 1940. He would do this by dividing Democrats in 1936 so a Republican would be elected, and then he would defeat the Republican next election. Long’s machinations were ultimately for naught as he was felled by the bullets of the son-in-law of a political rival in 1935. This was not the end of the Long legacy, for it was…long. Other Longs who would serve included his wife Rose for the remainder of his term, his son Russell in the Senate, his brothers Earl and George as governor and representative, and his cousins Gillis and Speedy as representatives. The most significant of these figures on the national scene was Russell.

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Russell Long (1918-2003) served in the Senate from 1949-1987, and in such a time a legislator is bound to have accomplishments, and did he ever. Although a drinking problem hindered him in the 1960s and cost him his position as Assistant Majority Leader in 1969, he regained his effectiveness after quitting drinking. Good legislators have one or two areas of expertise, and Long’s was taxes, which made him a highly suitable for his most prominent role, chair of the Senate Finance Committee from 1966-1981. While Huey Long was fiery, charismatic, and a great orator, Russell Long was an unpolished speaker and highly detail-oriented. Russell Long was responsible for a number of provisions in the tax code, including permitting a taxpayer to earmark $1 of taxes for presidential campaign financing, tax breaks for business that help workers purchase a share of the company, and most notably the Earned Income Tax Credit (The New York Times). The younger Long in truth was a work horse. In a number of ways was different from his father. Huey Long had been a staunch supporter of tax increases on the rich, while Russell supported cutting taxes on individuals and business and voted for the Reagan tax cuts. Huey fought the oil industry while Russell was highly supportive of the oil industry of his home state. Huey Long had championed his “Share the Wealth” programs, while Russell Long opposed the Family Assistance Plan, a central feature being guaranteed minimum income. However, like Huey, Russell supported numerous programs expanding government, including the bulk of the Fair Deal and Great Society. He also wielded considerable power as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Although the trend of the 1970s in the House and Senate was for committee chairs to decline in their power, Long’s power grew during this period. He managed to run his committee in a way that gave him personal power over other committee members while giving all members of the committee a role in crafting legislation. Long was also the master of winning battles on major issues while conceding on many smaller ones and calling his victories “compromises”. As his colleague Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) noted, “Russell realizes the best way to pants a guy is when he doesn’t know he’s been pantsed” (CQ Almanac 1977). Although few people had bad things to say about Long given his amiable disposition, his effectiveness could at times frustrate his opponents. Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), known for pushing tax reform, once expressed his frustration after a floor battle in 1964, “If a man murdered a crippled, enfeebled orphan at high noon on the public square in plain view of a thousand people, I am convinced after today’s performance that if the senator from Louisiana represented the guilty murderer, the jury would not only find the murderer innocent, they would award the defendant a million dollars on the ground the victim had provoked him” (CQ Almanac 1977). Although Russell Long lacked presidential aspirations and was more moderate in his demeanor and his proposals, I suggest that he actually had more impact on American government than Huey and deserves more recognition.

While a political legend, Huey Long’s workhorse behavior didn’t really leave his home state. Some historically-minded have found Huey Long in the demagoguery of President Trump, but there’s no evidence that Trump was inspired by him. Huey is regarded more as a cautionary tale for the despotic means he used to consolidate his power in Louisiana, including creating a secret police. For Russell on the other hand, although low income workers who are not on welfare probably don’t know who he was, they see his contribution every time they do their taxes. His time in national politics was 38 years, while his father’s was a mere 3. Russell got things done in the Senate, while Huey had a great public influence in his short time.

References

(10 May 2003). Former Senator Russell B. Long Dies at 84. The New York Times.

Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/10/us/former-senator-russell-b-long-dies-at-84.html

Senate Finance: The Fiefdom of Russell Long. CQ Almanac 1977.

Retrieved from

https://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal77-1202097

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