Many of us love to ponder the “what if” questions in life.
In terms of the direction of Louisiana, some ask which direction our state would have gone had Huey Long not served as governor and later U.S. senator. The self-nicknamed “Kingfish” died 83 years ago Monday and holds a spot in Louisiana history as one of the most accomplished -- and most polarizing -- figures in our state’s history.
In much the same guise we see today with President Donald Trump, no gray area existed in terms of opinion on Long. People either loved him or hated him.
His many detractors alluded to his penchant for cronyism in state government positions after he took office on May 21, 1928. Their jobs came largely at the expense of hundreds who refuse to support him in his candidacy for governor.
Long required his supporter-turned-employees to ante up a portion of their salary to help fund his next campaign in a locked “deduct box” the Kingfish used at his whim. It had all the makings of pure dictatorship, as historian Arthur Kennedy once wrote.
The Winnfield native also found a spot in history as the governor who took a hard-line stand against poverty and substandard quality of life in one of the poorest states in America.
His legacy included paved highways, bridges, hospitals, free textbooks for grade-school students and a mass expansion of the college system. Much of his state agenda came at the expense of the oil industry, particularly Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil), which built one of the nation’s largest refineries along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge in 1909. He instituted occupational license taxes on refined oil, a move the industry fought vigilantly.
He also cast his legacy with the construction of the state capital building, which remains the tallest of its kind in America. In addition, his signature paved the way for Airline Highway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and many others statewide.
Long won a Senate seat in 1931 and used the same fervent approach on Capitol Hill when the United States was mired in the Great Depression.
He opposed “The New Deal” and National Recovery Act largely because he thought it swayed too much toward corporate interests, a move which made him a bitter enemy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
He fired the shot at FDR in 1934 when he unveiled a “Share Our Wealth” plan which limited personal fortunes to $50 million, and would institute a cap of $1 million annual income and $5 million on inheritances.
Supporters called it an antipoverty plan; foes deemed it a socialist agenda.
Long maintained a tight fist on Louisiana government, even as he served on Capitol Hill. Oscar K. Allen served as governor in 1935, but Long had the final word on every decision in the State Capitol.
His micromanagement of state government cost him his life. Long forced the termination of a political foe, Judge Benjamin Pavy. Dr. Carl Austin Weiss shot Long at the Capitol the same evening. Long died two days later.
In the same sentence, one can ponder what would have happened had Long not risen to power yet ask what would have happened had he survived the shooting.
Long may have run for president in 1936 or 1940. He may have remained U.S. senator for decades, or perhaps as long as the state could stand him.
Had he remained in power in the late 1940s, he may have been an opponent -- or target -- of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led the now-infamous blacklisting crusade against Americans suspected of being Communist sympathizers.
His politics put the trademark in place for Louisiana as home of some of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history. Many consider his reign of power the darkest period in Louisiana history, while others maintain he fought for Louisiana like few before or since.
Eighty-three years have done little to change the sharp divide in views over the man known as the Kingfish.