The Most Dangerous Man In America, Part I: Impeachment
The governor of Louisiana was in serious trouble, but he didn’t really know how bad it was. As had been the case throughout his career, he figured that, no matter what, the people would always save him.
Huey Long was far more than just a guy who told the people what they wanted to hear. “There are smarter guys than I am,” he said, “but not in Louisiana.” By the end of his riotous reign, he had seized more personal control of the state than any other governor in its history.
He “orchestrated elections, padded voting lists, and directed the counting of ballots.” He assaulted the press with gag laws and oppressive tax increases. He used the state militia as his personal bodyguard and goon squad. He packed the courts, local governments, and state regulatory boards with his people.
He was untouchable.
Or so he thought.
There was one chance to stop him, early on in his reign, and the opposition tried their hardest. Huey had been in office barely a year when impeachment charges were brought.
The fight was on.
(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode of the History’s Trainwreck Podcast):
Poverty was nothing new in Louisiana in the early twentieth century. Other than Baton Rouge and New Orleans, many of the state’s citizens were among the poorest people in the United States.
Huey Long, born into economic hardship himself, was a hero to the common people of Louisiana. He used state funds to build roads and give out free textbooks to every school-aged child in the state. On the campaign trail he reminded Louisianans that they kept sending their taxes to the treasury but saw little in return.
He changed that with a vengeance, building ten thousand miles of roads. During the Depression, Louisiana employed more highway workers than any other state. He built night schools to combat illiteracy that ended up teaching 100,000 people to read. His free textbook program increased school enrollment by twenty percent.
He also, incidentally, increased the state’s debt from $11 million to $150 million.
There were two ways to succeed in politics in the early twentieth century: you could get in bed with the money-men — businessmen, bankers, and titans of industry — or you could appeal to the people. In the years following Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, most American politicians took the money route, and big business and high finance held a lock on political power.
But as economic disparity became more obvious in the roaring 1920’s, when it seemed like all the benefits of America’s boom years were ending up in the pockets of the country’s richest men and the politicians they owned, populists like Huey Long started to gain power. They did it by directly challenging Wall Street, industrial titans like the Standard Oil Company, and their bought-and-paid-for politicians who pliantly delivered up favorable laws and killed inconvenient regulations.
Huey Long took his democratically-elected gubernatorial office and gave unto himself the powers of a dictator. “I’m the Constitution around here now,” he told the legislature. He gave state jobs to supporters and relatives, who were required to contribute part of their state salary to Huey’s campaign and eventually buy subscriptions to the newspaper he founded, the Louisiana Progress.
He demolished the governor’s mansion and had a new one built using convict labor from the state penitentiary. He appointed his private secretary (and presumed mistress), Alice Lee Grosjean, Secretary of State. He sent her to pay cash for a new Buick, allegedly using public funds appropriated for a conference of state governors.
Most of the nepotism and spoils system he employed was nothing new in Louisiana; his predecessors had done many of the same things, including enriching themselves at the same time. What was different now was that the big businessmen and old guard politicians of the state weren’t getting what they thought was their share.
Democratic Despot Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty-Seven: Make sure the establishment always gets their piece of the pie.
The worst part was that Governor Long couldn’t care less. His audience was the common people of Louisiana, and the more he attacked rich companies and rich men, the more they loved him.
So establishment politicians and big business got together and decided to impeach him. During a special session Huey had called to implement a five cent per barrel tax on refined oil (a shot across the bow of Standard Oil and every politician in Louisiana they owned), impeachment charges against the governor were introduced, supported by Huey’s own lieutenant governor. One of the representatives arguing for impeachment claimed that Huey had ordered his bodyguard to assassinate fellow representative J.Y. Sanders, with whom Huey had gotten into a fistfight the year before.
The legislative session devolved into a brawl later known as “Bloody Monday,” as pro- and anti-Long representatives clamored to be heard and to vote on the question of impeachment. The next day, March 26th, 1929, was calmer but deadlier, as many of the legislators had come to work with pistols in their belts.
Nineteen charges of impeachment were brought against the governor, including “incompetency, corruption, favoritism, oppression in office, gross misconduct,” as well as the bodyguard’s claim that Huey had ordered him to kill somebody.
Huey faced trial in the Senate and removal from office if convicted. It would mean he could no longer hold elective office in Louisiana. Brazen in public, he was secretly terrified, beholding the possible ruin of his entire career. One Louisiana newspaper said that Huey was “now gnawing at his own tail to release himself.”
The governor bounced back and did the only thing that had ever worked: he appealed to the people. He sent 900,000 circulars around the state attacking Standard Oil and the crowd of politicians trying to drive him out of office. As a special benefit to the rural areas of the state, he had the circulars printed on paper that, as Huey said, “they could use on their backsides after they get through reading it.”
Huey Long always knew best what the people really needed.
The impeachment charges against the governor were serious. According to the charges, Huey had “illegally influenced the judiciary, offered bribes to legislators, used the militia to pillage state property (he had sent the Louisiana National Guard into New Orleans to break up gambling dens and prostitution rings), and improperly spent state money.”
Here’s the thing: Huey had actually done most of that.
He was also accused of appropriating state funds to “raise hell in brothels” when a witness told of a hula girl sitting on Huey’s knee at a party. The hula dancer, Helen Clifford, was subpoenaed to testify. “I wore a straw skirt,” she told the legislators, and “was bare except around my chest.” She testified that Huey had been “very frisky” at the party. After her testimony, a number of legislators asked for her phone number.
Huey’s justification was the time-honored defense of the populist demagogue: he avoided the specifics of the charges, since denying them was pointless, and instead positioned the impeachment proceedings as a way for the oppressors of the citizenry to get him out of their way. He had assailed the mighty in the name of the people, and these charges were their revenge.
He wasn’t entirely wrong about that.
Huey ended his defense speech with his favorite quote from Invictus: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
One of his followers remembered seeing people from the rural parts of the state, who had journeyed to the capital at Huey’s request, on their knees outside the Capitol building, praying for him.
Huey and his opponents (lubricated by Standard Oil cash) started bribing legislators. Huey had thirty four typewriters sent to his defense team’s headquarters by a Baton Rouge businessman who thereafter got all the state’s typewriter business. Huey promised a road building program in the district of the state senate’s president pro tem. His supporters blackmailed a senator (who was also a Baptist preacher) after arranging a compromising encounter for him in a hotel room with “liquor and a prostitute.”
Anti-Long forces offered bribes as high as $50,000 for senators to vote for impeachment. They told one senator, who was the backfield coach of the Tulane football team, that he would lose his job at the university if he didn’t vote for impeachment. Flyers were tacked up in the hometown of one senator saying that if he “votes to acquit he will be tarred and feathered” when he returned home. The Senator, Henry Lacarde, carried two pistols with him. His wife made him promise to get out of politics. “Until impeachment,” one observer noted. “I never knew how low humanity could sink.”
Politics is a dirty business.
The impeachment debate went on. Huey left town, taking his defense directly to the people. Bribes and blackmail aside, the only other threat to the lawmakers deciding Huey’s fate was the voters. If he could convince the senators that their constituents were on his side, they would know voting for impeachment meant losing their next election.
The turnout for his speeches was massive, with the governor addressing crowds in the tens of thousands. He went after his favorite targets — Standard Oil, corrupt politicians, and partisan news outlets. While in the city of Alexandria, he accused the publisher of the local paper of having been bribed by Standard Oil with “a limousine.” The publisher, R.C. Jarreau, was in the audience and “yelled out that the governor was a liar.”
Huey went after his own lieutenant governor, Paul Cyr, claiming that “electing him was like trying to pull an elephant through a snowstorm.” He attacked an old deaf judge who was in the state legislature, saying that “some people claim to be honest just because they’re deaf.”
The old judge challenged Huey to a duel.
Another elderly fellow, J.E. Reynolds, whom Huey had ousted from the state Supreme Court, threatened to punch Huey in the nose. “What’s the matter with all these old boys?” Huey asked the crowds on his tour. “Ain’t there somebody younger than seventy to take a poke at me?”
His brother Earl took a poke at Representative Harney Bogan right before the final impeachment vote in the House. Bogan had been talking to Robert Maestri, a rich supporter of Huey’s. Earl Long said, “Why are you talking to that sonofabitch?” The two fought, and the governor’s brother bit Harney on the cheek and the ear.
“I bet Earl bit him,” Huey said when he heard about it. “Earl always bites.”
Politics is a dirty business. And, apparently, there’s biting.
In the end, a technicality saved the governor. The impeachment charges had been filed after the end of the special legislative session Huey had called, in which impeachment had not been on the agenda. Once the special session ended, the state legislature was no longer a lawmaking body, and were instead “just a crowd of men.”
This technicality gave cover to Huey’s supporters. The president pro tem of the state senate, who had been promised a road project in his district, introduced a petition declaring that the charges against Huey, introduced outside of a legal legislative session, were invalid and that the signers of the petition would not vote for any impeachment articles, regardless of evidence or testimony.
Fifteen out of thirty-nine senators, one more than the two-thirds needed, signed the petition. In addition to the senator who had gotten his roads built, there was the Baptist preacher who had been caught in a hotel room with a hooker, and others who had been bribed or threatened. The petition, nicknamed the Round Robin, became infamous in Louisiana history.
The Senate, realizing there was no way forward, adjourned without further consideration of impeachment.
Huey had won.
Each of the Round Robineers, as they were called, received state jobs or other favors from the barely-vindicated governor. Lucrative judicial appointments and prison wardenships were handed out. Huey also took them on a drunken fishing and hunting trip in the bayou.
When the trip ended, Governor Long went back to the state capital, out for revenge.
In an upcoming post, we’ll continue the short political career of Huey Long, see all the many horrible ways impeachment changes a fellow, and see how close he came to keeping Franklin D. Roosevelt from another term in office.
Stay tuned for The Most Dangerous Man in America, Part II.
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