UNITED STATES—“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” said the wholesome apple-cheeked man in whose meteoric ascent to power Sam the Man Delaney had been murmured to have had a hand. Once upon a time in Louisiana there was a man named Willy Long, and he was a man for the times. It was a Depression, harsh times, and people were short on hope and he had a hell of an agenda. The sheer audacity. And he gets tarred by the label populist and demagogue. Snazzy dresser just like Sam Delaney, both from big families dirt-poor and each hitched to a star. A lot they had they in common, but there the similarity stops.
Sam liked to work behind the scenes, preferred invisibility to ruckus. During the depths of the Great Depression (you gotta love a country like this where every pestilence and catastrophe gets preceded by the word ‘great,’ we do things on a large scale).
Let’s go down the time tube: 1932.
He was the Kingfish, a nickname borrowed from the “Amos and Andy” radio show. Two white men playing black folk on radio. He gave himself the nickname Kingfish. “I’m a little fish in Washington, but a Kingfish in Louisiana.”
Willy Long was one of the most colorful and flamboyant politicians of his century, or any century. He called himself just a ol’ plain Country Boy. But he owned more than a hundred suits, and wore them with orchid shirts, bizarre floral ties and spats. Sometimes he wore silk pajamas—a luminous green top and orange bottoms—to greet visitors. He had convicts replace Louisiana’s governor’s mansion with a full replica of the White House, which lay bare what made the Kingfisher tick.
After slipped from governor to senator, he was ready to take the next logical step to the real White House. And Willy, with his paramours, for the pillow talk and foreplay he’d leave them with a story so detailed in his time there. The monumental things he was going to do and breakfast in bed, his woman of the moment would awake from the reveries, look over and be shocked by the empty silk pillowcase, around a plump eiderdown pillow—only the best for Willy.
At 7 a.m. he was gone, back on the stump again. With the portable radio station that roamed the state, announced by ambulance sirens.
The poet lariat, Will Rogers, spoke from his newspaper column about Roosevelt’s sudden veer toward new notions like social security when struck by all the cascading power and energy that gathered behind Willy’s Key to Wealth movement.
“I would sure liked to have seen Willy’s face when he was woke up in the middle of the night by the President, who said ‘Lay over, Willy, I want to get in bed with you.’”
To his supporters, he was champion of the downtrodden, who taxed the rich in order to build 9,000 miles of concrete highways, put half a million free textbooks in the hands of poor students, and established programs that taught 175,000 illiterate adults to read. Willy Long really did deliver: he started filling potholes, that filled with water from the summer rains and splashed people out walking, and it there was anything around New Orleans that kept people’s speed in check, it was those potholes. So Willy got blamed when some kids out playing started getting run over.
To his detractors, Willy Long was a buffoon, a corrupt demagogue, or even worse, a fascist in the raw, who used bribery, blackmail, and strong-arm tactics to get his way. Sordid and infantile. At family dinners, depending on which side of the fence you were on, Willy would be called an “Angel for Poor Folk” and elsewhere he’d be called “a common, sordid, dirty soul with the greed and coarseness of the swine…the venom of the snake, the cruel cowardice of the skulking hyena.” He had a “deduct” system requiring each state employee to pay 10 percent of his salary to Long’s political machine and his own newspaper, which he was wily enough to gives the editors a free hand and publish now and then a negative piece, which gave the rag the ring of truth.
In Louisiana, Willy through the ballot box overthrew a political system dominated by wealthy planters and industrialists and the oil industry. State spending rose from $29 million in 1928, when he took office to $83 million in 1931. Meanwhile, the state’s debt climbed from $11 million to $125 million.
He attracted a national following with his promise to make “Every Man a King.” Millions of joined “Key Clubs,” symbolized by the yellow banner, which proposed that Congress confiscate all incomes over $1 million a year and use the revenue to guarantee every family had a home, an old age pension, and a radio. President Roosevelt called him “one of the two most dangerous men in the country”; the other being Bernard Lukasey, the adman wiz.
Of course Willy knew how to turn that into podium gold, “Roosevelt has called me one of the two most dangerous men in America. The second?” Willy let the question hand in the air, just long enough for someone to swat a fly. “The second most dangerous man in America–Roosevelt himself,” Willy said with a sly wink.
To be continued…
Graydon Miller is the Wizard of Fiction.