Willie Stark and Huey Long

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In 1946 Robert Penn Warren wrote the great American political novel, All the King’s Men, which detailed the rise and fall of a Southern politician, Willie Stark.  Stark starts out as a political idealist and is utterly corrupted by the political process.  Broderick Crawford in the film adaptation in 1949 gives an astonishingly good performance as Willie Stark and delivers speeches in the film that should be carefully studied by all students of oratory.

Over the years it has been alleged that the book is a thinly veiled look at the career of Huey Long, governor, senator and virtual dictator of Depression era  Louisiana until he was assassinated by a dentist.  Warren rejected the suggestion, and he was correct.  Huey Long was always a cheerful crook and never an idealist. 

He was quite willing to help people who supported him, but he always helped himself first and most, and never made any bones about it.  He was a corrupt demagogue, but realized that in the 20th Century people demanded that if politicians be corrupt  that they also be entertaining, and he delivered the entertainment in magnificent style.   As an orator, he was easily in the class of FDR and Reagan.   If Dr. Carl Weiss hadn’t sent Long to an early grave at 42, I suspect the Kingfish would have loomed very large in our history, and probably almost all to the ill.

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14 Responses to Willie Stark and Huey Long

  • The fictional Stark differed from Long, but there is little doubt that Long’s career was a point of departure for Robert Penn Warren.

  • That departure was a light year trip Art. Willie Stark is as different from Huey Long as Richard Nixon was from Bill Clinton. Stark is a tragic hero; Huey Long was always a lovable rogue, except for a not small fraction of Louisiana who cheered after he was gunned down.

  • There is a significant dispute whether or not Long was shot by Weiss or by his own bodyguards that continues to this day. Long’s impact continues to be felt by Louisiana.

  • Real life is certaintly much more interesting than fiction. I agree that Long may have had a national impact, had he lived.

  • “There is a significant dispute whether or not Long was shot by Weiss or by his own bodyguards that continues to this day.”

    Correct. Long’s trigger happy body guards let off a lot of rounds, 30 of so of which hit Weiss. I tend to think that Long was hit only by Weiss, but in all the confusion who could tell?

    Here is a good overview of the controversy:

    http://www.dailycomet.com/article/20100828/ARTICLES/100829308?p=1&tc=pg

  • Lovable rogue? Boris Yeltsin was a lovable rogue. Richard J. Dealy was a lovable rogue. Lyndon Johnson might be called intermittently lovable, and had the loyalty and admiration of people not otherwise known as crooked or pathological (e.g. John Roche and Jack Valenti). Long’s a stretch and Clinon is so oleagenous the term ‘lovable’ fits not at all.

  • There we will have to agree to differ Art. I found nothing lovable about Richard J. Daley, other than his inability to speak coherent English, a disability also of his son Richie the Lesser. Johnson was too cruel to be lovable. Clinton and Long are part of a venerable Southern tradition of crooked politicians who win elections partially because they put on a good show while also being utterly corrupt.

  • Inability to speak! You must be talking about Thomas M. Menino of Boston.

  • “Clinton and Long are part of a venerable Southern tradition of crooked politicians who win elections partially because they put on a good show while also being utterly corrupt.” Long’s unvenerable and unSouthern tradition is traceable to one Henry Clay Warmoth, the most corrupt carpetbagger governor in the history of Louisiana. It was by Warmoth that Long was inspired to use measures such as the undated resignation and the state constabulary as political instruments to acquire and maintain tyrannical power.

  • Actually Paul, I always thought Huey might have used Governor John McEnery as a role model:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McEnery_(politician)

  • I might note Paul that my comment:

    “Clinton and Long are part of a venerable Southern tradition of crooked politicians who win elections partially because they put on a good show while also being utterly corrupt.”

    was not a slam at the South. Up North we elect corrupt politicians who can’t even put on a decent show. Chicago has turned the procedure into an art form.

  • I can’t remember the name of the book at the moment, but a relative of Weiss (a nephew?) wrote a very good book that examines the issue of Weiss’ culpability.

    As expected, the book lets Weiss off the hook, and pins the blame on the bodyguards.

    As I remember the book, it made a very compelling case, one that I believe.

    I love teaching this story in my American History class. I’m from the same small town (Ville Platte) as the Surgeon General, Dr. Arthur Vidrine, who operated on him. The story really comes to life for my students.

  • I found nothing lovable about Richard J. Daley, other than his inability to speak coherent English

    Well, he did rough up some hippies during the ’68 Democratic convention. Surely he should be given credit for that.

  • Ah, Chicago 68! As an 11 year old, I found the proceedings to be hilarious watching them on television:

    My favorite moment:

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