With each passing year, fewer and fewer Louisiana residents among us have a direct memory of Huey Long, the controversial populist who served as the state’s governor and as a U.S. senator before his assassination in 1935.
But some recently republished words from the late journalist Westbrook Pegler remind us of the intense feelings surrounding Long during his political career. People tended to either love Long or hate him. Pegler, who was once a widely influential columnist on national political affairs, counted himself among the detractors.
“American Mussolini,” the remembrance of Long that Pegler wrote a few months after Long’s death, compares Long to the dictators then holding sway in much of Europe. Pegler’s essay has just been reprinted in “Deadline Artists,” a hardcover anthology of America’s greatest news columns.
“By trick and stratagem Huey Long had abolished the Legislature in Louisiana, and the two houses which were jumping through hoops for him at the time of his death were just as farcical as the so-called legislative bodies which answer the commands of the dictators in Rome and Berlin,” Pegler told readers.
Pegler summed up Long’s legacy this way: “There is no denying that he was a good fighter; all dictators are. But Huey was stealing the freedom of the very people he claimed to love ...”
Pegler’s remembrance of Long is a powerful caution against the excesses of political extremism.
Ironically, Pegler eventually fell prey to this kind of extremism himself, lapsing into an apologist for the right-wing John Birch Society and dying a broken man in 1969.
Pegler’s critiques about Long — and Pegler’s own embrace of fanaticism — are a potent reminder of the political myopia that can blind us all. That’s a good lesson to keep in mind as another national political season heats up.