Even if a statue of Huey Pierce Long didn’t tower over the State Capitol, his continuing presence in Louisiana’s political culture would be vivid enough.
Long centralized power in state government, meaning that local communities still come to Baton Rouge to fight for resources rather than raising them for themselves. That’s sharpened the drama of the ongoing legislative session, and also reminded us of the degree to which the House that Long Built still plays according to his rules.
But this spring has brought yet another testament to Long’s durability. As New York Times book critic Dwight Garner recently told readers, this year is the 70th anniversary of “All the King’s Men,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Penn Warren novel inspired by Long’s life.
Warren had studied Long up close when the author worked on the English faculty at LSU — a gig that didn’t evolve into a long-term relationship because the flagship university couldn’t come up with a decent raise to keep Warren around. How sad that in 2016, LSU is still losing star faculty members to states where higher education is a bigger priority.
But Warren stayed long enough in Louisiana to learn from the Kingfish how power could be used — and abused — absolutely. Seven decades later, “All the King’s Men” remains an enduring testament to the evils of demagoguery — a message that resonated with special urgency when Warren’s book first appeared in 1946. Europe still lay in ruins, and the wounds of World War II, which had ended only the year before, were still raw. The wreckage of Nazi Germany made clear what could happen when a despot was given the power to render rants into public policy.
As Garner pointed out in his anniversary piece, the lesson of “All the King’s Men” is as important as ever. As an adviser tells Warren’s fictional demagogue Willie Stark, “it’s up to you to give ’em something to stir ’em up and make ’em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That’s what they come for. Tell ’em anything. But ... don’t try to improve their minds.”
Warren’s cautionary tale of the debasement of political rhetoric is as timely as ever, which is probably why “All the King’s Men” will still have an audience another 70 years from now.