The Autobiography… / Kingfish

The subject of the First Book of the Week wrote:

“In fact there is no unemployed. We got one hundred and twenty million people working overtime just repeating rumors.”

“If we ever pass out as a great nation, we ought to put on our tombstone ‘America died from a delusion that she had moral leadership.’ “

“We are used to having everybody named as Presidential candidates, but the country hasn’t quite got to the professional comedian stage.”

The above quotes were published in September 1931, June 1931, and January 1928.

The First Book of the Week is “The Autobiography of Will Rogers” published in 1949. The author’s original writings were presented as is, unedited, with his atrocious spelling and (folksy) grammatical errors.

Born in November 1879 in Oklahoma, Rogers was the youngest of seven children. He was a quick-tempered rebellious child, but super-talented with a rodeo lasso.

At seventeen, Rogers quit the military school in Missouri to which he was sent by his father to find a ranching job. He traveled to Western states to enter roping and riding contests, and provided entertainment at state fairs in the Midwest.

He and his friends posed as musicians (but were really shills) in a sixty-man band who interrupted the shows to rope steers.

Rogers traveled the world via boat, seeking international ranching gigs. He eventually found that Rio de Janeiro was better for that than London. South Africa wasn’t bad, either. In Australia, he joined the Wirth Brothers circus in Sydney.

Along around WWI, Rogers began doing stand-up comedy for Ziegfeld Follies, and the Midnight Frolic. His Henry Ford jokes were getting old before the new shows were launched every four months. His wife suggested that he joke about what he read in the papers.

So from then on, the amusing content of Rogers’ newspaper columns came from Congress. In a December 1934 column, he commented that young people lack life experience. That is why they can’t help but look toward their futures. Older folks look back because their pasts are always with them. “But we are both standing on the same ground, and their feet is there as firmly as ours.”

Read the book to learn of Rogers’ movie-acting and public-speaking careers, too, and much more about his life.

The Second Book of the Week is “Kingfish, The Reign of Huey P. Long” by Richard D. White, Jr., published in 2006.

Not to be confused with Huey Newton (or Huey Lewis), Huey Long was a composite of every successful power-hungry American politician who ever lived, if success is measured by the amount of power he acquired, given the offices he held.

Born in August 1893 in Louisiana, Long grew up one of nine children in a farming and ranching family. He was an avid reader and control freak. Expelled from high school his senior year, he got a series of sales jobs before trying law school for the second time in the autumn of 1914. He failed most of the classes but passed the oral bar exam for Louisiana in 1915.

While struggling to make a living at practicing law, Long knew he was a born politician. So on his second attempt, he won the governorship of Louisiana for the Democratic party in early 1928. His then-techniques were innovative– mudslinging and delivering speeches on the radio to Shreveport, and driving trucks containing bullhorns that blared at rallies all around the state, where he met every voter and put up campaign posters everywhere he possibly could.

Long tailored his campaign promises to specific audiences such as drinkers, Catholics, businessmen, sugar-cane growers, etc. “Because each newspaper gave one-sided coverage to its own candidate and ignored the other two, citizens needed to buy different papers to keep up with the campaigns.”

Long acquired massive power because he was a master at manipulating legal loopholes and eliminating enemies. He collected lackeys through sweetheart contracts and patronage galore; not to mention through bribery, influence peddling, racketeering, and corruption. His underlings did his will because they themselves were desperate for money and/or power.

Long actually did some good until 1931. He built highways and a new state Capitol, repaired streets and sewers in New Orleans and refinanced its port. He made Louisiana State University a world-class school.

Long also dealt with the political issues of education, gambling and natural gas. He manipulated the system so that he was elected U.S. Senator in September 1930 but finished his Louisiana governorship before taking that office in January 1932.

Other outrageous acts for which he initially went unpunished included extensive election fraud. “In one New Orleans precinct, votes were tallied before the polls closed, while in another, voting began before they opened. Huey ordered state workers to contribute to the pro-Long campaign and if they didn’t, they lost their jobs. His machine spent huge sums to pay the one-dollar poll taxes for impoverished farmers.” But no empire lasts forever.

Read the book to learn of the steps Long took to counteract the results of his deficit spending (hint– he dictated tax hikes), of how he became an absolute ruler like no other in the history of Louisiana, and what became of him in 1935, among other details of this cautionary tale.