Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Politics Beyond the Beltway 9/20: The question posed to us: "Was Huey Long Corrupt?"

The end doesn't justify the means.

That's what we say when a person works to achieve a noble cause using corrupt and unethical methods.

Huey Long (the subject of Robert Penn Warren's "All The King's Men") saw himself as a one-man savior of the state of Louisiana. He believed his destiny was to fulfill the highest office int his nation. He passed the bar exam after only one year at the Tulane University Law School, opened up a practice defending those who could not afford representation and he became known as a man who fought for the poor, the hungry, the weak and the downtrodden.

 When Huey Long spoke, you could hear a pin drop, that's how good he was. He rose to power preaching the need for social justice and reform with his slogan "Every Man a King" but he achieved his goals through theft, bribery and corruption.  Sure he put Louisiana on the map but at what cost?  Some say Louisiana still hasn't recovered from the damage done by Long both during his time as Governor and as Senator.
Huey Long accomplished a lot of good things for Louisiana but he did it by corrupt means.  He had  virtual stranglehold on the state of Louisiana for years. He had his own militia, he believed in wealth redistribution, campaigned using class-warfare tactics, he bullied opponents and required every state employee whom he hired to pay a portion of their salary to his political war-chest. At one time it was said he had at least $1 million in that chest. After his death, the "deduct box" as it was called, was sought after but never found. Long also pushed through bills (42 in one Sunday afternoon) and he began one of the largest public works building programs in this country. Long dramatically improved the infrastructure of the state by building roads, schools, bridges, and hospitals. Huey Long also controlled the media, established his own newspapers to bully opponents and he used scare tactics to force his legislation to be passed. All of this made him a  favorite among the poor and the rural folks. In addition to this, Long fought for years with the mayor of New Orleans for control of that city. Long blurred the line between state and local government and wanted to be in control of it all.

Even while he was a Senator in his post-Governorship, he continued with his hold on Louisiana politics and eventually many thought of him as a dictator, a lot of people wanted him dead. There was rumor of the harm he might do should he become President. And there was the very real possibility he could eventually become President given his incredible popularity. He campaigned relentlessly for FDR though FDR wanted nothing to do with him and when FDR took office he tried to no avail to reign in the Senator. FDR believed that Long was one of the most dangerous men in America. Long was a political machine many feared would not be stopped, not until he was dead. They were right because in the months following the assassination, the machine fell apart.

For all his good acts, I can't help but wonder if it was all worth it? Are the good things achieved really worth selling one's soul? Selling out one's ethics and values? Did Huey Long even have ethics and values? Did he really believe in the goods he was selling or was he just blowing smoke because he loved the power?

Huey Long wanted to be President. At the time of his death he'd already written a book titled "My First Days in the White House" and he hadn't even run for President yet. It frightens me to think what he could have done to this nation had he become its leader. Long surely would have stopped at nothing to get what he wanted, while trampling on the Constitution and ignoring the separation of powers.  Huey Long never cared if he broke the law, trampled on the rights of others, or if what he was doing was unconstitutional. If he wanted it, that's all that mattered.

It was interesting that Prof asked the question "Was Huey Long corrupt?" I suppose one would have to weigh his good deeds against the laws he broke and the unethical behavior involved in order to achieve those good deeds. In the end, my answer to the question is a resounding "YES" because no matter what good he did for the people and the State of Louisiana, he did it through illegal, corrupt and unethical means.  I have to side with my conscience and values here which have taught me that corruption is wrong. Unethical and illegal behavior within our government is wrong and it cannot be tolerated no matter how much good it might bring. Besides, how much of what he did is really good if it was accomplished by paying such a high price in regards to morals and values? In the long run, nothing good can come of good done through corruption. Long used every trick in the book including bribery, theft, extortion, coercion and lies to get what he wanted. That not only ruined his integrity but the integrity of the offices he held. The constituents cannot tolerate that type of behavior from their elected officials, period. We must be resolved and steadfast in that belief.

I think we should let the political story of Huey Long be a lesson to all of us. Beware the great orator who mesmerizes us with such an articulated use of the English language the people are listening to how the words are being spoken rather than to what is being said. Beware the politician who makes wealth redistribution the end game. Beware the politician who blames big corporations for all the problems in America. Beware the politician who despises capitalism and free enterprise Finally, beware the politician who believes that trampling on the Constitutional rights for some is justified if the result benefits others. It doesn't matter how wonderful the deeds are, it doesn't matter how many poor people wind up sheltered, fed, clothed and educated, if those good deeds are achieved at the expense of sacrificing morals, ethics, values, principles and integrity, then it is most certainly not worth it. Society as a whole will eventually pay a very heavy price.

I keep asking myself:  Surely we can achieve good things in this nation without sacrificing those things I mentioned. Right?

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