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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

American Messiahs

The Long Line From Huey Long to…Lou Dobbs?

In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt’s chief political operative and campaign manager, Postmaster General James A. Farley, commissioned a public opinion poll. Farley, a canny New York pol, was already thinking about his boss’s re-election more than a year away and was worried about a populist assault on FDR and the New Deal.

Farley’s secret survey confirmed that he had reason to worry. As Huey Long’s best biographer, the great historian T. Harry Williams, wrote in his fascinating book about Long, who was both Louisiana’s Governor and a United States Senator:

“The result [of the poll] was disquieting. It disclosed that if Huey himself ran he would poll three to four million and maybe six million popular votes. Moreover, his support was not restricted too the South but was nationwide. He would, in fact, attract as big a percentage of the votes in the industrial centers of the East as he would in the rural areas, and in a close election he could tip the balance to the Republicans.”

That same year, 1935, a curious little book – American Messiahs – appeared and its contents were eagerly consumed by most everyone who closely followed politics. The book offered chapter length profiles of a collection of “messiahs;” political figures who some saw – and who saw themselves – as saviors of the country in a time of mass unemployment and economic depression.

Huey Long was one of the “messiahs.” Long appealed to millions as an advocate for the little guy and a vicious critic of the fat cats. He was also a terrific communicator. Old age pension advocate Dr. Francis Townsend, his mass movement helped spur the creation of Social Security, was also identified as a “messiah,” as was Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who brilliantly built a national following using his rich Irish brogue to push an anti-Semitic, populist message. Each of the “messiahs” had both the potential to command a national audience and impact presidential politics.

The author of American Messiahs, originally identified only as The Unofficial Observer, was in fact a well-connected political columnist John Franklin Carter. Carter wrote in the introduction to his book:

“I regard them [the messiahs] as indispensable irritants, since they supply the motive-power for essential change and because their manifest exaggerations counterbalance the intemperance of those conservative who regard Roosevelt as a dangerous revolutionary and the gradual reforms of the New Deal as akin to Communism.”

Some of this has a familiar ring this many years later, even as today the most profound criticism of the still-new president comes from the right not the left.

We’ll never know if Long would have followed his instincts and mounted a third-party challenge to Roosevelt. The Kingfish was murdered in a hallway of the Louisiana statehouse and died on September 10, 1935. His reported final words – “Lord, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” – may offer a clue to his ultimate ambition. Long had already prepared a campaign manifesto that he entitled My First Days in the White House.

A third-party populist movement did come together, in a way, in 1936. A radical North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, with Coughlin’s support, mounted a national campaign hoping to rally those millions who had viewed Huey Long as their messiah. Lemke polled less than a million votes and Franklin Roosevelt went on to win re-election in an historic landslide.

Roosevelt won that election, in part, by out flanking the populist ranters and directly attacking the big business, Wall Street and newspaper moguls who were united against New Deal programs like public works projects and Social Security.

“Never before in all our history,” Roosevelt fumed, “have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.” FDR served up political red meat for an anxious, hungry country.

A New Messiah…or Messiahs

Now comes word that former CNN anchor and anti-immigrant crusader Lou Dobbs is weighing a possible run for either the White House or the United States Senate from New Jersey. The bombastic Dobbs, it seems to me, fits snugly into the line of blustery populists that stretches back to Huey Long and even farther.

There is a populist rage underlying much of the rhetoric of ranters like Dobbs, radio and TV talker Glenn Beck, and even former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. These modern messiahs tap into a deep reservoir of distrust for big institutions and “the elite.” And, as Long, Coughlin and others did years ago from the left, Dobbs, Beck and Palin offer from the right – in another time of economic turmoil – homey, simple, easy to digest solutions to life’s complex problems.

Even with his communication skills honed at the alter of cable news talk, Lou Dobbs is no Huey Long. Long, in the early 1930’s, was developing a genuine base of support in the south and elsewhere. He also had a brilliant sense of humor and, unlike a talk show host, he actual got elected and produced new roads, hospitals and free textbooks. What Big Lou shares most with the Kingfish is a cultivated disdain for politicians of both parties.

“The only difference I ever found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership,” Long said, “is that one of them is skinning you from the ankle up and the other from the neck down.” Now, that was effective communication. Long also had his book – Every Man a King – to promote his Share the Wealth philosophy. His radio broadcasts were so popular that when Portland, Oregon station KGW refused to carry one of his talks the station’s audience rebelled. Sarah Palin now has her book – will Dobbs be far behind – and while she and the book, according to most polls, aren’t playing well with a majority of Americans – particularly women – the book is a runaway best seller. Palin’s folksy style does touch a raw, populist nerve with many and the media cannot get enough of her. The famous southern, progressive journalist Hodding Carter was correct when he called Huey Long a “demagogue” and its tempting for some today to politically dismiss the current messiah crop as a curious, passing fad; part of an out-of-touch fringe that just happens to have ready access a microphone.

Easy to dismiss them intellectually, but while economic uncertainty dominates the lives of many Americans, not so easy to dismiss them politically. Demagogues, by their very nature, attract attention and the media loves to cover them. The more outrageous the rhetoric the better.

I suspect most Republicans would confess privately to wanting nothing to do with Lou or Sarah. They shudder at having them as the face or voice of a great party. Most Democrats said the same thing – privately – about Long, Townsend and Coughlin in the 1930’s, but eventually that changed.

Franklin Roosevelt found that he could not easily dismiss the messiahs of the mid-1930’s. Rather, after attempting to co-opt many of them, he determined that the best way to deal with “messiahs” was to defeat them politically. For the most part he did; taking them head on, including appropriating some of the best features of their reform agendas. There may be a political lesson in that for Democrats and Republicans alike in 2010 and beyond.

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