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Huey Long and Satchmo?

The Louisiana State Museum's pairing of the politician and the jazz great in a planned exhibit raises eyebrows.

January 04, 2003|Cain Burdeau | Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Huey P. Long: icon or the closest this country came to having a dictator? Louisiana state historians will renew this debate on Long, "The Kingfish," in a new museum.

The fiery governor and U.S. senator will be featured alongside Louis Armstrong in a permanent exhibit called "Huey and Louis: Two Louisiana Icons" at the Louisiana State Museum's Baton Rouge museum, to open in early 2005.

Armstrong was an easy pick. His influence on the world of music is unquestioned.

But mixing Louis with Huey? That's a Louisiana-style cocktail that some scholars are having a tough time swallowing.

"Huey Long was the most controversial figure of the 20th century in Louisiana," said Ed Renwick, a political science professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. "Calling him an icon, that's the thing."

There is no doubt, however, that in this state of cypress swamps, red clay farms and storied mansions, Long's shadow still looms large.

At night, a spotlight still shines on his statue outside the "skyscraper" state capitol he built in 1932, three years before he was assassinated there. His colorful younger brother, Earl K. Long, ruled Louisiana off and on until 1960. His son, Russell B. Long, was a powerful fixture in the U.S. Senate from 1948 to 1987.

Few political leaders in the United States were as beloved, hated and radical as Long. During his explosive but brief political career in the 1920s and 1930s, he is credited with pushing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the left, popularizing the welfare system and modernizing Louisiana -- enshrouded in poverty at the time.

"I just think he gets looked over many times. We tend to focus on presidents. But he was a national treasure," said state historian Alecia P. Long, who is not a relation. She wrote the first draft of the exhibit's script.

Long's flamboyant personality was as legendary as his politics.

With his light summer suits, pink neckties, straw hats and homespun commentary, he set himself up as an irreverent senator and a formidable populist in Washington, D.C.

Unlike Armstrong, only a few books, movies and documentaries have chronicled his exploits. And most people outside Louisiana have paid little attention to the research on his death.

Was Long -- a contender to dethrone Roosevelt from the White House -- assassinated on Sept. 8, 1935, in a marble hallway of the state Capitol by Dr. Carl A. Weiss? Was Weiss acting on behalf of the "old establishment" bitter about "losing out," as Russell Long asserted? Or was Long accidentally shot by his bodyguards when they opened fire on Weiss?

Long's national importance is not in doubt. But dealing with Long as a historical figure has been a dilemma -- especially in Louisiana.

"He was the closest thing to a dictator that America has ever produced, and I think it's embarrassing that our state produced him," said Phillip Cook, a history professor at Louisiana Tech in Ruston.

There are those still alive whose stomachs turn at the thought of Long being portrayed an icon.

"I'm prejudiced," said Carl Corbin, 88, who was expelled from Louisiana State University in 1934 with six other students for allowing a letter Long opposed to get published in the college newspaper.

"Someone's making a strange mixture there -- Huey with the jazz man. They don't mix," Corbin said.

What the exhibit in the 36,000-square-foot, $25-million museum will do is present the public with some Long treasures. Among them: the only existing photograph of Long's body lying in state, an event that thousands of mostly poor country folk flocked to.

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