In T. Harry Williams’ Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Louisiana Governor Huey Long,* Williams describes how Long came to power: how Long came to be in the position–among other great things–to provide free textbooks to public school children, eliminate the poll tax, and build roads to reach needy families in isolated bayou settlements.
Basically, the bottom-line is, minute-one, Huey took on the big guys.
Minute-one, Huey took on Standard Oil.
Long was a 25-year-old back-country-Louisiana lawyer, just elected to the State’s Public Service Commission, who thought that Standard Oil, “the invisible Empire (sic),”** should be taxed as a public utility.
Though Long was unsuccessful while a Commissioner, less than a decade later, when he was Louisiana’s Governor, he succeeded.
And what did Long do with that tax money? Well, he used it to pay for those free textbooks for Louisiana’s schoolchildren.
But this was just for starters. A few years later, during the depths of the Great Depression, when Long was a U.S. Senator, he proposed the “share our wealth” program. Check-it-out: it’s amazing, and, boy, could we use it now.
“In a national radio address on February 23, 1934, Huey Long unveiled his ‘Share Our Wealth’ plan, (also known as Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” plan), a program designed to provide a decent standard of living to all Americans by spreading the nation’s wealth among the people.
“Long proposed capping personal fortunes at $50 million each, (roughly $750 million in today’s dollars), through a restructured, progressive federal tax code and sharing the resulting revenue with the public through government benefits and public works.
“[The] Share Our Wealth Proposal:
“Cap personal fortunes at $50 million each (equivalent to about $750 million today)
“Limit annual income to one million dollars each (about $12 million today)
“Limit inheritances to five million dollars each (about $60 million today)
“Guarantee every family an annual income of $2,000 (or one-third the national average)
“Free college education and vocational training
“Old-age pensions for all persons over 60
“Veterans benefits and healthcare
“A 30 hour work week
“A four week vacation for every worker”***
In my (play)book, Huey Long is the original “speak-truth-to-power”**** guy.
I think we need a very big dose of his medicine right about now.
I was reminded of the ever-so-important, Huey-Long chapter of American history when I read James Carville’s Sunday comments about passing a (meaningful) “healthcare reform” bill in our lifetimes.
“’What about this?,’ Carville said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, ‘Suppose they pass a House bill that can get 56 Senate Democrats.’
“Then, Carville suggested, instead of using reconciliation, a special budgetary maneuver in Senate procedure that frustrates GOP attempts to mount a filibuster, Democrats should call for a vote.
‘And make [Republicans] filibuster it. But [do this] the old kinda way…they filibuster it and [then] make’em go three weeks and all night and (Democrats) will be there the whole time.
“Then, you say, ‘They’re the people that stopped it. We had a majority of Democrats. We had a good bill. They stopped it.’”*****
Perhaps, the health care coop approach, the alternative to the “public option” apparently now under consideration by the President’s counselors, is the best way to provide comprehensive, affordable health care to all. I leave that to others to evaluate.
But, in any event, what playbook should the President be reading, right-about-now?
If we the people, and not the not-so-invisible empire of health insurers, big drug companies, large hospital chains, etc., (see Bob Herbert in today’s The New York Times on this point******), are to get the (health-care) change we can believe in, what should the President do now?
I think the President should take-up the strategy of the Louisiana-duo, right-about-now.
They have it right: speak truth to power; force power to the table; force power to deal-the-deck on the table, not underneath it; and accept nothing less than what the people need.
For the only change that matters in this “healthcare reform” discussion is guaranteeing that every sick person gets affordable and good healthcare when she needs it.
And, as Huey Long proved, the only way this will happen is by forcing a (very) public discussion with the powerful, forcing them to share their wealth.
So, let’s do as the Rajin’ Cajun and his mentor suggest: force the powerful to be visible and accountable, so that their means can be used for our ends.
*Williams, T. Harry. Huey Long, Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._Harry_Williams
For a terrific piece on the importance of Huey Long to today’s policymakers, read this: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2009/03/express/remembering-huey-long