Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long, By Richard D. White Jr., Random House, 361pp, $26.95
An unusual problem confronts any aspiring biographer of Huey Long. The Louisiana populist-demagogue, unlike any other American political figure of the recent past, is at least as well known in the guise of a fictional character, the Willie Stark of Robert Penn Warren's ''All the King's Men."
Richard D. White Jr., the author of ''Kingfish," must also compete with the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by T. Harry Williams, published in 1969 and still in print.
But against Warren's bayou-lush cadences and the immediacy of Williams's contemporary interviews, White, a professor at Louisiana State University -- the university that Long glorified -- comes off quite well indeed.
Long is such a presence in American political lore that it is hard to realize it has been 70 years since he was assassinated. He had been a traveling salesman on ''the dusty back roads," White writes. He studied law and was elected a state railroad commissioner in 1918, turning the post into a lever for populist policies such as lowering utility rates and extending rail service to the backcountry.
Ten years later, he became governor after a stem-winding, spellbinding campaign that united poor Protestant farmers from north Louisiana with Catholic Cajuns from the bayous.
''Toilworn country people," some 15,000 of them, ''descended" on the capital at Baton Rouge for Long's inauguration. At once he took a personal control of the state government that he never relinquished.
In those early weeks, he frequently ''burst into the legislative chamber and brazenly accosted senators and representatives . . . ordering them to vote for his pet bills or against those of his opponents." After one such foray, one senator threw a copy of the Louisiana Constitution at Long. ''Maybe you've heard of this book," he shouted. Long, writes White, ''picked it up, looked at the title, flipped it aside, and shot back, 'I'm the constitution just now.' "
White somewhat underplays Long's sweeping transformation of Louisiana -- the free textbooks, paid for with hijacked oil company revenues, that allowed some 15,000 more students to attend school; the repeal of the $1 poll tax, a change that allowed some 300,000 poor whites to vote (blacks were still kept from the Democratic primary); and more.
But he chillingly recounts the fallout from Long's brute-force tactics, events that are all but inconceivable today: armed mobs of political opponents, declarations of martial law, and standoffs between National Guardsmen and New Orleans police.
On the eve of a mayoral primary in New Orleans in 1934, for example, Long sought to embarrass the city's establishment. By then a US senator, he ordered his puppet governor to impose martial law and had some 2,500 guardsmen brought into the city -- some of them bivouacking at his house -- while the mayor, a member of the old guard whom Long was trying to (and ultimately did) oust, deputized 400 special policemen. ''With dozens of rifle barrels sticking out of its windows." White writes, ''the white-marbled City Hall looked like a fortress under siege."
By ''the frightful summer of 1935," when events had spun out of control, Long's opponents gathered at a New Orleans hotel -- either to pick a gubernatorial candidate or to hatch an assassination plot.
Carl Weiss, a scholarly young physician -- the son-in-law of a judge who had been attacked by Long -- attended the meeting. On Sept. 8, he confronted Long in the rotunda of the state capitol. Accounts differ, but White tends to the view that Weiss had a gun and was gunned down by Long's bodyguards -- one of whose shots perhaps caused the wound that killed Long.
''To the poor country folk," White writes, ''he was omnipotent and invincible, and indeed immortal." Even his enemies ''hesitated to believe he was really dead."