Declaring that “Roosevelts come and go, but Longs go on and up forever,” Gertrude Stein, the expatriate writer and poet living in Paris where she had befriended Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and other prominent figures in the arts and literary world, surprised the nation’s political pundits 87 years ago this week when she endorsed Louisiana’s Huey P. Long for president following a short lecture tour of the United States.
Like many other expatriates, Stein, who was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Oakland and San Francisco, believed that the United States had lost its way during the previous three decades when the pursuit of money, culminating in the speculative orgy leading to the 1929 stock market crash, diminished the “more pleasant things” in life. The depression, she said, was something of a liberating experience, enabling the American people to focus on things besides making money.
Conceding that political theories bored her to death because they usually ended in nothing, the 61-year-old Stein said that Huey Long, who was then contemplating a possible bid for the White House, was “stimulating” and his impact would be lasting — not ephemeral like FDR — largely because he possessed a keen understanding of human nature.
The flamboyant Louisianan, she said, wasn’t “boring the way Harding, President Roosevelt and Al Smith have been boring.”
The “Kingfish” was making plenty of presidential noise during this period while causing more than a few sleepless nights in the White House. Passage of his ambitious “Share-Our-Wealth” program, asserted Long, was “the only way they can keep me from being president — unless I die.”
FDR and the Democrats had reason to worry. A poll commissioned by the Democratic National Committee in the spring of 1935 showed Huey Long receiving 10.9 percent of the vote as a potential third-party candidate.
“Huey Long may not become president, but most important political men never become president,” the well-known feminist told reporters upon returning to Paris. She cited the example of Daniel Webster, the great Massachusetts orator and statesman who tried and failed to win the glittering prize on no fewer than three occasions in a public career that spanned more than four decades.
The American people, she continued, had a fixation with electing only candidates that they perceive as “important people” to the presidency. It was one of the failings of democracy, she remarked, adding the unique and extraordinary observation that “democracies are more conservative than monarchies.”
Stein, who said she was negotiating with several U.S. publications to cover the 1936 Democratic and Republican conventions, insisted that the colorful Louisiana lawmaker “will not end in nothing” like so many insurgent politicians who preceded him. Little could she have known that less than four months later, the “Messiah of the Masses” would be dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet.