"Rose McConnell Long," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.
Rose Long emerged from behind the long shadow of her flamboyant husband, the slain Louisiana populist Huey Pierce Long, to fill his Senate seat for an abbreviated term. Accompanied by her children, Long diligently assumed her husband’s committee duties while, in Baton Rouge, the shattered remnants of the Long political machine vied for a permanent successor.
Rose McConnell was born in Greensburg, Indiana, on April 8, 1892. She was the first child born to Peter McConnell, a farmer, and Sally B. McConnell, who came from a long line of southern planters. In 1901 the McConnell family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where Rose attended the public schools and later became a local schoolteacher. In 1910 she entered a cake baking contest with a “bride loaf cake.” One of the judges, a traveling salesman who had sponsored the contest to pitch the lard substitute he was selling, was named Huey P. Long. Rose McConnell won the contest, struck up a long correspondence with the itinerant Long, and, in 1913, in Memphis, Tennessee, they married. The Longs moved to New Orleans, where Rose worked as a secretary to pay Huey’s way through the Tulane Law School. After finishing a three-year program in seven months, he was admitted to the bar in 1915. Rose Long put her stenography skills to use on behalf of her husband’s early political campaigns and served as a political adviser. Meanwhile she raised their three children: Rose, Russell, and Palmer. In 1928, after serving on the state railroad commission, Huey Long was elected Louisiana governor. As the state’s political boss, he introduced sweeping legislation that ushered in large public works programs. Two years later, he won election to the U.S. Senate where, in the early years of the Depression, he gained a large populist following of farmers and laborers who rallied around his “Share the Wealth” initiative, which called for a radical redistribution of wealth to afford every American a decent standard of living.
Rose Long distanced herself from her husband’s political work during his years as governor, though she remained supportive.1 Unlike her egomaniacal husband, Rose shied from the spotlight and served as the anchor for her young family. She was so unobtrusive as Louisiana’s first lady as to be largely unknown to many of her husband’s constituents. While Long traveled in large caravans and constantly in the company of bodyguards, Rose Long routinely drove the family car on long trips with the children, recalling that she occasionally stopped to pick up hitchhikers, whom she and her daughter would pepper with questions about politics without revealing their identities.2
Huey Long’s political ambitions stretched all the way to the White House. He won election as Louisiana governor by tapping into voter discontent with conservative rule and pledging a tax-the-rich program. In the Senate, he eventually charged that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR’s) New Deal programs had been co-opted by conservative business interests. In the fall 1932 elections, as a jab at his chief Senate rival, Long led a last-minute campaign blitz in Arkansas to help elect Hattie Caraway, who bucked the political establishment by refusing to retire after a brief appointment to succeed her late husband. With Long’s help, she won a full six-year term. Huey Long became a national figure in opposition to FDR with his “Share the Wealth” program. By 1935 he was a serious contender for the presidency.3
Long had made a host of enemies. On September 8, 1935, the Senator was shot while visiting the Louisiana state capitol and died early on the morning of September 10. The scramble to name a successor to the “Kingfish” made for pure political spectacle throughout the fall of 1935. Long organization leaders settled on a slate of candidates for the January 21, 1936, primary and the April 21, 1936, special election. Governor O. K. Allen, Long’s successor, was nominated to fill out the remainder of Long’s Senate term, set to expire in January 1937. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Louisiana state house of representatives, Allen Joseph Ellender, was chosen to run for the succeeding six-year term. Richard W. Leche was named as the gubernatorial candidate, and Earl Long, Huey’s brother, displaced Acting Lieutenant Governor James A. Noe on the ticket. But the plan crumbled from the top down. Governor Allen died before the primary, and Noe, his slighted subordinate, succeeded him for a four-month term.4
Though snubbed by the Long organization, Noe had been one of the Kingfish’s closest protégés. He bypassed Ellender and chose Long’s widow, Rose, to succeed her husband. In making his announcement on January 31, 1936, Noe crowed, “It is the happiest moment of my life.” He also promised Rose Long that she would receive unanimous backing from state party leaders—which she soon did. To the press, he was more mellifluous: “The love of Huey Long binds us together as a solid Gibraltar . . . we’re united and there isn’t a hint of dissension in the party.”5
Critics charged Noe with “political trickery” and attempting to advance his own ambitions for national office. Newspapers speculated that Rose Long was a mere compromise candidate who would hold the seat until a victor emerged from the swamp of Louisiana politics. The Washington Post denounced the move as destructive to the advancement of women in politics because it seemed to advance a family political dynasty rather than democratic interests. “Women have as much right as men to seek and fill political office,” the editors wrote. “But every time a woman is elevated to a position of great influence merely for sentimental reasons it becomes more difficult for those who are really trained for effective public work to win recognition.” Remembering Caraway’s election, they further noted, “The fact that the two women now in the Senate owe their positions largely to Huey Long is a tragic commentary upon the success of the feminist movement.”6
On February 10, 1936, Rose Long was sworn into the Senate and took a seat alongside Hattie Caraway of Arkansas at the back of the chamber. Upon taking office, she received credentials made out to “Mrs. Huey Pierce Long,” which she insisted be changed to “Rose McConnell Long.” After the ceremony, at which Vice President John N. Garner administered the oath of office before virtually the entire Senate and packed galleries, Long got right down to business, attending a floor speech on U.S.–Japanese relations. She told reporters that she intended to carry on her husband’s “Share the Wealth” programs. “I am having all of our files and records sent up, and will study them before making any announcements. I am 100 percent for labor and the farmers, and will vote for everything to help them.”7 Long settled into several suites in a hotel on Connecticut Avenue in the northwest part of the city—the same hotel that Huey had occupied. She also brought her daughter, Rose, and youngest son, Palmer, to stay with her in Washington. On April 21, 1936, Rose Long won the special election to serve the remainder of her husband’s term. With a sparse crowd in the gallery that included Rose and several schoolmates, she was sworn in a second time on May 19, 1936.8
Senator Long’s daughter, Rose, whom she brought to Washington, was more than just a supportive family member. The younger Rose possessed the political acumen to help her mother, who was sometimes awkward in public speaking situations, adjust to her new role. The daughter first had urged her mother to accept the nomination because, she recalled, it seemed “the right thing to do.”9 The immediate family members believed that Russell was best equipped to eventually carry out his father’s work—and eventually he would, serving as Louisiana Senator from 1948 to 1987 and chairing the Finance Committee. Huey, Rose, and Russell were the only father-mother-child combination in Senate history. In later years, despite her apparent abilities, the younger Rose Long did not enter public service.10
Though her husband’s term did not expire until January 3, 1937, Rose Long’s stint as a Senator was further abbreviated when the second (and final) session of the 74th Congress (1935–1937) adjourned on June 20, 1936—four months after she came to Washington. She worked hard during that stint, however, preferring the routine of committee work to the public forum of the Senate Chamber. In stark contrast to her husband, Rose Long shied from the limelight and made few floor speeches. She fit comfortably into the committee work that Huey Long often neglected. Rose Long received five assignments: Claims; Immigration; Interoceanic Canals; Post Offices and Post Roads; and Public Lands and Surveys. Her efforts on the Committee on Public Lands led to the enlargement of Chalmette National Historic Park on the site of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. “Had we not won the battle,” she said in one of her rare speeches, “we would have a British Colony west of the Mississippi.”11 In March 1936, she joined her Louisiana colleague, John Holmes Overton, and the Senators from Arkansas and Texas to seek authorization of the attendance of the Marine Band at the centennial celebration in Arkansas and Texas and at the forty-sixth Confederate reunion in Shreveport, Louisiana
Long’s brief Senate career, so representative of her behind the-scenes approach to life, fit the pattern of her postpolitical life. She made few floor speeches and quietly left the Senate when the 74th Congress adjourned on January 3, 1937, and Allen Ellender, who had won the general election, succeeded her. Rose Long retired to private life in Shreveport. On May 27, 1970, she died in Boulder, Colorado, where, after a long illness, she had gone to live with her daughter.
1F. Raymond Daniell, “Mrs. Long Emerges Modestly,” 9 February 1936, New York Times: SM11; Martin Weil, “Ex–Sen. Rose Long Dies, Widow of Huey,” 29 May 1970, Washington Post: B16.
2Daniell, “Mrs. Long Emerges Modestly.”
3For more on Huey Long’s background and Senate career, see T. Harry Williams, Huey Long (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969) and Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).
4For background on Ellender, see Thomas A. Becnel, Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995).
5“Mrs. Long, Speeding to Capital, Says She’ll Need Luck in Senate,” 10 February 1936, Washington Post: 7.
6“Huey Long’s Proxy,” 3 February 1936, Washington Post: 8; see also “Mrs. Long as a Senator,” 15 September 1935, Washington Post: B6.
7“Mrs. Long Takes Oath in a Crowded Senate; Will Carry on ‘Share–the–Wealth’ Campaign,” 11 February 1936, New York Times: 3.
8“Mrs. Long Is Again Sworn In,” 20 May 1936, New York Times: 13.
9“Long’s Widow Assumes Duties as U.S. Senator,” 11 February 1936, Washington Post: 4.
10Daniell, “Mrs. Long Emerges Modestly.”
11Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976): 47.