Long was born in Shreveport, the son of future Louisiana governor and U.S. senator Huey Pierce Long, Jr., and his wife Rose (née McConnell), also a subsequent senator. His unusual middle name came from his mother's favorite cousin.
Long received his bachelor's degree from Louisiana State University and his law degree from Louisiana State University Law Center, both in the capital city of Baton Rouge. He was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (Zeta Zeta chapter). During his undergraduate years, he served as freshman class president, sophomore arts and sciences president, and then student body president. In June 1942, during World War II, Long entered the United States Navy Reserve and completed his service as a lieutenant in December 1945.
Before he ran for the Senate, Long had served as executive counsel to his uncle, Earl Kemp Long, who returned to the governorship in 1948. Long's first and only elected position was in the U.S. Senate. Elected to the Senate on November 2, 1948, he became the only person in U.S. history to be preceded in that chamber by both his father and his mother. He was elected one day before his 30th birthday, and took office on December 31, thus barely meeting the Constitutional requirement that all Senators be at least 30 years old upon taking office. Because he had filled a vacancy, he gained a few days of seniority over others in the Senate class of 1948, including Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, whose terms began January 3, 1949.
To win the Senate seat vacated by the death of Democrat John Holmes Overton, Long first defeated Judge Robert F. Kennon of Minden in the Democratic primary, 264,143 (51 percent) to 253,668 (49 percent). The margin was hence 10,475 votes. Long then overwhelmed Republican oilman Clem S. Clarke of Shreveport, 306,337 (75 percent) to 102,339 (25 percent). Clarke was the first Louisiana Republican U.S. Senate nominee under the implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1914. He carried Iberia, Caddo (Long's native parish), Lafayette, and East Baton Rouge parishes. Clarke had tried to get the courts to forbid Long from running on both the Harry Truman and Strom Thurmond slates in Louisiana, but he failed to convince the judges, and Long's votes on the Truman and Thurmond slates were counted.
Harvey Locke Carey of Shreveport was Long's campaign manager for northwest Louisiana. Later, he was the short-term U. S. Attorney for the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
Long was known for his knowledge of tax laws. In 1953, he began serving as an influential member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and was the chairman from 1966 until Republicans assumed control of the Senate in 1981. During his time in the Senate, Long was a strong champion of tax breaks for businesses, once saying, "I have become convinced you're going to have to have capital if you're going to have capitalism." On the other hand, he was aware of some of the political ramifications of "tax reform," stating that it simply meant "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!"
Long's contributions to the United States' tax laws include the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program aimed at reducing the tax burden on poor working families, the Child Support Enforcement Act, and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), employee benefit plans designed to allow employees to invest in the stock of their employers. In the year 2006, the Earned Income Tax Credit lifted more than four million people above the poverty line and was called “the nation’s most effective antipoverty program for working families.” Long also initiated the provision that allows a taxpayer to allocate $1 of taxes for a Presidential election campaign fund checkoff (the "dollar checkoff").
Democratic senators named him the party Assistant Majority Leader (whip) in 1965. He lost this leadership position in 1969 to Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, but remained as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He had especially good relations with both of his senatorial colleagues from Louisiana, first Allen J. Ellender of Houma, an old associate of Huey Long, and, then, J. Bennett Johnston, Jr., a former member of both houses of the Louisiana State Legislature, who like Long was born in Shreveport.
In 1966, at the request of former National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Long and Congressman Hale Boggs used their influence to pass legislation that allowed for the merger of the American Football League and the National Football League (NFL). Without the legislation, the merger would have been prohibited by anti-trust laws governing monopolies. In exchange for ensuring the passage of the legislation, Long and Boggs requested that Rozelle award the next NFL expansion franchise to New Orleans. Rozelle complied, and Long and Boggs joined Rozelle in announcing that New Orleans had obtained the New Orleans Saints on November 1, 1966.
Mr. Long's success in maneuvering Kennedy's major tax reduction bill forward in early 1964 cemented his reputation as a rising leader.
Long served as President Lyndon B. Johnson's legislative Senate floor leader for many of the Great Society programs. Through his position on the Senate Finance Committee, he was instrumental in building support for the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986.
After his election in 1948, Long never again faced a close contest for reelection. Because the 1948 election was for a two-year unexpired term, Long had to run again in 1950 for his first full six-year term. That year, he had no trouble defeating the intraparty challenge of Malcolm Lafargue, a great-nephew of Senator John Overton who stepped down as U.S. Attorney for the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana in Shreveport to make the Senate race. In an advertisement, Lafargue questioned how Long is the self-proclaimed "poor man's friend" because the incumbent "pretends to sneer at millionaires, but Long is a millionaire himself."
Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison of New Orleans formally endorsed Lafargue in the primary against Long, but the move was a smokescreen. Morrison had struck a deal with his intraparty rival, Governor Earl Long, that he would not oppose Russell Long for a full term in the Senate if Earl Long would agree to restoration of home rule for New Orleans. The city was at the time was virtually being governed from Baton Rouge. Though Morrison endorsed Lafargue, he privately urged his followers to support Russell Long.
After he dispatched Lafargue and former U.S. Representative Newt Mills from Louisiana's 5th congressional district, Long overwhelmed his Republican opponent, Charles Sidney Gerth (1882-1964), a businessman from New Orleans, who had also run for senator in 1948 against Long's colleague, Allen J. Ellender, but as a Democrat. In the 1950 general election, Long polled 220,907 (87.7 percent) to Gerth's 30,931 (12.3 percent).
In 1962, Long defeated Philemon Andrews "Phil" St. Amant, I (born February 1918), a retired career United States Army lieutenant colonel from Baton Rouge, 407,162 votes (80.2 percent) to 100,843 votes (19.8 percent) in the Democratic primary. In 2016, St. Amant was listed by the Louisiana Secretary of State as a "No Party" voter.
Long then trounced his Republican challenger Taylor W. O'Hearn, a Shreveport attorney and accountant and later state representative for Caddo Parish, with 318,838 votes (75.6 percent) to O'Hearn's 103,066 (24.4 percent).
Speculation persisted that Long would run for governor in the 1963 Democratic primary. He had received encouragement from "all the shades of factionalism in the state." Instead, he endorsed his cousin, Gillis W. Long, the U.S. representative from the since disbanded Eighth Congressional District based about Alexandria. At the time, Long was second to the aging Senator Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., of Virginia on the Senate Finance Committee and had already presided as chairman during Byrd's prolonged absence because of failing health.
As a result of President Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Long (along with more than a dozen other southern Senators, including Herman Talmadge and Richard Russell, both of Georgia) did not attend the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. However, Long defied conventional wisdom by delivering a television address in Louisiana in which he strongly endorsed the Johnson-Humphrey ticket, which lost the state to the Republican Barry M. Goldwater-William E. Miller electors. The action had no consequence on Long's future, however, as Republicans declined to challenge his reelection in 1968, 1974, and 1980.
In 1968, Long overpowered a primary rival, Maurice P. Blache, Sr. (1917–1991), to win renomination. He was unopposed in the general election when the presumed Republican candidate, Richard Kilbourne, the district attorney in East Feliciana Parish, withdrew from the race. Kilbourne abandoned his campaign so that his party could concentrate on trying to elect David C. Treen to represent Louisiana's 2nd congressional district over incumbent Democrat Hale Boggs.
In 1974, Long defeated in the Democratic primary state Insurance Commissioner Sherman A. Bernard of Westwego in Jefferson Parish, 520,606 (74.7 percent) to 131,540 (18.9 percent). Another 44,341 ballots (6.4 percent) went to a third candidate, Annie Smart. Louisiana Republican state chairman James H. Boyce of Baton Rouge noted that the party could not find a viable candidate to challenge Long.
In 1980, Long defeated State Representative Woody Jenkins of Baton Rouge, 484,770 (57.6 percent) to 325,922 (38.8 percent) in the state's nonpartisan blanket primary. During the 1980 campaign, Long's friend and colleague, Robert J. "Bob" Dole, the Kansas Republican who had been his party's vice presidential nominee in 1976 and who would be the presidential nominee in 1996, made a television commercial for Long in the race against Jenkins. Dole and Long were both running for reelection that year. The 1980 primary was the last time Long's name was on a ballot. Jenkins had run against Johnston in 1978 and ran again in a disputed outcome against Mary Landrieu in 1996 for the seat Johnston vacated on retirement.
Jenkins won majorities in only four parishes, Rapides, La Salle, Iberia, and St. Tammany. When Jenkins claimed to have received 55 percent of the votes cast by whites, Long called the claim "racist." Long urged the media to investigate Jenkins' claim. He contended that his own research was in conflict with Jenkins' assertion.
Near the end of his last term in office, Long hired the young journalist Bob Mann as his press secretary. Mann, who now holds the Douglas Manship Chair of Journalism at LSU, later penned the 1992 book, Legacy to Power: Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana.
After he considered and rejected a run for governor of Louisiana, Long retired from the Senate in January 1987. Long had correctly predicted in March 1985 that Governor Edwin Edwards would be acquitted by a Louisiana jury and that the ensuing trial would not disrupt state government. In 1985, when Long announced his retirement from the Senate, he indicated his preference for Edwards as his senatorial successor but added, correctly, that he did not think Edwards would enter the 1986 Senate election.
J. Bennett Johnston, Jr., said of his colleague: "His absence will leave a huge void that's going to be very, very difficult to fill here in Washington." Edward J. Steimel, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, described Long as "very well regarded in the business community nationally."
Summing up his career in the Senate, President Ronald Reagan called him a "legend ... one of the most skillful legislators, compromisers and legislative strategists in history." Referring to Long's enormous power, the Wall Street Journal once called him "the fourth branch of government."
In 1986, Democratic U.S. Representative John Breaux of Crowley, a former legislative aide and House successor of Governor Edwards, was elected to succeed Long in the Senate. Breaux defeated the Republican U.S. Representative W. Henson Moore, III, of Baton Rouge. Moore had led the balloting in the nonpartisan blanket primary but lost the general election to Breaux in a nationally Democratic year. Breaux, unlike Long, however, did not secure the election of his chosen successor. The seat was won in 2004 by Republican U.S. Representative David Vitter of the New Orleans suburbs.
Long remained in Washington, D.C., after his senatorial retirement as a highly sought-after lobbyist. For a brief period following his retirement, he was a partner in the law firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey, which dissolved in 1987. He later founded the Long Law Firm, where he remained a partner until his death. Long served on the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange, Lowe's Companies, Inc., and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.
In 1996, he endorsed Mary Landrieu, the Democratic nominee, in the race to succeed retiring Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr. Coincidentally, Landrieu defeated the same Woody Jenkins, a Democrat-turned-Republican, whom Long had beaten in Long's last Senate race in 1980. Long was particularly critical of Jenkins' national sales tax proposal to supersede the federal income tax, a move which Long claim would benefit "the wealthy".
Long opposed judicial intrusions into police power and termed the liberal members of the Warren Court "'the dirty five' who side with the criminal."
At a gathering in Minden in 1958, Long criticized the court, some of whose members had no prior judicial experience. He accused the justices of pitting whites against African Americans and vice versa. In 1955, he had proposed an amendment to the United States Constitution to limit Supreme Court justices to six or twelve-year terms. Long criticized both major parties nationally for courting bloc voting by African Americans; he noted the 1958 campaign for governor of New York in which incumbent Democrat Averell Harriman and the ultimately successful Republican nominee, Nelson Rockefeller, sought to out-do the other in currying the favor of the civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the time of his death from heart failure, Russell Long was the only former senator still living whose service went back as far as 1948. He was in the Senate, for instance, six years before Strom Thurmond arrived for what became a 48-year stint. He began his Senate service a full decade before Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia arrived in January 1959 for what developed into a 51-year career. The Long funeral, held in Baton Rouge, is remembered in part for the moving eulogies delivered by his grandson, attorney Russell Long Mosely, and by his former colleagues Johnston and Breaux.
In June 1939, Long married the former Katherine Mae Hattic (September 27, 1919 – January 29, 2003); she predeceased her former husband by just over three months. Both Russell and Katherine Long are interred in Baton Rouge but in different sections of Roselawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum. The couple had two daughters, Rita Katherine (born 1944) and Pamela.
After the Longs divorced, the senator thereafter married the former Carolyn Elizabeth Bason (December 1, 1922 – July 27, 2015), a native of Yanceyville in Caswell County in northern North Carolina, who resided at the time of her death at the age of ninety-two in Bethesda, Maryland. Her father, Samuel Bason, was the long-term president of the Bank of Yanceyville and a Democratic member of the North Carolina State Senate during the 1940s and 1950s; her mother, the former Martha Eliza "Mamie" Hatchett, was a homemaker. There were two other Bason children, William Hatchett Bason and Dorothy Helen Burke, both of whom predeceased Carolyn. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Carolyn Bason worked for U.S. Senator Clyde Hoey and became personal secretary to Hoey's successor, Sam J. Ervin, Jr., a position which she held until her marriage to Russell Long on December 23, 1969. Sam Ervin retired in 1974. Carolyn Long was active in a plethora of charitable and civic causes and historical preservation during her 34-year marriage to Russell Long. She is interred beside her parents and siblings at the Yanceyville Presbyterian Church Cemetery.
Long's brother, Palmer Reid Long, Sr. (1921-2010), of Shreveport, was named for two of his father's lawyers in the 1929 impeachment case. The Long children learned by the time they could walk to fold and mail campaign literature. Palmer Long worked in the 1948 Senate campaign for his brother as well as the successful effort to return Earl Long to the governorship. Palmer Long attended Sewanee Military Academy in Tennessee and LSU in Baton Rouge and was a flight instructor with the United States Army Air Corps, forerunner of the Air Force during World War II. Married to the former Louene Dance (1994-2010), who preceded him in death by nine months, Palmer Long was otherwise involved in the family's oil and natural gas business and shunned most other political participation beyond personal contributions. He was highly active on behalf of the Louisiana Shriners Hospital in Shreveport. Oddly, after 1995, most of Palmer Long's considerable political contributions went to Republican candidates, including Russell Long's friend Bob Dole, who ran for president against Bill Clinton in 1996, and for John McCain in 2008 in the losing presidential race with Barack Obama. Palmer Long was identified in 2010 as a Republican voter by the website RealVoters.
Long also had a sister, Rose Long "Dolly" McFarland (April 13, 1917 – January 12, 2006), later of Boulder, Colorado. She is interred at Forest Park East Cemetery in Shreveport.
Long and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison were reported to be longtime personal and political friends. According to Garrison, Long voiced doubts to him about the thoroughness of the Warren Commission aboard an airplane flight back from Washington. He was portrayed by Walter Matthau as expressing skepticism of the Commission's findings regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Oliver Stone's film JFK.
William C. Havard, Rudolf Heberle, and Perry H. Howard, in The Louisiana Election of 1960 noted that Russell Long as a US senator extended his family dynasty. "Russell Long represents a modified and tone-down version of Longism but retains a basic orientation toward the active use of governmental power as a means of adjusting social and economic imbalances among group interests."
In 1993, Russell Long was among the first thirteen inductees into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield, along with his father and his uncle, Earl Long.
The prestigious Russell B. Long Service Award is named in his honor. Among the recipients is the state legislator Ronnie Johns of Sulphur in Calcasieu Parish.
Dr. Bruce Gold and Ralph Newsome are alumni of the Senator Russell B. Long Foundation in Joseph Heller's 1979 novel, Good as Gold.