The politics and entertainment industries are both obsessed with deciphering popular preferences, but they approach the task in completely different ways. When they collide—as in the California recall, which has attracted more low-level celebrities than the final season of Politically Incorrect—the democratic and the demotic mix freely, giving us a bracing new vision of the public will. In the words of Charles Fort: "If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?"
It's easy to assume that events like these are peculiar either to California or to our time. Thus, while the Golden State could elect a movie star governor in the 1960s and launch him on the road to the presidency, the rest of the country had to wait until the culture corroded irreparably before allowing people like Jesse Ventura to win elections. A tempting theory—and a completely wrong one.
For as long as the mass media have existed, they have crossbred with the world of government. The newspaper world gave us Benjamin Franklin, Horace Greeley, and the yellow journalism master Rep. William Randolph Hearst (D-NY). For many years in Nashville, the country music legend Roy Acuff was not simply the state Republican Party's most famous face: In those days of the solidly Democratic south, you could be forgiven for believing he was the Tennessee Republican Party.
And then there is the saga of Gov. Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel: bandleader, radio star, and one of the most colorful figures in the Technicolor world of Texas politics. Today best known as a character in the Coen brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou?, which transposed his administration to Mississippi, O'Daniel in his day proved not only that celebrity could be a political asset but that it didn't hurt to be a little weird as well. He would have fit right in with the California recall.
O'Daniel first rose to prominence as a tireless booster of "Texas flour" and the president of a Fort Worth mill. In 1931, the businessman started sponsoring a radio show featuring the western swing pioneer Bob Wills and his band, dubbed the Light Crust Doughboys after their patron's product. Initially skeptical—early on O'Daniel refused to pay for the program unless the musicians put in a 40-hour week at the mill—he soon became the show's announcer and attracted a devoted following of his own. When Wills left, O'Daniel stuck around, crooning and sermonizing his way to stardom. In 1937 he even moved to the border town of Eagle Pass, just to shift his broadcast home to the Mexican station XEPN. Such outlets were not limited by Washington's power restrictions, and thus were able to reach a still larger audience.
A year later, he set his sights on a bigger prize. Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford describe the turn in their very entertaining book Border Radio:
In the spring of 1938 O'Daniel, Carr Collins, and a small group of North Texas power brokers discussed a marketing idea that was as simple as it was revolutionary—that the elder statesman of flour sales enter the 1938 Texas Democratic primary for the governorship of the Lone Star State. Pappy was intrigued by the idea but hesitant at first. He was a political novice, a Kansas-bred Republican sympathizer who had never voted in a Texas election and had not even paid the poll tax. But he was a brilliant salesman and knew instinctively that running for office would be a great way to sell flour.
Foreshadowing Ross Perot, O'Daniel told his audience that he would run for governor if they asked him to. His listeners obliged with a deluge of mail and soon he was hitting the campaign trail, the only man ever to run for office with a theme song called "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy." The celebrity drew the biggest crowds in the history of Texas politics to that date, and the press started comparing him to such contemporary populists as the Louisiana kingfish Huey Long and the Kansas quack Dr. John R. Brinkley, another broadcaster who had slid naturally from one business (telling listeners that he could cure their ailments by transplanting goat glands into their bodies) into another (running unsuccessfully for governor). To the establishment's surprise, O'Daniel won the race handily and moved his broadcast base to the governor's mansion.
As a political leader, he did little that was useful or wise. But as a political entertainer, he kept himself in the public eye, blamed all his troubles on the uncooperative state legislature, got himself reelected, and threw a free inauguration barbecue. A year later, he was running an increasingly bizarre campaign for the Senate. As Fowler and Crawford put it: "He suggested that Texas form its own army and navy to protect the southern borders. He swore that he would purge Congress if it did not pass a bill to outlaw strikes. He vowed to eliminate the federal debt and force Congress to provide $100 million per year for a national pension plan. He accused the Texas newspapers of being politically controlled 'instruments of the devil'…"
He won narrowly, thanks in part to some business interests who felt that sending the governor to Washington would be a good way to get him out of the state.
O'Daniel was as media-savvy as Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, as unpredictable as Jesse Ventura or Howard Stern. If there's a difference between the age that produced him and ours, it's merely that our media choices have multiplied since the 1930s and '40s, pushing us to the point where we have not one refugee from the entertainment industry on the ballot, nor two, but dozens. In the cable and Internet age, it's harder for just one star to monopolize our attention.
Nonetheless, while Schwarzenegger could lose the California race to a more conventional politician, he's drastically outpolling all of his fellow entertainers. Even in an era of choices, the media still include their share of 200-pound gorillas. Pass the biscuits, Arnold.