The Texas press didn't know what to make of Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, the eccentric businessman, broadcaster, and bandleader who plunged suddenly into the Democratic primary during the state's 1938 gubernatorial race. They certainly didn't expect him to get anywhere. He had no political experience. For most of his life, he hadn't been a Democrat. He hadn't paid his poll tax, so he couldn't even vote for himself. Surely, they reasoned, the voters would instead choose one of the established leaders in the race—probably Railroad Commissioner Ernest Thompson or Attorney General William McCraw. Or maybe Tom Hunter, an oilman from Wichita Falls who had run for the office several times before.
Meanwhile, O'Daniel embarked on a 20,000-mile trek across Texas. The candidate would roll into town in a long white bus with a little stage atop it. Huge crowds would swarm in to see the show: 3,000 in Colorado City, 15,000 in Cleburne, 22,000 in Austin, 25,000 in Waco. Pappy's band would play a few country tunes, and then the solidly built radio star with the slicked-back hair would join them, alternating parts of his stump speech with more songs. They come to town with their guitars/And now they're smoking big cigars, he'd croon. Them hillbillies are politicians now.
At first the papers barely noticed O'Daniel's tour through the state. (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram didn't bother to mention his massive Waco rally until three days after it happened.) When it became clear that something big was afoot, they argued that no one could tell whether the crowds consisted of supporters or just gawkers. Did those mobs actually agree with O'Daniel's vague platform? the pundits asked. Or were they only there to enjoy, in the words of the syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, "a mellifluous radio voice that women gush over and a hill-billy band that delights both young and old"? When the Star-Telegram finally acknowledged that Pappy was attracting "larger and more enthusiastic crowds than any other candidate," it added that many members of those audiences were nonvoters and wondered whether the movement was a "bubble."
All the while the carnival kept getting bigger, until finally it took over the Lone Star State. When the Democrats of Texas cast their ballots, O'Daniel won about 30,000 more votes than every other candidate combined. He went on to defeat the Republican (in Texas in those days, the Democrat always defeated the Republican) and moved his broadcast base into the governor's mansion.
Long before Donald Trump threw his hair into the ring, Pappy O'Daniel's radio-sparked campaigns ushered in an era that effaced the lines between popular culture and politics, paving the way not just for Trump but for Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kinky Friedman, and every other politician who started with a fan base instead of an exploratory committee. If you want to know how a reality TV star can open a presidential primary season with a second-place finish in Iowa and then victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, O'Daniel's tale is a fine place to begin.
'That's What Brings 'Em In, Boys'
Pappy O'Daniel was not the first man to mix mass culture with political power. William Randolph Hearst had used his newspapers to propel himself into Congress several decades earlier, and before then the circus impresario P.T. Barnum had gotten himself elected to a couple of offices in Connecticut. Nor was O'Daniel the first to use radio as a political tool. Earlier in the '30s, the broadcaster-cum-quack John R. Brinkley, best known for telling listeners he could cure their ailments by transplanting goat glands into their bodies, had run for governor of Kansas. And of course Franklin Roosevelt had promoted policies to the public in his so-called fireside chats.
But unlike Barnum, Hearst, and other pre-radio pols, O'Daniel was a celebrity of the broadcast age, a man whose voice had been a guest in thousands of homes. Unlike Roosevelt, O'Daniel wasn't a long-established politician turning to radio; he was a radio figure turning to politics, skipping all that business about running for lower office or building a traditional machine. And unlike Brinkley, O'Daniel actually won.
O'Daniel was exuberantly Texan, but he had been born in Ohio and raised in Kansas, not settling in the Lone Star State until his mid-30s. He rose to prominence as the general manager and then president of a Fort Worth mill, where he was a tireless booster of "Texas flour." In 1931, he started sponsoring a radio show featuring the fiddler Bob Wills and his band, dubbed the Light Crust Doughboys after their patron's product. O'Daniel hadn't been enthusiastic about the project at first. (For a while he refused to pay for the program unless the musicians put in a 40-hour week at the mill.) But as Wills' mix of country music and swing grew popular, O'Daniel got more interested. Soon he was serving as the show's announcer, attracting a devoted following—especially among housewives—with an on-air persona that The American Mercury called "Eddie Guest and Will Rogers and Dale Carnegie and Bing Crosby all rolled into one."
When Wills left the program, Pappy kept the show going, appointing himself bandleader even though he didn't play any instruments. And when O'Daniel quit his mill job to found his own flour company in 1935, he stayed on the air, his popularity growing steadily with listeners if not with everyone who had to work with him. O'Daniel turned out to be a master broadcaster. "It seems that early in the game," The American Mercury reported, "O'Daniel either stumbled into, or deliberately figured out, that a microphone is an ear and not an auditorium—and you don't make public speeches to microphones, you don't shout into them any more than you would shout into your sweetheart's ear when you wanted to tell her you loved her."
O'Daniel started writing poetry and songs, and his listeners soon learned the lyrics to such Pappy products as "Beautiful Texas" and "The Boy Who Never Gets Too Big to Comb His Mother's Hair." He delivered little sermons too, covering subjects that ranged from God, the Constitution, and the heroes of Texas history to traffic safety and family life. According to the only book-long academic study of the man's career, Seth Shepard McKay's 1944 text W. Lee O'Daniel and Texas Politics, many fans assumed he was a minister. (It isn't clear just how sincere his persona was. In their 1987 book Border Radio, which includes an entertaining chapter on O'Daniel, the radio historians Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford recount him wiping away tears as his band played "The Old Rugged Cross"—while muttering, "That's what brings 'em in, boys. That's what really brings 'em in.")
O'Daniel's political ambitions were awakened early in 1938, when Carr Collins—an insurance magnate, radio station owner, and seller of Crazy Crystals, minerals that allegedly acted as a laxative when drenched in water—told O'Daniel that running for governor would be a great opportunity to market his flour. Pappy introduced the idea to his radio audience by reading what he claimed was a letter from a blind man urging the broadcaster to enter the race. Foreshadowing the gimmick that later launched Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, O'Daniel told his fans he'd run "against these professional politicians" if they'd tell him they wanted him to. On his next show, he announced the results: 54,499 letters that said he should go for it, and four that said the job was beneath him.
Plebiscite completed, O'Daniel and his band boarded their bus and hit the campaign trail. Within weeks the troupe was so popular that the townspeople of Wharton blocked the road when the soundwagon tried to pass through, forcing the campaign to hold a rally there before they could move on to their appointed destination. "Once in '38," O'Daniel remembered years later, "about 7,000 people showed up for one of our rallies at the Midland courthouse, and we were 12 hours late, and they were still there waitin' when we finally showed up." The candidate raised funds relentlessly: He called on his listeners to mail in money, and he passed the hat (or, more exactly, he passed a little barrel marked "Flour Not Pork") at his campaign stops. "I know the other candidates make fun of me," he explained, "but the big corporations pay their campaign expenses. The people's candidate must be supported by those who brought him out."
He threw in some pitches for his flour, too. Gotta move the product.
Officially, O'Daniel's platform was the 10 Commandments. But his central issue, the substance tagging along with the show, was his call for a $30-a-month pension for all Texans over age 65—O'Daniel's take on the commandment to honor thy father and mother. He wrote a song about that, too. He called it "Thirty Bucks for Mamma."
O'Daniel wasn't breaking new ground here. The '30s had seen several populist campaigns for pensions spring up around the country, and the federal government had passed a more moderate version of their demands with the Social Security Act of 1935. That same year Texas voters had endorsed a constitutional amendment to set up a state-run pension system, but the government had thus far failed to follow through. So O'Daniel didn't create the issue; he just completely identified himself with it, promising over and over that he would produce the checks while staying vague about how he'd pay for them. At the Casa Mañana theater in Fort Worth, The American Mercury's writer asked him how he'd fund the benefits. Pappy replied by pointing to a juggler onstage. "You see what he's doing?" he asked. "It looks impossible but he's doing it."
Pappy had a few more pledges besides the pensions. He called for abolishing the poll tax, for example, saying he'd never seen a politician good enough that the tax was worth the money to pay it. But mostly he spoke in broad strokes rather than detailed proposals. The same was true of his attacks on the powers that be. "O'Daniel calls himself the candidate of the common people," Robert Hicks wrote in the Star-Telegram, "but finds no fault with big business, corporations, and utilities…and advocates bringing more of them into the state." Further left, Dwight Macdonald put the point more harshly, suggesting that Pappy's crusade illustrated the "combination of big business and its chief victims." O'Daniel did quietly attract several wealthy backers, especially in the oil industry.
The other men running didn't know how to handle this upstart who ignored the standard political playbook. McCraw derided him as "the banjo man from Fort Worth." Another candidate called him "a fiddling carpet-bagger from Ohio." But by the end of the race, many of O'Daniel's 11 opponents were desperately trying to imitate his showbiz style, livening up their campaign stops with singers, dancers, even a mentalist act. It didn't do them any good. O'Daniel came out ahead in two ways: He got the most votes, and his flour sales doubled.
The Republican nominee, an oilman named Alexander Boynton, was easily beaten. (At one point Boynton challenged O'Daniel over his allusions to "the common people," asking: "Who are not common people? Please describe them." The attack fell flat.) Declaring he'd "feel out of place" at a traditional inaugural ball, O'Daniel instead traveled in a 20-car motorcade to Austin for a "citizens' homecoming" in a football stadium. About 60,000 people showed up to cheer him.
There were cheers in other parts of the country too. Damon Runyon, of Guys and Dolls fame, wrote a syndicated column reveling in the victory of "a platform based on the Ten Commandments" and deriding any "sophisticated readers" who find the Decalogue a bore. And in Royal Oak, Michigan, another populist broadcaster—Father Charles Coughlin, the infamous anti-Semite—greeted the new governor's victory by announcing that "a new day is dawning for social justice and America" and dreaming that "O'Danielism will spread throughout every other State in the Union."
The Conspiracy Against Texas
O'Daniel was a brilliant campaigner, but when it came to lawmaking his political skills were a lot less impressive. When re-election time rolled around in 1940, he had been unable to pass his pension. He had proposed to pay for it with a 1.6 percent sales tax, sparking sharp opposition from both the right (who didn't want a new tax) and the left (who didn't want the burden to fall so heavily on the poor). He had also failed to abolish the poll tax. Indeed, he hadn't gotten much done at all other than alienate a great deal of Austin.
That and start a newspaper. Declaring that "no recent governor has been so unfairly dealt with as the press has dealt with me," he launched The W. Lee O'Daniel News. There and on his radio show, he blamed his failures on evil outside forces—and not just the big failures. When two musicians quit his band, Pappy informed his listeners that "the gang of professional politicians" had "struck another blow at your governor." The sunny side of Pappy's populism was starting to give way to something darker.
O'Daniel still had loyal fans. ("He's a good man," one was quoted in the Dallas Morning News. "It ain't his fault he didn't do nothing.") But he had his foes too, and a collection of candidates lined up to run against him in the Democratic primary. "O'Daniel's record is one of promise, flop, and alibi," said one—Jerry Sadler, a state railroad commissioner, who took a page from O'Daniel's book and hired his own hillbilly band for the race. "And so today Gov. O'Daniel bases his campaign on his failure to accomplish anything. He wants to be re-elected because he cannot do the job."
In the meantime, O'Daniel's search for scapegoats had led him to a new obsession. Texas, he warned, was crawling with subversives. He had a list, he said, of Communist and Nazi saboteurs who had infiltrated the state's factories. (He wouldn't tell anyone the agents' names, but he insisted he had them.) He directed the highway patrol and the Texas Rangers "to make sure that all un-American activities within the borders of our state be properly investigated and handled." He wired Franklin Roosevelt to tell him he had some confidential information about the conspiracy and was sending some men from the Texas National Guard and the Texas Public Safety Department to share his intelligence with the feds. No one in the state government, including the director of the Public Safety Department, seemed to know what the governor was talking about.
But many other Texans thought they did. "I shall appreciate," the governor announced, "any and all information that any of our citizens can give me concerning any specific cases of un-American activities they know about or surmise." Responses flooded in. One letter warned that Texas A&M was "honeycombed with German sympathizers." Another declared that both Communists and Nazis had wormed their way into the University of Texas. One woman was convinced a German spy had taken over her town's hospital; another person had "overheard conversations" in the park that were "all-together un-American." Several letters suggested that the Jehovah's Witnesses were up to no good, with one citizen proposing that when they "reference Jehovah and Christ King in their literature…they mean Hitler." German Americans whose families had been in Texas for more than a century found themselves suspected of being pawns of the Reich. The Texas Rangers duly investigated the tips.
As with the pension issue, O'Daniel didn't create his witch hunt from nothing; he seized something that was in the air and gave it his own strange stamp. In 1940, the country was already gripped by fears of foreign infiltration. (At one point that year Gallup asked Americans, "Without mentioning any names, do you think there are fifth columnists in this community?" Forty-eight percent agreed that some of their neighbors were probably secret agents. Just 26 percent said no.) To the extent that O'Daniel had identifiable foreign policy views, he had until then seemed to be an anti-war isolationist. But he was happy to grab hold of the fifth-column fever and deploy the results to his political advantage, mixing in some other sorts of political paranoia in the process.
"He'd just drum, drum, drum with his little catchphrases: 'professional politicians,' 'pussy-footing politicians,' 'labor leader racketeers,' 'Communist labor leader racketeers'—you wouldn't think there would be that many ways to get 'labor leader racketeers' into a sentence," one man marveled. "He just got up at his rallies, and said, in effect, 'I'm going to protect you from everything.'"
Apparently it worked. O'Daniel won again, and then he invited the whole state to a free inauguration barbecue. About 20,000 people descended on Austin, where the menu included a 900-pound buffalo that the governor himself had shot for the occasion.
Pappy vs. LBJ
In April 1941, not quite three years after O'Daniel first entered politics, Texas Sen. Morris Sheppard passed away. The governor announced that in two months a special election would be held to replace him. (In the meantime he appointed an interim senator. That one was 87 years old, and he promptly died too.) Anyone who paid $1 could enter the race, and 28 Texans did. O'Daniel privately promised to stay out of the contest, but in mid-May he nonetheless jumped in.
O'Daniel had a host of opponents this time, from the red-hunting congressman Martin Dies to the goat-gland doctor John R. Brinkley, who by this time had made his way from Kansas to Del Rio. But his chief rival was future president Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a young congressman, whose campaign was clever enough to turn O'Daniel's popularity against him. "If the people elect O'Daniel Senator they may be killing their pension hopes," an article circulated by the Johnson team warned. "O'Daniel can't be a pension-giving Governor and a U.S. Senator at the same time."
Johnson had some powerful friends on his side, too. His allies in Washington poured money into his campaign. His allies in Austin delayed the state's appropriations bills and otherwise dragged out the legislature's business, preventing O'Daniel from hitting the campaign trail. Stuck in the capital, the governor sent his kids on the road with a recorded speech. At one stop, it started skipping: "I want to go to Washington to work for the old folks, the old folks, the old folks, the old folks…"
But the campaign wasn't all repetition. As Election Day grew closer, O'Daniel's statements grew ever more bizarre. In Border Radio, Fowler and Crawford describe some of the candidate's proposals: "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'…"
On the day of the primary, LBJ initially seemed to have claimed the prize, aided by bribery and ballot box stuffing. But O'Daniel ended up winning. In The Path to Power, the first volume of his acclaimed Lyndon Johnson biography, Robert Caro explains the key to Pappy's victory: He had been making moves to regulate the alcohol industry more tightly, and the liquor lobby decided the best way to remove him from Austin would be to send him to Washington. And so they arranged a little ballot box stuffing themselves, allowing Pappy to prevail by just 1,311 votes. Just as Johnson cut into O'Daniel's support by telling the governor's fans that a vote for Lyndon was a vote to keep their hero at home, O'Daniel wound up winning because some Texans who didn't like him figured a vote for Pappy was a vote to get him the hell out of the state.
'I Thought He Was Dead'
O'Daniel was re-elected to the Senate a year later, and over the course of the '40s he made a name for himself as one of the more erratic voices in Washington, introducing odd bills that were sure to fail. He usually voted with the Republicans, and periodically a pro-Roosevelt outlet such as PM or The Nation would denounce him. But detached from Texas, he had lost his connection to his fan base. Meanwhile, his opponents grew more media savvy: During his second Senate race, in 1942, one candidate took to sampling short segments of old O'Daniel broadcasts and playing them during his rallies, interjecting mocking commentary before a live audience.
His popularity shrinking and his old allies abandoning him, O'Daniel declined to run for reelection in 1948. One of his last acts as senator—done literally as he was cleaning out his office and preparing to leave—was to approve the Naval Academy appointment of the man who, years later, would re-enact his I'll-run-if-the-voters-ask-me routine: a student at Texarkana Junior College named Ross Perot.
O'Daniel tried to mount a comeback in the late 1950s, running twice for governor on a segregationist platform. (Integration, he insisted, was a Communist plot.) But his time had passed. "Going through West Texas with him, he was like a ghost riding the range," the journalist Willie Morris later wrote in his memoir North Toward Home. "He looked old, he was old, he walked with an old man's shuffle; it took me only three or four hours to recognize that, far from being someone's villain this time, he was a lonely old man trying to retrieve the past." When the candidate introduced himself to a group of prospective voters in a Fort Stockton café, one of them responded: "Pappy O'Daniel? I thought he was dead."
Early in his career, O'Daniel was frequently compared to Huey Long, the fiery populist from Louisiana. But Long had radically remade his state, ensuring himself a prominent place in the country's memory. O'Daniel merely made a lot of noise and faded away. Today he is best known, to the extent that he's remembered at all, as a character in the Coen brothers' movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which changed his first name to Menelaus and moved his administration to Mississippi.
Yet O'Daniel was more than just a garbled legend. By erasing the line that separates the constituent from the fan, he helped open the door to an era when political power grows from the Nielsen meter as much as the ballot box—an era when celebrities become politicians and vice versa. Once you know the story of Pappy O'Daniel, it's hard to watch Donald Trump on the stump without thinking of the flour-peddling crooner who rose temporarily to the top of Texas.
There was a moment in 1939, as W. Lee O'Daniel was first sworn into office, when it was still possible for his followers to think the new governor was about to change everything. Little did they realize he already had.