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.
Photo Credit: Texas State Library and Archives Commission