L. Patrick Hughes
Austin Community College
Presented - University of Texas Continuing Education
It seems impossible today to pick up a paper or turn on the television without learning more than we ever possibly wanted to know about ex-professional "wrassler" and current Minnesota governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura. What, muse the talking heads, were those voters thinking about when they exercised their franchise? We have seen this before. Louisianans, for instance, gave the country the Longs, Huey and Earl, and hillbilly singer Jimmie "You Are My Sunshine" Davis, governors all. Nonetheless, other states take a back seat to Texas when it comes to outrageous and flamboyant political figures. Here between the Red and the Rio Grande, the Sabine and the Pecos, the "cult of personality" flourished throughout the first half of the century just passed. Individuals such as James E. and Miriam A. Ferguson - the "Ma" and "Pa" Kettle of Texas politics - and Wilbert Lee O'Daniel - affectionately known as "Pappy" - regularly treated the state's populace to outrageous statements, juicy social faux pas, and scandalous performance in their official capacities. Far from being chagrined and outraged, many Texans reveled in the notoriety of such individuals - it was part of their charm. The more outlandish the behavior, the greater the entertainment value. Others adopted the attitude that while such individuals were clowns and crooks, they were buffoons without parallel and thieves whose ineptitude reached legendary status. They were, in hindsight, uniquely Texan.
Just what is it about Texas and Texans that results in the elevation of such individuals to high elective office?
First, consider the state's historic political culture. From the days of empressario Stephen F. Austin's "Old Three Hundred" colonists to the present day, Jacksonian Democracy has been a cornerstone of political attitudes. Originally put forward by Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of the American republic and further defined by Andrew Jackson in the 1820s-1830s, the outlook is inherently negative. While some Americans looked upon government as essentially benign and an appropriate vehicle for the improvement of society, the overwhelming majority of Texans feared government, saw it as prone to abuse and despotism, and sought in every way to limit its power over their lives. The further away it was situated, the more leery most Texans were. The result was a preference for local rather than state or federal government, decentralization of power which rendered executives impotent and hobbled legislatures with constitutional strictures, and every office in sight elective rather than appointive.
The Reconstruction era, which featured artificially imposed and abnormally powerful government, exacerbated the preexisting fear. The resulting Constitution of 1876, under which we still function with some four hundred odd amendments, emasculated government in myriad ways. No branch of government suffered more than the executive branch. Angry unreconstructed Democrats stripped the governor's office almost entirely of meaningful power. They slashed his salary, limited his term to two years, and denied him even the ability to appoint those who would oversee the executive branch bureaucracy. Thus, the cost of electing and reelecting a "Pa" Ferguson or a "Pappy" O'Daniel governor was minimal. Without real power, they really couldn't do all that much damage. Had the office been vested with sweeping power, Texas voters would have perhaps demanded higher qualifications of and more rigorous performance from those who occupied the governor's mansion. Not expecting much, they were seldom disappointed.
Texans' negative attitude toward politics and government has also played out in the repeated election of non-politicians to the state's highest office. Where else is rank inexperience a virtue? How many times have you heard the following phrase from an individual seeking your vote: "Unlike my opponent, I'm not a professional politician; I'm just a plain bidnessman." Such candidates wear their inexperience in governmental affairs as a badge of honor because Texans respect successful entrepreneurs a whole lot more than they do politicians. Success in the world of commerce, however, is no guarantee of superior performance in the political realm.
Finally, the absence of true two-party competition in Texas until the most recent times also helps explain the "cult of personality" phenomenon. As the twenty-first century begins, political parties wield ever-declining structural power. However, in times past, one major function of the formal party organization was to recruit, train, and place in office those with superior ability. Individuals were forced to prove their worth and qualifications before being bestowed the party's nomination for high office. This was particularly true in regions of the country where two parties enjoyed viability and all races were competitive. Conversely, the lack of such structured competition in states like Texas appears to have fostered successful candidacies of untested outsiders who appeared on the scene out of the blue. In a day and time when victory in an always-crowded Democratic primary field was tantamount to election, the "cult of personality" came to flourish, producing Fergusons and O'Daniels.
William Edward Ferguson, AKA "Pa" or "Farmer Jim," entered life in 1871 on the family farm in Bell County. After his expulsion from Salado College for "disobedience," he farmed and worked on a railroad-bridge gang before reading the law and winning admission to the bar in 1897. Plainly ambitious, Ferguson combined a legal practice in Belton with real estate and banking investments before moving to Temple and setting up the Temple State Bank. It was apparent from the beginning that the future governor was more than willing to push propriety's bounds. According to Lewis Gould, "…Ferguson's business and banking career mixed abundant speculation" with sheer audacity. "…His claimed assets reveal that he inflated his own worth, misled creditors, manipulated bank funds [to his own advantage], and mortgaged some property two or three times to unknowing and different banks."
Ferguson's elective career began at the
top with the quest for the governorship in 1914 as the prohibition issue
was beginning to peak in Texas. Vowing to veto any prohibition legislation
when elected, he attracted the support of wets in the Democratic primary
while the drys backed Thomas H. Ball of Houston. Though himself an urban
banker, Ferguson pitched his campaign to rural farmers, pledging to secure
passage of a law limiting the percentage of yield that landowners could
demand of sharecroppers. It was a successful ploy. Reported to be the best
stump speaker of his generation, he won the support of, as he put it, "the
boys at the forks of the creeks." They would remain his most devoted partisans
over the next quarter-century. Besting the inept Ball by 40,000 votes in
the primary, Ferguson took office in January 1915.
As far as the general public was concerned, the governor's first term was largely uneventful. The legislature enacted Ferguson's agrarian proposal. It, however, was never enforced and was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court. While taxes went up significantly, the governor seemed well on his way to a second term. Behind the scenes, however, trouble was afoot.
Perhaps it was attempted revenge for his own unsuccessful collegiate experience. Or maybe it was a planned political maneuver designed to curry favor with voters by playing to their anti-intellectual bias. Most likely it was simply an issue of power and Ferguson's need to dominate everyone and everything within reach. Whatever the underlying cause or causes, Farmer Jim's war on the University of Texas seems in hindsight to have been almost inevitable.
Relations had been strained from the first. Speaking to the legislature in January 1915, the newly elected governor expressed concern about what he charged was the lavish funding of higher education. "It is apparent to any fair-minded person that Texas is today suffering more from a want of under education of the many than it is from a want of over education of the few." When university officials continued to push for more money and control over the school's finances, Pa lashed out: "Only $7 or $8 per capita is expended on the country boys, while $350 is spent on university students." " If they out there are not satisfied with the state paying $350 a head for their education, why then we will give this money to the country boys."
The governor's objections to the university were many. He alleged that administrators committed deception and fraud against taxpayers when they shifted appropriated moneys from one purpose to another as circumstances dictated. Professors were, in his eyes, lazy freeloaders. According to Ferguson, university professors worked only fourteen hours a week. Acting UT President William J. Battle responded that the governor was either misinformed or disingenuous. When one counted time in class, preparation, grading, conferences, committee work, and research, the average professor was putting in nearly fifty hours a week. Ferguson objected to faculty being reimbursed for travel expenses to attend professional conferences and symposiums as unethical expenditures. As university supporters protested political interference, the governor pushed matters further, demanding the dismissal of professors and employees he found personally objectionable. When new university president Robert Vinson invited the governor to present his evidence against such individuals to the Board of Regents for consideration, Ferguson demurred, maintaining that they were "tenants at will" without rights and could be fired for any reason whatsoever. In an era before genuine tenure existed, Pa screamed: "I don't have to give any reasons, I am governor of the State of Texas." If the university refused to acquiesce to his demands, it was going to have "the biggest bear fight that has ever taken place in the history of the state of Texas."
Without any evidence of misdoing, the regents refused to fire those the governor had targeted. Accordingly, Ferguson declared war in June 1917, vetoing almost all of the university's appropriations for the next biennium. The university's very existence was now at stake. It quickly became apparent that this would be a battle to the death. Students from the Austin campus marched on the capital calling for an end to gubernatorial tyranny and one-man rule. University supporters such as John Lomax and Will Hogg sprang into action, demanding that the legislature reverse the governor's irresponsible action. As it turned out, legislators went much, much further.
Rumors of gubernatorial malfeasance had failed to make much impact during Ferguson's successful reelection bid in 1916. They now became the basis for the university's counterattack. Responding to intense pressure from University backers, the speaker of the state House of Representatives called for a special session of the legislature. This was clearly an unconstitutional act, as the Constitution of 1876 explicitly states that only the governor has the power to call a special session. Ferguson, however, committed a crucial mistake by authorizing the session since it was going to meet anyway.
The legislature, more intent on dealing with Ferguson than observing legal niceties, immediately began the impeachment process. The House of Representatives voted out twenty-one charges, calling for the Senate to find the governor guilty and remove him from office. Many of the charges were weak, extraneous, or superfluous, but several were substantial and damning. First, the representatives charged that Ferguson's university appropriations veto was unconstitutional. It charged that the governor had illegally funneled state funds to his own purposes. Third, Governor Ferguson was charged with having illegally deposited state funds in his own bank - and having personally profited because no interest was paid to the state. Finally, the House indicted Ferguson for acceptance of a bribe/illegal loan or contribution of $156,000 from brewing interests in 1916.
While Governor Ferguson maintained that the charges of impeachment were unconstitutional because his session call had not included the subject, he defended himself when the Senate began the trial phase of the process. When it appeared that he didn't have the votes to escape the Senate's judgement, Farmer Jim resigned the governorship on September 24, 1917. This was to no avail as hours later the Senate found him guilty of several charges, ordered his removal from office, and barred him from ever again holding an office authorized by the state constitution. Lieutenant Governor William P. Hobby took the oath of office and assumed the governorship.
"Pa" went to court, maintaining that the impeachment and ban from state office were illegal. Additionally, he challenged Hobby for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1918 while his case progressed slowly through the court system. The deposed Ferguson ridiculed his opponent's big ears and lack of height. Hobby retorted: "I will admit that the Supreme Being failed to favor me with physical attributes pleasing to Governor Ferguson, but at least he gave me the intelligence to know the difference between my own money and that which belongs to the state." When Pa, objecting to the construction of tennis courts at the Mansion, suggested a cow lot instead, Hobby responded, "It's too bad that the ex-Governor didn't think of the milch cow pen while he was in office. They say in those days he confined his milking activities to the public treasury." While Ferguson lost the primary battle against Governor Hobby by a wide margin and the Texas Supreme Court upheld his impeachment and ban from state office, Pa was far from finished.
Two years later Ferguson's name appeared on the ballot in Texas as a candidate for the presidency of the United States under the non-existent American Party banner. Note if you will that Pa was barred only from offices created by the state constitution. He was therefore eligible to run for and hold offices created by the federal constitution. His 1920 effort was not a serious candidacy; he simply wanted to keep his name before the electorate until he figured out his next move. That came in 1922 when he battled Earle B. Mayfield and others for a seat in the United States Senate. Despite his checkered past, Ferguson made the runoff against Mayfield, who had been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. While he fell 45,000 votes short of victory, he had reestablished himself as a political force.
His resurrection became even more obvious when he hit upon the idea of running his wife, Miriam, for the governorship in 1924. If he couldn't be governor in name, he could be governor in fact. It was an audacious and unprecedented move. Nonetheless, most political experts discounted Mrs. Ferguson's chances, believing that Judge Felix Robertson, the Klan candidate, would win the Democratic nomination handily.
What followed was one of the most colorful and heated political campaigns in Texas history. Typical Ferguson rallies opened with the candidate making a plea to the women in the audience to help her clear her family's good name. "A vote for me," she would say, "is a vote of confidence for my husband." She would then cheerfully admit that she was no orator and introduce Pa. Though she trailed Robertson by almost 50,000 votes in the initial balloting, she and Pa made the runoff. The Ferguson forces adopted slogans such as "Me for Ma, and I ain't got a durn thing against Pa," "A bonnet and not a hood," and "Two governors for the price of one." With each passing day, the husband and wife team picked up ground as Farmer Jim lashed out again and again at the hooded order whose popularity was in decline by this point. Ma's 125,000 victory over Robertson in the runoff was the product of two factors. Her husband, his impeachment aside, still remained the idol of the dirt farmers across Texas who turned out in droves to vote for Ma. Clear-cut identification as the anti-Klan candidate also drew votes from citizens who would otherwise never have voted for a return of "Fergusonism."
Regardless, Ma and Pa drove up to the governor's mansion in victory in January 1925. Said Ma: "We departed in disgrace; we now return in glory." It, however, marked the highpoint of the Ferguson era. There was never any doubt about whom was making the decisions and exercising the power. Noted one insider, "Jim's the governor; Ma signs the papers."
Conflict with the legislature and scandal characterized Mrs. Ferguson's gubernatorial term. Citing the need to reduce expenditures in her initial speech to legislators, Ma announced "I shall adopt a most liberal policy in the matter of pardons." Pardons there were aplenty, more than 2,000 of them in the next two years. One apocryphal tale had it that a man began to walk through a door at the Capitol at the same time as Mrs. Ferguson. "Pardon me," he said politely. "Sure," she responded. "Come on in. It'll only take a minute or two to do the paperwork." Another story that made the rounds involved the visit of the father of a convicted criminal to Pa's office. The father pleaded with the ex-governor to intercede with his wife to pardon his son. Ferguson, however, insisted on talking about a horse he wanted to sell for the ridiculously high price of $5,000. The clearly exasperated man finally asked, "What on earth would I want with a $5,000 horse?" The alleged reply was "Well, I figure your son might ride him home from the penitentiary if you bought him." A joint House-Senate investigating committee reported that many of Ma's pardons had indeed been granted on the recommendation of her husband, some before the criminal had ever reach state prison.
Nor were pardons the only area of controversy. Another charge was that any company building roads for the state had to buy advertising at exorbitant rates in the Ferguson Forum, a political newspaper, if it expected to continue being granted state highway contracts. More charges ensued that highway contracts were being granted on the basis of personal friendship and favoritism. Attorney General Dan Moody, motivated perhaps as much by the possibility of political advancement as by a devotion to honest government, conducted his own investigation. He found that two companies were to receive more than $7 million for road building through they would have spent less than $2 million to construct these thoroughfares.
Such charges made the Ferguson's quest of another term an uphill battle from the start. Calling for an end to "government by proxy," Attorney General Moody announced his candidacy. According to him the overriding issue of the campaign was "Fergusonism" and he pledged to restore honesty to state government. At the Fergusons' opening rally at Sulphur Springs, Jim promised he would sling no mud in the upcoming campaign. With a wink and a laugh, he then announced: "I'm going to throw rocks." That he did. Pa tried to return to the Klan issue that had proven so successful two years previously. "Moody's campaign," he alleged, "was daddied in the evoluted monkey end of the Baptist church and boosted by the KKK." As Moody had diligently and successfully fought the Klan in various courts throughout his judicial career, most voters refused to buy the allegation. Moody rolled to victory in the primary by over 200,000 votes.
Less persistent figures would have given up in the aftermath of such rejection. Not Ma and Pa. Though Ferguson failed to win the gubernatorial nomination for Ma in 1930, it proved a blessing in disguise. As the Great Depression worsened, Governor Ross Sterling's public approval rating plummeted. Taking on the weakened Sterling for a second time in 1932, they now triumphed. Ma's second administration, though less dominated by charges of scandalous behavior by Pa, was no more successful than her first. As governor, she proved unable to find the revenue needed to cope with the economic disaster besetting the state and chose not to seek reelection in 1934. Their swan song was Ma's unsuccessful race for the governorship in 1940 against incumbent Wilbert Lee O'Daniel. The old fire simply wasn't there any longer. Pa was by then an elderly man - a mere shell of the political whirlwind that had stormed across the Lone Star state in years past. After a quarter century as the key players in state affairs, the Fergusons now retired from the arena.
The cult of personality was, however, far from finished; voters had simply gravitated to a new celebrity know popularly to one and all as "Pappy." Born in Malta, Ohio in 1890 to William and Alice O'Daniel, Wilbert Lee's life revolved from age eighteen forward around flour. Hired originally as a stenographer and bookkeeper for an Anthony, Kansas mill, O'Daniel rose quickly to the position of sales manager. After brief sojourns in similar positions in Kansas City and New Orleans, the thirty-five year old and his growing family relocated to Fort Worth in 1925. There he assumed the job of sales manager for the Burris Mills Flour and Elevator Company. His responsibilities increased in 1928 when he took charge of the company's advertising efforts. Happenstance, the spreading popularity of radio, and O'Daniel's own flair for self-promotion and pyrotechnic showmanship combined at this point to revolutionize the worlds of both music and politics in Texas.
Burris Mill's radio program each weekday morning had attracted few listeners and sold even less flour until O'Daniel hired several aspiring musicians to provide entertainment. Little could he have known that those three - fiddler Bob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and vocalist Milton Brown - would shortly achieve superstar status in musical circles. With the addition of the trio, audience share skyrocketed and W. Lee seized the opportunity with all the energy and funds he could muster. Wills' little fiddle band became the Light Crust Doughboys (after Burris' leading product) and O'Daniel fashioned a regional broadcasting network which brought programming to a now burgeoning audience over WBAP and KTAT in Fort Worth, WOAI in San Antonio, KPRC in Houston, and KOMA in Oklahoma City. By this time the president and general manager of Burris, Pappy called all the shots, assuming the role of announcer and on-air ringmaster. What followed became broadcasting legend.
As the hands of the clock neared 12:30 noon each weekday, listeners across the southwest waited in anticipation for engineer Truett Kimzey's electrifying announcement that "The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!" After Wills' first raspy licks on the fiddle, the boys broke into the program's theme song. "Listen everybody from near and far, if you want to know who we are, we're the Light Crust Doughboys from Burris Mills. Never do brag, never do boast, sing our songs from coast to coast, we're the Light Crust Doughboys from Burris Mills."
While the format varied slightly with the passage of time and the coming and going of various musicians, O'Daniel put together a show targeted to the common folk. The music was always first rate and the central component. Though Wills, Arnspiger, and Brown were all gone by the end of 1932 because of disputes with the fiery boss, they laid the foundations for what became a new genre of American music - Western Swing. A melange of fiddle tunes, jazz, blues, ballads, and dance music, it was above all else upbeat, improvisational, and experimental. Their successors at the Doughboy microphone would continue to perfect the style once Wills left to front the Texas Playboys and Brown bolted to found the Musical Brownies. Then there were Pappy's songs - including "Beautiful Texas," "Memories of Jimmie Rodgers," and "On To Victory, Mr. Roosevelt." In dulcet tones, O'Daniel recited poems, read Bible passages, and encouraged listeners to follow moral principles that he himself seemingly foreswore.
The show's popularity kept growing. Leon McAuliffe, who would himself later be a pioneer of the steel guitar in both the Doughboys and Wills' Texas Playboys, remembered walking to the store for his mother each day as a teenager during the midday broadcast over KPRC in Houston. "I would walk three blocks to the store and never miss a word of a song. In the summer every window was open, and every radio was tuned to the Light Crust Doughboys."
Though many later viewed Pappy as a charlatan who simply exploited his musicians, his contributions - both on-air and behind the scenes on business matters - were indispensable to the show's success. He provided the platform and he kept it growing. Not only did he expand the radio network with each passing month; he extended the show and the band's presence in the community. He purchased a huge touring automobile which he plastered with signs extolling the virtues of Light Crust Flour and equipped it with a public address system for personal appearances across the southwest. As the sale of Burris Mills flour increased in direct proportion to the show's popularity, the Fort Worth business community acknowledged his entrepreneurial acumen by selecting him president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1933-34.
When Burris Mills severed its relationship with O'Daniel in 1935 after a series of bitter disputes, Pappy launched his own brand of flour, cobbled together an alternate radio network, and recruited a new group of musicians. Within days the "Hillbilly Boys", led by O'Daniel, were on the air and on the road extolling the virtues of "Hillbilly Flour." Realizing that he lacked the financing required to construct and operate his own mill, Pappy the businessman simply bought immense quantities of flour processed by others, packaged it in his own distinctive "Hillbilly Flour" bags, and he was off and running. The radio show and the bags both sported the new "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" slogan and listeners were treated to the new promotional lyrics "Hillbilly music on the air, Hillbilly Flour everywhere. It tickles your feet, it tickles your tongue, wherever you go, its praises are sung!" He had barely missed a beat and the legend continued to grow.
On Palm Sunday, 1938 O'Daniel launched himself into the choppy waters of Texas politics. Pappy casually mentioned during a broadcast of the Hillbilly Flour show that a blind man had suggested that he run for governor in order to "clean up the mess in Austin." While he undoubtedly had already made up his mind, O'Daniel asked his listeners to advise him as to what decision he should make. Not surprisingly, of the nearly 55,000 responses he received, all but three advised him to make the race. The dissenting three said he was much too good to go into politics. Pappy bowed to the wisdom of the common people and announced his candidacy.
Most political observers gave O'Daniel no chance whatsoever against seasoned governmental veterans in what was quickly a crowded primary field. In fact, the experts looked upon his candidacy as simply another publicity gimmick designed solely to further his radio and flour interests. What ensued, however, was a prime example of the power of personality in Texas politics.
Pappy and the Hillbilly Boys hit the road, touring the state throughout the primary season. While the entourage drew crowds wherever it went, it attracted phenomenal attention in rural areas where it became a "can't miss" happening. Press reports estimated a number of these crowds in excess of 40,000 people. The Hillbilly Boys kicked off the festivities with a stirring rendition of O'Daniel's "Beautiful Texas." Once the crowds had gathered to hear the music, Pappy launched into what was by any measure a unique stump speech. His platform was simple - the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, and the Bible. While these would always be his guiding principles, he pledged to block any form of sales tax, abolish capital punishment, eliminate the poll tax, and provide pensions to the elderly. Then he would send family members including sons "Patty Boy" and "Mickey Wickey" out into the assembled masses with miniature flour barrels seeking donations. It was pure entertainment and the best show to hit rural areas in years.
The main theme of the O'Daniel campaign was a supposed assault upon the political establishment. Pappy portrayed himself as a simple hillbilly carrying the people's banner into battle against the entrenched professionals in Austin. Though he was in fact guided by a public relations firm and reactionary business and financial interests had bankrolled his campaign from the beginning, it was the common folk against the pros. When he triumphed at the polls, Pappy asserted, it would actually be the common folk who would occupy the governor's mansion.
O'Daniel indeed shocked the establishment, winning the Democratic nomination outright without need for the customary runoff. Besides securing fifty-one per cent of the vote, he had defeated such formidable opponents as Attorney General William McCraw and railroad commissioner Colonel E. O. Thompson. Effective as a campaigner, Pappy proved inept as governor.
The vaudevillian environment continued. O'Daniel knew that his radio audience was the wellspring of his power and was determined to maintain the connection. Accordingly, the new governor brought all of the Hillbilly Boys with him to Austin. Some were housed free of charge in state-owned property and all found employment with various agencies over which the governor exercised control. Each Sunday afternoon they would gather on the porch of the governor's mansion for Pappy's weekly radio broadcast. The product extolled was now Pappy, pure and simple. After all, a likely battle for renomination already loomed on the horizon.
As a political novice with a fiery personality, O'Daniel was quickly at loggerheads with the legislature. He simply didn't know the legislative process and didn't care to learn. Pappy rejected out of hand the need to compromise with those of different positions and shunned the kind of one-on-one lobbying required to lead effectively once in office. He asked for little from the legislature and got even less. In a period of three years he vetoed fifty-seven bills placed on his desk by legislators, twelve of which were overridden. Both figures were unprecedented.
There were unfulfilled promises. Despite his campaign pledge to block any sales tax because such would impact disproportionately on the needy, Pappy submitted a tax plan to the legislature that was in fact a multiple sales tax. His populist pretensions notwithstanding, O'Daniel had in truth submitted a bill secretly authored by manufacturing lobbyists who wished to head off higher corporate taxes. The legislature rejected it out of hand. Capital punishment remained untouched as did the poll tax (which, incidentally, the governor had never himself paid since he'd never voted). The scarcity of government revenues as the depression lingered doomed his half-hearted effort to grant old-age pensions.
There was, however, no questioning his enduring popularity. When Pappy stood for renomination in 1940, he handled Ma Ferguson and other challengers with relative ease. Once again framing the contest as the little people against the "professional" and "pussy-footing" politicians, Governor O'Daniel triumphed with a clear majority in the initial primary.
Then an opportunity presented itself for the people's champion to take on the entrenched powers in the nation's capital. When Senator Morris Sheppard succumbed to a stroke in 1941, Pappy, disavowing any interest in running for the position himself, appointed Andrew Jackson Houston to serve out the remaining year of the term. Texas' new senator was the eighty-seven year old son of Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto and the Republic's first president. He was in extremely poor health and seemed confused by the supposed honor that Pappy now bestowed upon him. As it turned out, Houston barely made it to Washington, D. C. before himself collapsing and dying. O'Daniel now set the date for a special election to fill the vacancy.
The candidates came out of the walls. There were the perennial office seekers with no chance whatsoever of winning. The most colorful of these in 1941 were the notorious Dr. John R. Brinkley, who performed implant operations involving goat glands in Del Rio guaranteed to restore the sexual potency of male patients, and Hal Collins, an entrepreneur who merchandised Crazy Water Crystals as a purgative cure-all. There were office holders such as Representatives Lyndon Baines Johnson and Martin Dies looking to take a giant step up the political ladder. As the filing deadline neared, there were twenty-eight candidates committed to the race. Then, despite earlier statements to the contrary, there was a twenty-ninth, W. Lee O'Daniel.
From the beginning, the race boiled down to Pappy, once again calling upon the common folk for their support, and Lyndon, whose chances depended upon tacit support from and identification with President Franklin Roosevelt as the nation edged closer to intervention in World War II. As Pappy hit the campaign trail with the Hillbilly Boys, Patty Boy, and Mickey Wickey and blasted the state with broadcasts from radio station XEAW located across the river in Reynosa, Congressman Johnson, fueled with an estimated half million dollars from George and Herman Brown's construction firm, tried to "out Pappy" the governor. He had a legitimate message to take to voters but felt it necessary to present it in the most entertaining fashion possible in order to be competitive. Lyndon and campaign manager John Connally put together their own road show. It was a choreographed extravaganza of the first order. They hired their own fiddle band to draw the hillbillies and provided free food and drink at every campaign rally. A full-blown orchestra decked out in red, white, and blue uniforms played Sousa marches and patriotic anthems to work the crowds into a frenzy. There were blackface comedians and dancing girls. Just before the candidate spoke, two hundred and eighty-five-pound Sophie Parker, known as the Kate Smith of the South, belted out "God Bless America." Then, against a massive backdrop featuring photographs of FDR and LBJ and posters touting "Franklin D. and Lyndon B.," the youthful Johnson warned of the Axis threat, praised the president's mobilization efforts, and pledged his all-out support should he be chosen Sheppard's successor. It was a hell of a show….and it nearly worked. Only post-primary vote fraud in East Texas by brewing interests denied Johnson the Senate seat.
Accordingly, O'Daniel turned the reigns of state government over to Lt. Governor Coke Stevenson, packed up the family including the Hillbilly Boys, and took his show to Washington, D.C. and the big time. It was a short one-term run. Fiddle music, bromides, and sermonettes on morality had made him a phenomenon in Texas; they made him an oddball and an embarrassment in the nation's capitol where the political stakes were so much higher. Pappy simply couldn't work in the collegial realm of the United States Senate. He found it increasingly difficult to be one of ninety-six after having been "the" man and "the" governor back home. With each passing year, his act was growing staler in Texas as well. Public opinion polls in early 1948 revealed him with but single digit support for a second six-year term and he declined to seek renomination. Tending his business interests and real estate investments from his Fort Worth home, Pappy made attempted comebacks in both 1956 and 1958 when he sought the gubernatorial nomination. He had, however, clearly lost his ability to dazzle voters. Denunciations of "the communist-inspired" Supreme Court decision mandating the desegregation of public schools and apocalyptic visions of an impending socialist revolution failed to move the electorate.
Willie Morris' marvelous memoir entitled North Toward Home includes a revealing vignette regarding O'Daniel's last venture into the electoral arena. Journalist Morris was accompanying the ex-senator on the road. They pulled into Fort Stockton in West Texas after a long drive and immediately went to a café where Pappy attempted to glad-hand the customers waiting for their meals. "Hi, I'm Pappy O'Daniel and I'd sure appreciate your vote for governor in the primary." One crusty aging rancher, with a quizzical look on his face, slowly responded "Gee, I thought you were dead." According to Morris, a visibly shaken Pappy walked outside and stared dejectedly down the highway, reminiscing about better times in the distant past.
Despite the imagery and rhetoric of the champion of the common folk waging a righteous crusade against the professional politicians and entrenched interests, W. Lee O'Daniel was, in fact, a political reactionary who hauled water for the financially wealthy and ultraconservatives within the Democratic party.
In party matters, he successfully hid his animus for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal while the president was at the height of his popularity. With each passing year, however, it became more and more obvious where Pappy's true sympathies lay. As titular head of the state Democratic Party while governor, he placed ultraconservative opponents of the president in party positions and worked with anti-third termers to deny Texas to Roosevelt in 1940. As Texas' junior senator in 1944, he threw his support to the renegade "Texas Regulars" faction and gave radio addresses denouncing the president as despot-for-life.
In the area of policy, Governor O'Daniel halted a number
of the moderately liberal initiatives undertaken by his predecessor, James
V. Allred. Immediately following his renomination in 1940, he submitted
legislative proposals to state legislators that passed as the O'Daniel
Anti-violence Act. Though most of the provisions were subsequently ruled
unconstitutional by the courts, the thinly veiled attack upon labor unions
by the governor demonstrated his pro-management bias. O'Daniel nonetheless
remained convinced that unions were dominated by "communists and labor
racketeers." As a member of the Senate, O'Daniel consistently voted against
both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, joining with Republicans and fellow
southern conservatives in a congressional coalition that ended the New
Deal and kept the Fair Deal from ever getting off the ground. The moderately
liberal transformation of the Democratic Party, especially with respect
to civil rights, was for him simply further evidence of the communists'
infiltration of an America racing toward its demise.
WHITHER GOETH TEXAS?
Is the cult of personality a thing of the past given the changes in the Texas political scene during the last half century, the Democratic Party's fall from its historic domination, and the rise of a viable Republican organization? To tell you the absolute truth, I don't have a clue. I'm a historian not a seer.
That being said, many of the same factors that produced individuals such as Ma, Pa, and Pappy in times past are still present. Texans still disdain politicians and show a preference to elevate individuals with no past elective experience to the state's highest office. While no one would maintain that John Connally, Bill Clements, and George W. Bush were political virgins, none of them had ever held elective political office prior to their governorships.
Or take for example the ability of one Clayton Williams in 1990 to secure the Republican Party nomination for governor and near victory over Ann Richards in the general election. Mr. Williams had not one whit of elective experience. Nonetheless, armed with a successful entrepreneurial career and almost $20 million of his own money, Claytie came within several verbal gaffes of occupying the governor's mansion. Bless his heart, Claytie proved that if you try hard enough it is still possible to overcome the advantage of money on Election Day. Only by sticking his foot in his mouth up to his hip - repeatedly - again and again and again - in front of news cameras - was Claytie able to overcome all of the factors working in his favor. Nonetheless, "bidnessmen" will always be viable candidates for office in Texas.
Then there is the power of personality in a state that values individualism more than most. Quirkiness has not and is not now a disqualification to exercising political influence or holding office. Publicity is publicity - whether good or bad. Some handle it poorly. Take for instance the end of state senator Drew Nixon's career after having been busted for soliciting an undercover City of Austin policewoman posing as a prostitute on South Congress here in River City. On the other hand, there would be Bill Clements who survived the "Ponygate" episode in the early 1980s. "Dollar Bill" had voted as a regent of Southern Methodist University to pay blackmail money to ex-Mustang football players to keep quiet the fact that alumni and supporters had been buying - or at least renting - a championship football team. When he denied the blackmail payments after Southern Methodist came under N.C.A.A. investigation and subsequent events revealed the opposite was in fact the case, Governor Clements told reporters that he couldn't understand why his denials were being criticized. After all, he stated, he hadn't had his hand on the Bible when he had made that statement. After a four-year hiatus, he won back the governorship.
Ladies and Gentlemen, ONLY IN TEXAS!