energyskeptic | History tells us that the skeptical American people are easily conned when confronted with the promises of politicians. In 2016, the hairstyles may have changed but the schtick remains the same
“To strike the broad pure vein of American credulity one need dig only a bit to turn up such gems as Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, of Fort Worth, Texas, a Depression-era salesman for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. In the early 30s, O’Daniel began hosting a radio show featuring the soon-to-be famous Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys, though O’Daniel’s soothing, fatherly voice and easily digestible patter quickly became the real draw of the show. At 12.30 each weekday the broadcast opened with a country matron’s request to “please pass the biscuits, Pappy”. For the next 15 minutes, listeners – many of them housewives taking a midday break – were treated to twangy renditions of gospel and hillbilly tunes, interspersed with Pappy reading scripture, ad copy for Light Crust Flour, sentimental poems, and tributes to motherhood, Texas heroes, and good Christian living. His popularity grew to the point that he left Burrus Mill and started his own company, Hillbilly Flour, and began blasting his show over the 100,000 watts of XEPN, a pirate radio station across the border in Mexico.
Flour sales boomed, and Pappy himself was a star, the biggest mass-media celebrity in the south-west and a man with his eye on the next big thing. On the regular Hillbilly Flour program of 1 May 1938, he announced that as the result of a letter-writing campaign from thousands of listeners, he would bow to popular demand and run for governor. His platform consisted of the Ten Commandments, tax reform and a guaranteed pension of $30 a month to every Texan over the age of 65. His campaign theme was Pass the Biscuits, Pappy, his motto the Golden Rule. He avowed that his business experience would enable him to manage state government in a businesslike manner, and with his wife, three kids, and the Hillbilly Band (Wills had left years ago, disgusted with Pappy’s skinflint ways), the radio star began a barnstorming tour across Texas.
The effect was electric. O’Daniel had what would later be known as “name recognition”; everyone had heard, or at least heard of, Pappy. Crowds of 20,000 or more turned out for his rallies, and more than once mobs of fans forced his caravan to an unscheduled stop so they could hear the “common citizen’s candidate” rail on professional politicians, recite scripture, and plug Hillbilly Flour. An evangelical fervor was present from the start, fanned by the candidate’s Christian oratory and old-timey gospel music. The prominent Baptist minister J Frank Norris compared Pappy to Moses, predicting he would lead the country back to its Christian roots. As one historian wrote:
When attacked by establishment candidates, O’Daniel responded with scripture: “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and shall say all manner of evil falsely against you for My sake.” He countered objections to his Yankee origins (he was born in Ohio, reared in Kansas) with a touching story about his name: one of his uncles, a Union soldier in the civil war, had been mortally wounded, but was nursed so tenderly on his deathbed by a southern family that he sent word to his sister saying if she should ever have a son, he should be named after the great Confederate general Robert E Lee. In answer to charges of being secretly backed by big business, he replied: “How can you say I’m against the working man when I buried my daddy in overalls?”
If you’re looking for the phony in American politics, you could do worse than follow the money. In fact O’Daniel was being backed by a cabal of Texas’s richest oilmen and bankers, ultraconservatives all, and his campaign was directed by a sharp PR man out of Dallas. O’Daniel himself had grown wealthy in business and real estate, which didn’t keep him from sending his pretty daughter out at rallies with a small barrel labeled “Flour Not Pork”, appealing for desperately needed campaign funds. Sales of Hillbilly Flour doubled over the course of the campaign, and O’Daniel swept the election with more than twice the number of votes of his nearest competitor. Once in office, he began broadcasting directly from the Governor’s Mansion, pledging: “This administration is going to be me, God, and the people, thanks to the radio.”