This is part two of a five-part series broadcasting on Texas Standard and Texas Public Radio. The series tells the strange story of W. Lee O'Daniel, who in 1938 went from being a flour salesman on the radio to Governor of Texas and then U.S. Senator. O'Daniel is considered one of the most amazing politicians in Texas history who accomplished virtually nothing.
Texas Politics has always been known for its cast of interesting characters and certainly W. Lee “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel has his place in that flamboyant stable. In the 1930s, O’Daniel went from being a flour salesman with a radio show to governor -- and along the way he redefined Texas politics.
In 1938, The Great Depression was starting to release its grip on the American economy but the recovery was slow and uneven – particularly in Texas and across the South. Family farmers and the working class were still struggling to survive.
Nevertheless, President Franklin Roosevelt remained extremely popular with Texas voters but his New Deal was not with conservative, Texas business leaders.
Texas business leaders were especially repulsed by FDR’s clamp down on oil production and his pro-labor regulations – establishing a 40-hour work week and setting a minimum wage. Roosevelt explained the reforms directly to Americans over the radio with his fire side chats.
The stage was set for a defining struggle over the future of Texas - one that is still being felt today. And in this battle over the New Deal a wild card was dealt – W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.
"He tapped into that – that sense of – 'Is anybody going to help us? And why should we believe you, you politicians because it’s been going on a long time and we ain't seen nothing?'”
Chuck Bailey is the former chief of staff for Lt. Governor Bob Bullock and the author of "Picturing Texas Politics." He said O’Daniel had the right mix of attributes that appealed to voters.
"He was a successful businessman – a bandleader. He would not only use the hillbilly music, he was very religious and an early version of family values,” Bailey says.
In April 1938, O’Daniel went on his radio show and read a letter that he said came from a blind man who asked him to run for governor. Pappy then asked his listeners he if ought to.
Bill Crawford, author of "Please Pass The Biscuits Pappy," said the next week O’Daniel was back on the air with an announcement.
“He claimed he got 59,000 letters saying, "Go for it pappy, you’re the man for the job.' And he got four letters saying he shouldn’t run because he was too good for the job. Then he said maybe I ought to do this thing. It’s not me who wants to run it’s my listeners and my supporters and all these great people in Texas who are just forcing me to run because the politicians are so corrupt.”
Some suggest that O’Daniel was actually recruited to run for governor by the state’s business leaders. They were looking for a champion against FDR and the New Deal.
“When Lee O’Daniel first announced he was running for governor the political establishment thought it was a joke – they thought this flour salesman on the radio was a total joke. They soon learned that it wasn’t a joke. When he started campaigning with his band he drew the biggest crowds at political rallies in the state of Texas. And when he started drawing those crowds the political machine said – 'Oh no!'”
Mary Margaret McAllen Amberson is a Texas Historian and author of “I Would Rather Sleep in Texas: A History of the Rio Grande Valley.”
“Pappy O’Daniel’s approach to politics was the way that he sold flour – just giving the end result with lots of hucksterism and music and filled the airspace with himself,” she says.
O’Daniel told his followers that he was running on a platform of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.
Crawford says O'Daniel's slogan was “less Johnson grass and politicians and more smoke stacks and businessmen.” So he was running on a let’s get rid of the politicians and let businessmen run the state.”
McAllen Amberson says, “I think he told people what they wanted to hear. And he gave people a level of comfort that they hadn’t had in over a decade. So I think he made people feel that things were going to be all right and he was going to solve their problems.”
He did that with a promise of an old age pension of $30 a month for anyone over 65. But he didn’t say how he would pay for it.
“The political establishment was astounded because O’Daniel had never been registered as a Democrat. He was previously registered as a Republican. He had never voted in an election in Texas and he wasn’t eligible to vote because he hadn’t paid his poll tax.
O’Daniel was quoted saying he never paid the poll tax because he never found a politician that was worth the $1.75.
All this didn’t matter to the voters because on primary day O’Daniel stunned the state.
Texans wanted an amateur politician and they got just that. It didn’t take long for Governor Pappy O’Daniel to show his true colors.