When we are taught Texas history we generally focus on the heroes and leaders and politicians who did great things. People like Stephen F. Austin, General Sam Houston and Governor Jim Hogg. However, the text books skip right over the state leaders who were, at best, sub-par. But there’s a lot to learn from the stinkers. Should we be asking, where did the voters go wrong with electing leaders who failed them. For example how did Governor and U.S. Senator W. Lee O’Daniel continue to win elections? And what should we learn from his rise – rule and eventual fall.
“How do you do ladies and gentlemen and hello there boys and girls this is W. Lee O’Daniel speaking your United States Senator from Texas.”
With that tarnished 1941 special election victory O’Daniel was on his way to take his Senate seat. Lt Governor “Calculatin’”Coke Stevenson moved into the governor’s office.
“Even though we cannot see you face to face as we would like to – rest assured that we are in our thoughts and our hearts with you in beautiful Texas.”
O’Daniel would have to run for the full senate term the following year and that meant his radio presence was going to be even more important. And he would need his band.
In an August 17 1941 edition of the nationally syndicated column “The Washington Merry-Go-Round” Drew Person wrote “O’Daniel Loses no time Seeking Jobs for his Hillbilly band.” Pappy called on House Speaker Sam Rayburn and other high ranking Texans looking for ways to get federal paychecks for the band. But he was told the government needed bookkeepers not yodelers.
And in the Senate O’Daniel’s fellow lawmakers were already sour to Pappy’s biscuit batter. The day after he took his seat in the upper body he took the floor and began lecturing his fellow Senators – and they lost no time in slapping him down. The next day his first proposed amendment was literally tossed into a trash can on the Senate floor right in front of him.
On day four as a senator O’Daniel’s cast his first vote on a bill. It shocked the Texas delegation and Democratic caucus. He joined in with the isolationists and opposed the extension of the Selective Service and the draft. The attack on Pearl Harbor was still months away but the feeling in Washington was that war was inevitable.
He did win re-election in 1942. But for the first time he required a run-off and O’Daniel’s squeaker victory was in no small way due to the overwhelming support of the Republican German counties in Texas who weren’t even supposed to vote in the Democratic primary.
And in his radio broadcasts he rallied against Washington D.C. and especially one political party – his own.
“As all you know I am a Democrat – and when I came up here I thought the Democratic party was in power,” said O’Daniel.
It was being reported that O’Daniel now had his eyes set on the White House. His radio programs were carried in almost every state.
“I say to you people who are listening to me that unless we clean house in Washington D.C that the days of democratic government are limited,” he said.
O’Daniel – a sitting Senator - didn’t hold back in attacking his fellow lawmakers on the air accusing them of being communists.
“I wonder if you people have noticed all of the things that have been done to convert America into a great Sovietized society,” he said.
O’Daniel was alienated from his fellow lawmakers. He was so unpopular that he was labeled by the Associated Press “The Senator who walks Alone.”
His popularity in Texas dropped like a bag of dirt. He then turned to warn his listeners against the dangers of desegregation.
O’Daniel became so disliked by voters that in 1947 he had no choice but to not to seek re-election.
When he left Washington – after eight years in the Senate he had no accomplishments to point to. He never passed a bill or received more than four votes on any bill he proposed.
“It’s cautionary tale,” said Chuck Bailey – author of Picturing Texas Politics and the former chief of staff for Lt. Governor Bob Bullock.
Bill Crawford author of “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy” said O’Daniel’s success at getting elected but failure at governance is a lesson that should not be forgotten.
O’Daniel made several attempts in the 1950s to return to Texas politics but by then his old tricks had gone stale and Texas voters viewed him as an irrelevant relic of a different age. His greatest contribution to Texas was his association with Hillbilly music and Western Swing. In 2015 O’Daniel was inducted to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame.