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Pass The Politics Pappy Part 3: O’Daniel The Governor

Texas State Archive

This is part three 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.

The 34th Governor of Texas was W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. The businessman and radio personality was elected to office in 1938 by riding his own celebrity wave. But after the election how did Pappy do as governor?

When O’Daniel won the gubernatorial primary – it not only shocked the Texas establishment but also the nation – capturing the attention of the newsreels.

There was O’Daniel mania in Texas – newspapers ran a series of stories extolling his biography. There was even a song that sang his praises – “The Blue Bonnet Governor.”

The tradition in Texas was for quiet and dignified inaugurations for governor but not for O’Daniel.

Chuck Bailey is the former chief of staff for Lt. Governor Bob Bullock and the author of "Picturing Texas Politics." He said the inauguration was the biggest anyone had ever seen.

“It was so big they had to move it to the University of Texas football stadium. There was a big parade. It was a big – it was a big to do.”

One woman went to the inaugural ball wearing a gown made from Hillbilly Flour sackcloth. Life magazine took notice and gave the spectacle a four-page photo spread. The next issue there was a letter to the editor that tried to set the record straight.

Letter to the Editor – Life Magazine February 1939


Your layout of pictures on the inauguration of W. Lee O'Daniel brought forth a nausea somewhere to that experienced when one is forced to take an overdose of castor oil.

Just for the record all Texans are not for O'Daniel.

In a moment of hysteria Texas went to the polls with the strains of "Beautiful Texas" ringing in their ears and when the ringing had subsided to just a dull ache, there was O'Daniel.

The day after the inauguration O’Daniel addressed the legislature and finally revealed how the state was going to find the estimated $40 million needed for the old age pension that he promised.

O’Daniel called for a “transaction tax.” Texas lawmakers recoiled in horror at the suggestion – they pointed out that a transaction tax was just another term for a sales tax and called it a tax on the poor. Also, they reminded O’Daniel that another of his campaign promises was to fight against a sales tax.

Chuck Bailey says, “There was a state senator back in the late '30s named Manly Head. He gave a speech on the floor of the senate that was critical of the transactions tax. In fact he wrote a song and he called it Transactional Taxes and he set it to the tune of Beautiful Texas which had been written by Pappy O’Daniel.

He said the next week on the radio Pappy O’Daniel came on and said “Leon,” who is one of his musicians, “We need to play a sweet hour of prayer for that Senator from Stephenville with the Hitler mustache. And Senator Head said they came in his district during the next election cycle and beat him like a drum.”

O’Daniel ended the practice of press conferences. And instead he used the power of radio to pummel his opponents and push for his programs. Reporters complained that a microphone didn’t ask tough and unwanted questions. In an oral history interview, former House Speaker Ruben Shenterfitt said O’Daniel used his broadcasts to wage war against the lawmakers.

“You know he had a purge and he purged a large number of the members – there was a large turn over. But since I was not in the session before during his first term as governor it didn’t affect me that greatly. But he made an effort to purge those who opposed his program.

“HELLO there boys and girls this is GovernorLee O’daniel speaking.”

O’Daniel did his broadcasting directly from the governor’s mansion – but using the airwaves for political attacks didn’t sit well with the owners of the radio stations that carried his broadcasts. WBAP, a Dallas station, challenged O’Daniel and said they needed to pre-approve his scripts. This caused another controversy for O’Daniel that he was able to turn to his advantage.

Bill Crawford wrote the book “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy” and is the coauthor of “Border Radio – Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics and other amazing broadcasters of the American Airwaves.”  

O’Daniel turned to border blaster radio stations to get his message to the people. These were million watt quasi illegal radio stations built in Mexico right across the Rio Grande that were beaming radio shows of questionable content straight into America. The Governor of Texas had joined a goat gland doctor, crazy crystal cures and other shams that operated in direct defiance of United States sovereignty.

O’Daniel also used his airtime to warn Texans about the threat of communists and German loyalists who were ready to strike. These traitors and sleeper agents were called the 5th Column and O’Daniel asked his listeners to spy on their neighbors and to let him know if they saw anything suspicious.

On May 20, 1940, O’Daniel announced he had confidential reports of anti-American activities in Texas. He launched a program with the Texas Rangers and the Texas Highway Patrol to investigate and handle these spies, saboteurs, labor organizers and homosexuals.

Reports came in attacking professors at the University of Texas which was apparently rampant with “Hitlerism.” No evidence was ever produced.  Still Texas cracked down on anything German in the state – even outlawing the teaching of German in public schools.

Meanwhile O’Daniel’s legislative agenda was going nowhere. He retaliated with a series of vetoes that were easily overturned. O’Daniel holds the record for the Texas governor with the most overturned vetoes at 12.

Regardless of his lack of results, O’Daniel was re-elected in 1940 due to his showmanship on the radio.

But he wouldn’t spend much time as a second term governor because O’Daniel would soon launch his biggest scheme yet.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi