Above everything else, “Pappy” Lee O’Daniel was a political showman in Texas during the 1930s.
“Listen everybody from near and far. Do you wanna know who we are? We’re the Lightcrust Doughboys from the Burrus Mills! If you like our song and think it’s fine sit right down and drop a line…we’re the Lightcrust Doughboys from the Burrus Mills.”
It was the summer of ‘30. The Great Depression was in full swing and my family along with every other family that I knew, quit work in the fields at dinner time (noon) and turned on their radios to listen to the Lightcrust Doughboys broadcasting live from Fort Worth. As we gathered around the dining table to eat roasting ears, fried chicken, homemade biscuits and thickened gravy, we listened to “Pappy” W. Lee O’Daniel read from a Bible and praise Lightcrust Flour and his Doughboys. A favorite phrase was, “Please pass the biscuits, Pappy.” Bob Wills and Milton Brown were members of that band among other good musicians. The show was so popular that fans finally persuaded O’Daniel to run for governor.
As a child, I remember that Pappy stressed the need to live by the Ten Commandments, guarantee old-age pensions, and create tax cuts. When he started talking about old-age pensions he got the ears of my grandmother. My grandfather had died some 15 years before, leaving her with a burned out cotton farm, and 12 grown children with families of their own. Finally, in desperation, she spent her time living in one of her children’s households and then another. An old-age pension was hope for her.
Pappy filed for governor of Texas on May 1, 1938 for the Democratic primary. In the ‘30s and until the ‘80s, Texas was a one-party political scene. Winner of the Democratic Primary meant a sure win in November. The only confessed Republican that I knew when I was growing up was my uncle Hubert that the rest of my family considered sort of an outlaw when it came to independent thinking. He had even voted against Franklin D. Roosevelt when the rest of us considered the president to be a modern day Moses born to lead the nation out of the Depression.
Pappy went on the campaign trail accompanied by his band and waving his King James version of the Bible to the crowd. The impressive crowds he attracted, especially in rural areas, turned out to vote in the primary and he absolutely annihilated the opposition. He pledged to block sales tax, abolish capital punishment, liquidate the poll tax, and raise old-age pensions. In other words he promised what the people wanted to hear but the records show that he was unable to live up to even one of those promises.
Once elected, Pappy became obsessed with the idea that there was a fifth column in Texas, one that was Communist and was bound to destroy America. His speeches, in reflection, show his ignorance and the deep negative feelings he had against college professors. His favorite theme was an attack on the “commies” in this country. Still O’Daniel had not lost his popularity with a segment of the population and in 1941 he ran for the Senate in a special election.
Amazingly Pappy was able to defeat his opponent, New Deal Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson, but there were many questions about a box of late returns. The same questions about some boxes of votes surfaced a few years later when L.B.J. was elected to the Senate and replaced O’Daniel, defeating Coke Stevenson.
Before Pappy’s political career came to an embarrassing halt with only 7 percent public approval, he was the laughing stock of not only his fellow senators but of his own political party. He went down swinging calling labor leaders “communists” as well as most of the elected government officials and shouting that they were all out to get him.
The film O Brother, Where Art Thou? featured a character named “Pappy” O’ Daniel played by Charles Durning that was loosely based on the real Texas “Please pass the biscuits, Pappy” politician. Pappy’s appeal pulled votes largely from the elderly and poorer citizens looking for personal help from the government with our country struggling to upright itself. Pappy told us what we wanted to hear and for awhile we loved him but then his words turned to dust and his followers dropped from sight.
But while he lasted, W. Lee O’Daniel was a real showman.