by    Mon, Jan 9, 2006, 01:02 PM

Pappy O'Daniel and the Hillbilly Boys
So here’s Rick Perry preparing to defend the Governor’s Mansion not just against some theoretical Democrat but also against Carole ("One Tough Grandma") Strayhorn, running as an independent, if you please, with Kinky Friedman threatening to upstage the lot of them – I didn’t say beat ‘em, I said upstage ‘em – and one logical conclusion would be that, if nothing else this fall, the electorate will be empowered to think about matters other than Iraq, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, and whether Dallas or Waco gets the Bush library.

Politics, once the preferred form of indoor/outdoor spectacle for Texans, next to high school football, may recover some of its lost cachet. Which would take some recovering inasmuch as the grim partisan wars of the past few decades have drained local enthusiasm for the kind of entertainment the electorate once drank in: Allan Shivers vs. Ralph Yarborough, LBJ vs. Coke Stevenson vs. George Parr vs. the Texas Rangers, the press vs. Preston Smith. We’ve never elected an independent as governor, but the sober Norsemen of Minnesota anointed Jesse Ventura, so even Perry has to crack the door to such a possibility.

Strayhorn and Friedman alike have, seemingly, the potential to let things get wild and crazy. The former disappears when standing behind a rain barrel, but you can hear her from 20 miles away. The latter is presently hawking what the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund this week described as "a 13-inch, cigar-wielding doll with Mr.Friedman’s features holding a news conference." Friedman – I think we might describe him as an entertainer – has hired Ventura’s advertising consultant.

Well, why not? When it comes to entertainment of one kind or another, the precedent stretches back at least to 1938. That was when Willard Lee O’Daniel, the Fort Worth flour company owner and radio host, with a hillbilly band and more sheer nerve than an Army mule, took on an entire field of seasoned candidates – and beat ‘em.

There was a Republican candidate, but no one back then cared. The major players were all Democrats – Atty. Gen. William McCraw, Railroad Commissioner Ernest O. Thompson, semi-perpetual candidate Tom Hunter – and Pappy O’Daniel (so-called due to his radio show lead-in: "Please pass the biscuits, Pappy!")The popular Pappy had asked listeners to write and tell him whether he should run for governor. As he told it, 54, 499 of them said yes; just four said no. Into the race he jumped on May 1, 1938. His platform: the Ten Commandments, no sales tax, and $30-a-month state pensions at age 65. His slogan: the Golden Rule. A complementary slogan soon followed: "Less Johnson grass and politicians; more smokestacks and businesmen."

Pappy took to the hustings with faith, his teenage children, and a hillbilly band. By June the crowds had discovered him. At Colorado City 3,000 waited three hours to see him. He pulled the biggest crowd Denton had seen in decades. The small-towners and country folk primarily lined up for him. Yet, in Austin, he drew perhaps 40,000.

There was no TV then. It was face-to-face contact in the middle of the hot summer, with moral exhortation, folk wisdom – and, maybe above all, hillbilly music, including a song of the candidate’s own composition – "O beautiful, beautiful Texas, where the beautiful bluebonnets grow/We’re proud of our forefathers, who fought at the Alamo...")

The music afforded what legend calls candidatorial cover. Asked how he was going to pay for such-and-such a program, so the story goes, Pappy would signal the band: "Play, Leon!" It likely never happened that way. Pappy’s glib-folksy tongue pulled him out of virtually all difficulties.

In the July primary Pappy ran first in 231 of Texas’ 254 counties. It was enough and more than enough. The historian Seth McKay would write: "He had no political organization of any kind, no campaign manager other than his wife, no newspaper support in the early weeks of the contest, and was totally lacking in political experience. The only possible conclusion is that O’Daniel’s victory in 1938 was due to his skill and long record in the use of the radio."

He won a second term as well, broke or bent various of his fiscal promises, ran a thoroughly conservative, businessman’s administration, and won election to the U. S. Senate in 1941, only to step down in 1948. Lyndon Johnson and Box 13, Jim Wells County, lay in Texas’, and America’s, future.

A semi-clown O’Daniel may have been; but he connected with the voters, not necessarily because they, too, were semi-clowns; it was likelier because they liked him. At least then they did. A quarter of a century later, Pappy essayed a comeback. His caravan with hillbilly band came to my hometown. Down at the courthouse I saw a sad reflection of the vital personality that had been W. Lee O’Daniel, back in a day before politics had been turned over to the consultants, the fundraisers, and the sound-bite writers. This time he lost by a mile. But while it lasted, it was – kind of, some of the time – fun.

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