O Pappy where art thou? What Wendy Davis could have learned from W. Lee O’Daniel

And here is another opponent, W. Lee O’Daniel who flashed like a comet across the Texas political scene.

Lady Bird Johnson, narrating her home movie of the 1941 special election for the U.S. Senate, the only election LBJ ever lost.

"Pass the biscuits, Pappy," was the slogan of O'Daniel's Hillbilly Flour. Here, Governor O'Daniel enjoys some fried chicken and a glass of milk. (Texas State LIbrary and Archives)

“Pass the biscuits, Pappy,” was the slogan of O’Daniel’s Hillbilly Flour. Here, Governor O’Daniel enjoys some fried chicken and a glass of milk. (Texas State LIbrary and Archives)

Good morning Austin:

W. Lee O’Daniel was not just another opponent, as Lady Bird described him in her droll  narration. Three years earlier, out of nowhere and almost on a whim – or by popular demand – he ran for governor and was the runaway winner.

As the New York Times wrote in his obituary:

Uphold the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, pass the biscuits and industrialize Texas. With those three simple planks in his platform, and considerable bravura, Pappy O’Daniel stormed upon the national political scene in 1938 like Sam Houston winning the battle of San Jacinto.

In his 2004 photo book, Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy, Austin writer Bill Crawford put it this way:

Like a bottle rocket whistling against the North Texas sky, the arc of W. Lee “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” O’Daniel’s political career was startling, flashy, and brief. O’Daniel was a songwriting flour salesman who launched the career of country music legend Bob Willis. Within four years, O’Daniel won two elections for governor, and two for U.S. senator, defeating Lyndon Baines Johnson in Johnson’s first Senate race. O’Daniel was a Texas version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a media superstar who became an electoral terminator. What made Pappy’s ballot-box muscle even more amazing than Arnold’s was that he was an Ohio-born Republican sympathizer in an all-Democratic state who wasn’t even registered to vote when he launched his first political campaign.

A typical huge rally scene shows how Pappy O'Daniel drew rural crowds with color, excitement, and showmanship. (Texas State Library and Archives)

A typical huge rally scene shows how Pappy O’Daniel drew rural crowds with color, excitement, and showmanship. (Texas State Library and Archives)

When Pappy decided to turn for governor in 1938 as a way to sell more flour – a fact he proudly proclaimed throughout the campaign – the people of Texas voted for him in record numbers.

This photo captures something of the excitement that an O'Daniel rally brought to a small Texas town, in which hundreds turned out to see him in spite of rain. (Texas State Library and Archives)

This photo captures something of the excitement that an O’Daniel rally brought to a small Texas town, in which hundreds turned out to see him in spite of rain.
(Texas State Library and Archives)

More from Crawford:

If, as H.L. Mencken observed, American politics is a “carnival of buncombe,” then Pappy O’Daniel was one of its greatest carnies.

An estimated 250,000 people cheered Pappy’s cavalcade as he drove from Fort Worth to the capital city of Austin for his inauguration on January 17, 1939. On several occasions, schoolchildren ran out into the road, blocking traffic and forcing O’Daniel to say a few words to his supporters. The inauguration, described by the press as “the greatest fanfare and show of pomp ever witnessed in the state,” attracted a crowd of 100,000.

He was, Crawford writes, “the greatest vote getter in Texas history.”

In The Path to Power, Johnson biographer Robert Caro describes LBJ’s effort to compete with O’Daniel on his own terms.

O’Daniel had made good use of a band. For Johnson’s rallies , a six-man swing ensemble was chosen, by audition, from the best musicians in Houston and named The Patriots. To offset the appeal of O’Daniel’s Texas Rose, two hundred-eighty-five-pound Sophie Parker, “The Kate Smith of the South,” was hired, along with a thinner, notably shapely , country and western alto. Blackface comedians were hired as were dancing girls. Pete Smith and His Accordion, a fifteen-year-old champion harmonica player, and the best master of ceremonies in Texas, handsome, golden-voiced Harfield Weedin. Theses performers – together with a second musical organization, a twenty-four-man “big band,” which was used at the largest rallies – were dressed in red, white and blue.

And, Caro wrote of O’Daniel:

To his opponents’ charge that since he had no platform, he had no reason for running, he replied that there was indeed a reason; the reason he said was them. The principal reason he was running, he said, was to throw them – the “professional politicians” – out of Austin.

This theme touched a deep chord in government-hating Texas, where distrust of politicians had been heightened by the dichotomy between the state’s new-found and rapidly growing natural wealth and the poverty of its government.

There was a moment in late June of 2013 when it seemed that Wendy Davis, swept along by forces beyond anyone’s control, seemed to the have Pappy potential.

As the Texas Observer’s Christopher Hooks wrote in Slate right after the filibuster:

Texas politics favors the theatrical. “Pappy” O’Daniel, the flour-milling Depression-era governor, won his position on the strength of his Western swing band. Texas Democrats idolize Ann Richards, the wise-cracking, tough-talking former governor and the last Democrat to hold the position. She was liberal, and she was a winner. Her ghost has totemic importance for Texas Democrats. For whatever reason-whether it be the state’s historically ingrained imbalances of party power, or an emphasis on individualism that outstrips that of most other parts of the country-showmanship is virtually a requirement for political office.

Pappy O'Daniel and the Hillbilly Boys. For all his failings politically and personally, Pappy O'Daniel was undeniably an important figure in the development of Western Swing. Because of his talent for publicity and his business acumen, the Light Crust Doughboys and the Hillbilly Boys became nationally recognized as among the most talented and innovative of all the Western Swing bands. While the musicians would remember O'Daniel as unfair, selfish, and ruthless in his dealings with them, they also gave him credit for bringing the joyful Texas sound to a national audience. (Texas State Library and Archives)

Pappy O’Daniel and the Hillbilly Boys. For all his failings politically and personally, Pappy O’Daniel was undeniably an important figure in the development of Western Swing. Because of his talent for publicity and his business acumen, the Light Crust Doughboys and the Hillbilly Boys became nationally recognized as among the most talented and innovative of all the Western Swing bands. While the musicians would remember O’Daniel as unfair, selfish, and ruthless in his dealings with them, they also gave him credit for bringing the joyful Texas sound to a national audience.
(Texas State Library and Archives)

So when state Sen. Wendy Davis took to the Texas Senate floor Tuesday in pink tennis shoes for what would become a 10-hour talking filibuster to try to derail one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the country, she was drawing on a lengthy political tradition. But as the day went on – as the level of national attention grew, from President Obama to Judy Blume to the nearly 200,000 people who watched online as the midnight deadline loomed -i t became clear that something was happening that was bigger than the bill itself. It was also something of a séance. And though Ann Richards’ memory was summoned, the day animated a body much more moribund: the state Democratic Party of Texas

Wendy the Valliant.

Wendy the Valliant.

It was an extraordinary, historic moment, a Hollywood moment with a star from central casting, inspiriting and exhilarating Democrats in Texas and across the nation. Davis really had no choice but to seize a once-in-a-lifetime moment and run for governor. But, it would turn out, Davis didn’t have Pappy’s staying power. If O’Daniel’s trajectory was, as Lady Bird would have it, that of a comet, Davis proved to be a shooting star.

 

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Early promise

Parking lot. Yellow Jacket Social Club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Now that the 2014 gubernatorial election is behind us, it is safe to acknowledge that, even before the 2014 election turned into a Democratic rout nationally, the outcome was never very much in doubt and that the respective campaigns – and all the attendant coverage – had very little impact on the outcome. The mutual vanity of consultants and political reporters is that they are consequential in the outcomes of political campaigns. The difference is that the consultants are better remunerated for their self-regard.

 

From Rice University political scientist John Alford:

The prediction for this midterm 9 months out was Rs up 10-15 in the US House, Rs take control of US Senate, Rs win all Texas statewides.  It’s a second midterm, and the Democratic President is unpopular – bad year for Democrats.  The economy is good, but 30-year-old political science research shows that while a bad economy hurts the party of the president, a good economy doesn’t help – i.e. the impact of economic conditions on midterm elections is asymmetric.  A purely structural explanation and widely predicted before the primaries, based entirely on research that is mostly 30-40 years old.  That’s exactly what happened, but the pundits still feel the need to explain why it was a bad year based on the specific candidates, issues, strategies, etc.  I listened to an NPR post-election show with several senior political commentators and the show started with a very brief acknowledgement of the fact that this was destined to be a bad year for Democrats based solely on structural factors.  After that came extensive analysis from these smart, experienced, and deeply informed folks and I don’t think a single thing they said was actually empirically true.

And here from FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten over the weekend, under the headline, Wendy Davis’s Campaign Was Bad, But That Probably Didn’t Matter:

To the surprise of few non-partisans with the slightest bit of electoral awareness, Democrat Wendy Davis lost the Texas gubernatorial election to Republican Greg Abbott. Davis, as I wrote on multiple occasions, had basically no chance of winning because Texas voters are deeply conservative. Still, campaign memos leaked this week to the Texas Tribune suggest that Davis’s campaign manager ignored advice from consultants in the early part of 2014, leading to a campaign that was “far worse than it should have been.”

So was Davis’s campaign really that bad? Statistically speaking, she definitely lost support over the course of the election cycle, though it’s not entirely clear how much of a difference that loss made in the final result.

Davis was always trailing Abbott in the polls. But the longer she was on the campaign trail, the worse she did.

 

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Davis’ gubernatorial campaign peaked three months before it began, with her filibuster. From the moment she formally launched her campaign, it appeared to be an exercise in negative branding. Again from FiveThirtyEight:

 

enten-datalab-wendy-davis-2

In other words, Davis ended up getting something less than the base Democratic vote. Not good. Jim Hogan, running for agriculture commissioner, did a great service by providing what amounted to a real-world control experiment. He raised no money. He did not campaign. He simply got his name on the ballot as the Democrat running against Sid Miller for agriculture commissioner and received 37 percent of the vote, two points less than Davis.

The 2014 election nationally had the lowest turnout in 72 years, since World War II, since Pappy O’Daniel roamed the campaign trail.

The starkest statistic of the Davis campaign is not the 20 percentage point margin by which she lost – vastly larger than former Houston Mayor Bill White’s 12.7 point loss four years ago to Gov Rick Perry – but how she lost it.

Attorney General Greg Abbott did not much improve on Perry’s performance – he received only 53,246 more votes than Perry out of a larger potential electorate. But Davis received 274,148 fewer votes than White, who has all the dynamism of Ferris Beuller’s high school economics teacher, and even though Davis would regularly remind voters at campaign appearance that her candidacy had generated more excitement than any Democratic candidate for governor in decades.

Ben Stein played Ferris Bueller's economics teacher.

Ben Stein played Ferris Beuller’s economics teacher.

The reason that the Davis campaign and Battleground Texas are catching so much grief is not so much the dismal outcome, but that they raised hopes that this year might be at least a smidge different for Democrats.

But what I begrudge the Davis campaign – and election 2014 more generally – is what a grim and joyless affair it was. I think Wendy Davis should have looked at the fact that she had almost no chance of winning as liberating, rather than daunting.

I suspect one of the reasons so few people vote is because campaigns are so damn boring. Who said that the pageant of democracy had to be so deadly dull. I think one of the failures of the Davis campaign was that, despite the strength of her Texas story, she never sold it.

Instead of just talking about her family’s roots in Muleshoe, out past Lubbock on the New Mexico line, she should have walked – or ridden on horseback – there.

She could have started in the Rio Grande Valley. Walking from McAllen to Muleshoe is 614 miles. From Muleshoe back to Fort Worth is 327 miles. With a little side trip here and here, that’s 1,000 miles. She could have promoted it with, “A thousand mile journey begins with a single step,” and “She stood for you, now walk with her.” (And if people complained that she shouldn’t be employing all these standing and walking images in a campaign against a man in a wheelchair – well, too bad.)

She could have raised money by having people sponsor her by the mile, without ever having to leave Texas.

At the end of each day she could have raffled off the shoes she wore that day, and called it (and I know I’m stealing this, but I don’t know from whom) “a women’s right to shoes.”

And walking a thousand miles? That is totally doable. It’s been done, by politicians, to great effect.

Lawton Chiles first won election to the U.S. Senate on the strength of a 91-day hike from the top of Florida to the bottom. From Chiles’ obit in the Washington Post

Washington first saw Gov. Chiles as a politician who came out of nowhere–actually, out of Lakeland, Fla.–to win a Senate seat by hiking 1,033 miles from the panhandle town of Century down to the Florida Keys. Dressed in khakis, he walked the state for three months, shaking every hand in sight and filling nine thick notebooks with the thoughts of voters he met along the way. Some quipped that he hugged the middle of that road, rarely making anything like a controversial statement or taking a surprising stand.

He’s not the only politician to walk his way into office. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander credits his 1,000-mile walk across Tennessee for getting him elected governor in 1978.

Davis could have stayed at the homes of supporters all along the way, a la Jimmy Carter.

As Jeff Greenfield recalled:

Making a virtue out of necessity, Carter’s financially challenged campaign drew attention to the candidate’s humility. He stayed at the homes of supporters, where he made his own bed; shared rooms with aides at low-cost motels; and carried his own garment bag.

Or, she could have found that trailer she briefly lived in as a young women, or a reasonable facsimile, and had it dragged along behind her, staying it in each night. If JFK gave supporters coveted PT 109 pins, Davis could have provided donors with tiny trailer replica pins – hard plastic for $25 contributors, tin for $100, silver for $1,000, gold for $10,000, and diamond encrusted for $100,000 or more.

And – here is where she could have really taken a page from Pappy’s playbook – every few nights on the road, have a tent revival meeting. Before setting out, she could have had auditions for Wendy Davis and her Light Crust Doughgals all across the state, a la American Idol, – in  Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, Port Arthur (a bow to Janis Joplin), Brownsville, Laredo, El Paso and Amarillo.

She should have challenged Abbott to debates all across the state, and when he refused, she could have debated an empty wheelchair, a la Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Oh, you say, you can’t possibly use an empty wheelchair in the campaign. Well, the Davis campaign proved that, in fact, you can, though it’s not clear to what effect.)

Instead of just saying she was for open carry, and having folks on both sides of the issue mock her, she could have made “anything you can do I can do better” shooting contests a part of her tent shows. Annie’s List is fine, but what about Annie Oakley’s List?

And instead of whining about Greg Abbott campaigning with Ted Nugent, what about pitching a Ted Nugent-Lena Dunham cage match. OK, maybe that’s not a good idea.

But Davis could have good use of the rest of the underfunded and relatively unknown statewide ticket. Former El Paso Mayor John Cook actually played guitar and sang Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down at the Democratic State Convention in Dallas, so he clearly would have been game. Comptroller candidate Mike Collier could have wowed the crowd with his dry CPA wit, three-piece suit and chalkboard math demonstrating Republican’s budgetary hijinks. Attorney General candidate Sam Houston could have done his impression of, well, Sam Houston.

And Leticia Van de Putte?

The most self-defeating and inexplicable aspect of the whole Wendy Davis campaign was the failure to take advantage of the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor.

Davis and Van de Putte should have campaigned side-by-side across the state. They needed each other. Van de Putte needed the exposure, needed to let Texans know who she was and that, notwithstanding her married name, she was actually Hispanic. And Davis desperately needed the Van de Putte touch. Van de Putte is warm and approachable and spontaneous where Davis is cool and distant and canned. It was Van de Putte who, arriving late in the filibuster after burying her father, delivered the killer line – “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”- that threw the gallery into pandemonium and won the day for the Democrats.

In my imagination, Van de Putte would arrive at the tent meetings with Little Joe y La Familia, or another crack Tejano ensemble. When Van de Putte announced she was running for lieutenant governor, she said “I want to be your lieutenant governor because Mama ain’t happy — because Texas, we can do better.”

I envision that becoming a call and response with the tent show crowds.

Sometimes she would start it: “Mama Ain’t Happy!”

And the crowd would roar back: “We can do better!”

Another time some exuberant soul in the crowd might start it, shouting toward the stage, “Mama Ain’t Happy!,” and Van de Putte would answer, “We can do better!”

The revivals would end with Davis and Van de Putte raising each other’s arms in a bicultural sisterhood-is-powerful tableau.

Instead, they were only rarely on the same stage together. Why? One theory is that Davis didn’t want to be upstaged, as she was when the two appeared, one after the other, at the Democratic State Convention. And that’s about the only theory I’ve heard.

Davis needed to establish her Texas bona fides. She didn’t need to make them up. They were real. But first she undermined her story by overstating it. Then her campaign never ran a positive bio ad. And, finally, down the stretch, she released, “Forgetting to be Afraid: A Memoir,” which generated headlines about her two terminated pregnancies and her depressed mother’s placing little Wendy and her two siblings in the trunk of their car with the intention of turning on the engine and killing hersel and them. Yikes.

When she went on Good Morning America to talk about her book, it was not to advance her campaign to transform Texas. It was to deliver, “Pink Sneaker Mom’s Dramatic Revelations.”

 

 

On Good Morning America talking about her memoir.

On Good Morning America talking about her memoir.

 

It is true that nothing Davis might have done would have made much of a difference. But still, what a missed opportunity.

From John Alford at Rice:

I think that when you know from the start that you are going to lose and lose big, then it’s all about the ride.  There must be something between the minimalist Danish furniture campaign that Hogan ran and the deadly serious baroque opera that Davis starred in.  The results of the two campaigns are only separated by a couple tiny percentage points, and in between lies the likely result of a hell of statewide moving cocktail party of the soul.  The one thing that both the Davis and Hogan campaigns shared is that they were no damn fun.  It’s a short life and boring is unforgivable.

I close with Lady Bird’s home movie on the 1941 campaign. It is well worth watching, and her narration really is terrific.

Here she is, for example, on Pappy’s use of music.

And this is his band. A famous word about it was he used to when he’d come to a question that he didn’t know quite how to get into he’d say, “Strike up a piece!” And here comes “Strike up a piece, Leon!” 

And her commentary concludes with this:

 The last sequence of the film is lost. It was just about my favorite, lost somewhere in the last 20 years, and 20 or more moves. It was Lyndon in a ruffled seersucker suit, but a very jaunty smile and a jaunty walk, going out to catch a plane to return to Washington in July of 1941. About a month later he cast the vote in the House of Representatives to keep the draft at the urgin of Speaker Sam Rayburn. The vote won by a margin of one. But it was alright that we lost. Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time. Sometimes it seasons you and strengthens you and gives you an opportunity to learn. But I’ll always remember the campaign of 1941 as just about my favorite campaign. 

The only campaign that LBJ ever lost was, Lady Bird said, “just about my favorite campaign.” You got to hand it to Pappy.

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

3 comments
Jabroni1
Jabroni1

I hope the demorats never learn, they would ruin this great state if they ever got back into power. Texas would look like New York or California if they ever got back into a position to effect any changes.  If you love your state, keep the demorats as a minor political party...........and please pass the biscuits. 

Antonious
Antonious

By the end of Ann Richards first term the Dems no longer "idolized" Ann.  Remember she only won one term and was beaten for a second by George W.  Sadly she and Clinton, plus the Dems huge move to the socialist left really hurt their chances in Texas.  Wendy showed no independence from that leftwing slant.  And as we and even her own team told her that would be a killer at election time.


Also Wendy's support mainly came from out of state....and rich trial lawyers.  Again that doesn't go over well in Texas when Hollywood and New York folks try to buy an election down here.  Pappy was telling Texans what they wanted to hear, Wendy was telling Texans what she wanted.  Not the same.


Not sure why Dems are still trying to make excuses for their loss.  Everyone knows mid-term elections will not see the number of voters a general election will.  Everyone knows that and plays by the same rules.  In this case they try to minimize the loss because of the low number of voters.  Yet when Democrats won the mid-term elections under George W they told us they were great victories.  So which is it?


I think Wendy's campaign fell apart when it relied almost exclusively on the abortion folks and their money.  Plus her personal story went from one of heroism to one of being taken care of by a sugar daddy.  Even many women were turned off by the real story.   Especially when it came out she divorced him just as her last Harvard debt payment was made.  That was ugly and hard to overcome.

Baron_of_Greymatter
Baron_of_Greymatter

"Uphold the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, pass the biscuits and industrialize Texas."

Abortion Barbie missed that part. Rick Perry may lack Pappy's charm, he really won three gubernatorial elections on the same platform.