Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Con Artist in the Governor's Mansion: The Reign of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel of Texas

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the tragically comic ineptitude of Texas Gov. W. Lee "Pappy" O' Daniel.

The influence of Texas House speakers grew spectacularly starting in the 1940s as a string of deeply divisive chief executives occupied the governor’s mansion. After two terms as governor, Allred’s departure in 1939 cleared the way for country musician and flour salesman W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. Texas political historian Kenneth Hendrickson characterized O’Daniel as “[u]ndoubtedly one of the most incompetent individuals ever to hold the office of governor in Texas.”

An Ohio native who grew up in Kansas, O’Daniel became manager of a Fort Worth milling company. In 1925, he served as sales manager for Burrus Mills in Fort Worth, and was named director of radio advertising three years later. By 1931 O’Daniel launched a popular radio advertising campaign for his “Hillbilly Flour,” which featured the music of O’Daniel and a country and western band called the “Light Crust Doughboys.”

O’Daniel soon hosted a highly popular daily country music show built around Hillbilly Flour, music and bits of O’Daniel’s homespun wisdom. On Palm Sunday, 1938, he asked his listeners if he should run for governor. According to O’Daniel, he received 55,000 cards, letters and other responses, mostly urging his candidacy. O’Daniel called the Golden Rule his motto and claimed the Ten Commandments as his campaign platform. He also advocated a $30 monthly pension for all persons over age 65, elimination of the poll tax and a general tax reduction. Although O’Daniel never specified how he would fund his pension plan, he won the Democratic primary without a runoff.

It does not seem that O’Daniel spent any time planning how to translate his proposed old age pension or any of his other stated goals into legislation. Once in the governor’s mansion, O’Daniel suggested a “transaction” or value-added tax advocated by the Texas Manufacturers Association but opposed by other elements in the business community. O’Daniel, however, never worked very hard to move that idea through the House. When that idea fizzled, he supported a statewide sales tax.

Marion Price Daniel, Sr. arose in the House as one of the chief opponents of the sales tax. Born in Dayton, Texas, northeast of Houston, in 1910, no Texan would occupy more top posts in Texas government than Price Daniel, who at different times would serve as speaker of the House, attorney general, United States senator, governor and finally as a justice of the Texas Supreme Court. A graduate of Baylor University, Price Daniel set up a law practice in Liberty, where he was first elected to the state House in 1938.

In his freshman term, Price Daniel gained fame as part of the so-called “Immortal 56” House members who consistently voted down sales tax proposals to fund old-age pensions. He complained that a sales tax was regressive, hitting the poor the hardest and pointing out that O’Daniel’s plan would ban use of any other tax to fund pensions. O’Daniel vowed political vengeance after this defeat and campaigned personally against the “Immortals.”

After a difficult campaign, Price Daniel in 1940 won a second term in an election in which many of his allies, tagged as opposing pensions, lost. The following year, United States Senator Morris Sheppard died and O’Daniel shocked the state by appointing the 87-year-old, utterly senile Andrew Jackson Houston, the last surviving son of Texas hero Sam Houston, as his replacement. O’Daniel made the appointment to prevent a viable candidate from running as an incumbent against O’Daniel in the special election for the Senate seat the governor scheduled for June 28, 1941. Illness kept Houston from reaching the Senate floor until June, and after appearing at three sessions, he also died. O’Daniel prevailed in the special election by 13,000 votes over Congressman Lyndon Johnson of Central Texas, with vote fraud widely considered to have been the decisive factor
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Price Daniel’s chief antagonist departed for Washington. The Liberty lawyer ran for speaker, prevailing over incumbent Homer Leonard of McAllen. With the United States already preparing for World War II and defense spending in Washington stimulating the economy, particularly in Texas, the Legislature found itself in no mood for new programs. The Legislature approved expenditures less than had been appropriated two years before. At the insistence of Coke Stevenson, now in the governor’s mansion, the session (at 121 days the shortest in modern state history) was the first in 40 years to not approve a single tax bill.

The 1943 session found the House under Daniel cautiously awaiting the uncertain outcome of a war and the advent of an unpredictable post-war economy. The world and the state, however, continued to change. The increased political activism of African Americans beginning in the 1930s, the growing Mexican American population, and the increasingly liberal drift of the national Democratic Party inspired a continued movement rightward for Texas Democrats. In fact, the speakership stood as an effective counterweight to the revolutionary changes that came to Texas during World War II and beyond.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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