The phony in American politics: how voters turn into suckers

[ This article skewers many politicians, but my favorite part is what I’ve excerpted below, about one of the first political candidates in the 1930s who ran as a Christian to snag those voters for the big money interests, Texas’s richest oilmen and bankers. He delivered virtually nothing to his working class followers, who continued to vote him in even when it was clear he owed his allegiance to corporations.

British Ben Fountain concludes that “In the arsenal of the phony, the politics of God is one of the deadliest punches to the sweet spot of the American mind. Citizens capable of the most acute analysis in other areas of their lives – regarding finance, say, or electronics, or the infinitely complex variables of fantasy sports leagues – are reduced to blithering dupes when exposed to the Christian pitch.”

The last section is about 1950s Senator Joe McCarthy who “was disliked by his fellow senators, who found him quick-tempered, insolent, and crude; the Senate press corps voted him “worst senator” one year.”  A photo of Ted Cruz follows this statement, who has been called loathsome among other things by former roommates and colleagues…

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, 2015, Springer]

Ben Fountain. February 14, 2016. The phony in American politics: how voters turn into suckers. The Guardian.

History tells us that the skeptical American people are easily conned when confronted with the promises of politicians. In 2016, the hairstyles may have changed but the schtick remains the same

“To strike the broad pure vein of American credulity one need dig only a bit to turn up such gems as Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, of Fort Worth, Texas, a Depression-era salesman for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. In the early 30s, O’Daniel began hosting a radio show featuring the soon-to-be famous Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys, though O’Daniel’s soothing, fatherly voice and easily digestible patter quickly became the real draw of the show. At 12.30 each weekday the broadcast opened with a country matron’s request to “please pass the biscuits, Pappy”. For the next 15 minutes, listeners – many of them housewives taking a midday break – were treated to twangy renditions of gospel and hillbilly tunes, interspersed with Pappy reading scripture, ad copy for Light Crust Flour, sentimental poems, and tributes to motherhood, Texas heroes, and good Christian living. His popularity grew to the point that he left Burrus Mill and started his own company, Hillbilly Flour, and began blasting his show over the 100,000 watts of XEPN, a pirate radio station across the border in Mexico.

Flour sales boomed, and Pappy himself was a star, the biggest mass-media celebrity in the south-west and a man with his eye on the next big thing. On the regular Hillbilly Flour program of 1 May 1938, he announced that as the result of a letter-writing campaign from thousands of listeners, he would bow to popular demand and run for governor. His platform consisted of the Ten Commandments, tax reform and a guaranteed pension of $30 a month to every Texan over the age of 65. His campaign theme was Pass the Biscuits, Pappy, his motto the Golden Rule. He avowed that his business experience would enable him to manage state government in a businesslike manner, and with his wife, three kids, and the Hillbilly Band (Wills had left years ago, disgusted with Pappy’s skinflint ways), the radio star began a barnstorming tour across Texas.

The effect was electric. O’Daniel had what would later be known as “name recognition”; everyone had heard, or at least heard of, Pappy. Crowds of 20,000 or more turned out for his rallies, and more than once mobs of fans forced his caravan to an unscheduled stop so they could hear the “common citizen’s candidate” rail on professional politicians, recite scripture, and plug Hillbilly Flour. An evangelical fervor was present from the start, fanned by the candidate’s Christian oratory and old-timey gospel music. The prominent Baptist minister J Frank Norris compared Pappy to Moses, predicting he would lead the country back to its Christian roots. As one historian wrote:

The O’Daniel rallies appealed to the same deep human instinct and provided the same emotional outlets which the camp meeting formerly offered. Here again was the chance to enjoy the thrill and glory of a martial movement without risking any physical bloodshed. Christ was still the hero and Satan still the enemy, but … Christ’s good, which had previously radiated from the camp-meeting preacher, was now represented by the flour-salesman. Satan’s evil, previously attached to that abhorred aristocracy which had been the pioneer’s European superior, was now found to reside in the professional politician.

When attacked by establishment candidates, O’Daniel responded with scripture: “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and shall say all manner of evil falsely against you for My sake.” He countered objections to his Yankee origins (he was born in Ohio, reared in Kansas) with a touching story about his name: one of his uncles, a Union soldier in the civil war, had been mortally wounded, but was nursed so tenderly on his deathbed by a southern family that he sent word to his sister saying if she should ever have a son, he should be named after the great Confederate general Robert E Lee. In answer to charges of being secretly backed by big business, he replied: “How can you say I’m against the working man when I buried my daddy in overalls?”

If you’re looking for the phony in American politics, you could do worse than follow the money. In fact O’Daniel was being backed by a cabal of Texas’s richest oilmen and bankers, ultraconservatives all, and his campaign was directed by a sharp PR man out of Dallas. O’Daniel himself had grown wealthy in business and real estate, which didn’t keep him from sending his pretty daughter out at rallies with a small barrel labeled “Flour Not Pork”, appealing for desperately needed campaign funds. Sales of Hillbilly Flour doubled over the course of the campaign, and O’Daniel swept the election with more than twice the number of votes of his nearest competitor. Once in office, he began broadcasting directly from the Governor’s Mansion, pledging: “This administration is going to be me, God, and the people, thanks to the radio.”

Listening to O’Daniel’s broadcasts today is to be treated to the rankest sort of huckster charm, along with a primer in the shamelessly pandering arts of political suasion. Christian homilies, dogtrot poetry, and treacly moralizing are delivered in a smooth, slightly formal country voice that goes down like lemonade with all the tang sugared out of it. Did he believe his own schtick? He was, one longtime acquaintance said, “a born actor. He may not believe it, but he feels it at the time.” Once, his eyes tearing up as the band played The Old Rugged Cross, Pappy leaned over to a visitor and whispered: “That’s what brings ’em in, boy. That’s what really brings ’em in!” In person he was aloof and awkward, reluctant to engage the legislators with whom he had to work, even avoiding constituents who journeyed to Austin to meet their hero and tell him their troubles. But with a microphone to his lips, O’Daniel, as they say in showbiz, killed. “Son,” one longtime listener explained to her bewildered offspring, “I’ve been having breakfast with Lee O’Daniel on the radio … for the past eight years, and I know he’s a good man.”

A man who delivered pretty much zilch to the working people who adored him. In the span of four years he won four statewide elections for high office, including a 1941 special election for the US Senate in which he beat a young congressman named Lyndon Johnson. Even as his allegiance to big business and special interests became increasingly clear, Pappy’s rural and blue-collar base kept the faith. “Just because he’s a Christian man.” “Because he’s honest, mister, and because he ain’t no politician.” “He’s almost a preacher. He knows how to catch up with them congressmen and tell us about them.”

In the arsenal of the phony, the politics of God is one of the deadliest punches to the sweet spot of the American mind. Citizens capable of the most acute analysis in other areas of their lives – regarding finance, say, or electronics, or the infinitely complex variables of fantasy sports leagues – are reduced to blithering dupes when exposed to the Christian pitch. Something spooky happens to that excellent American mind that brought us moon landings and the silicon chip and the wonderful stuff that saves our kids from polio. No matter if the candidate has had three or four wives or fired thousands of workers or dropped biblical plagues of bombs on rice farmers and sheep herders, merely saying the magic words makes it so. Christian values. Strong for Jesus. In God we trust, and all the rest. Incantations that render large chunks of the electorate as dazed and vulnerable as pre-contact tribesmen from the deepest Amazon hearing a transistor radio for the first time.

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