The Rise and Fall of Pappy O'Daniel as the Governor of Texas

Oct 16, 2020

Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel
Credit Public Domain

This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte. 

“Quacks, yodelers, pitchmen, psychics, and other amazing broadcasters of the American airwaves.” That’s the subtitle of Border Radio, this fun and expertly crafted history of early radio personalities who broadcasted along the Mexican border. Authors Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford deliver on that title—after each chapter, I was convinced that Wow, that had to be the zaniest character of that era. Only to be shown otherwise in the next chapter. 

In this election year, however, I was especially struck by the story of W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel and his rise and fall as the Governor of Texas. I am sure this is a tired tale in the Lone Star State, but up here in Kansas—well, we just haven’t had showmen on that scale. And we even had the Goat Gland Doctor himself, Dr. John Brinkley! But Pappy O’Daniel—he was a cut above on the entertainer front, hands down. His chapter of the book, titled “Please Pass the Tamales, Pappy,” was my favorite. 

An accomplished businessman, Pappy O’Daniel shined bright amid the old, dowdy politicians of his time with his showmanship and his ability to saturate the airwaves. His advertising and his down-home words of insight were set off by the jazzy old-time music of the now-legendary Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. (At the time, they were the Light Crust Doughboys, because Pappy was in the flour business.) The chapter reads like a rapid river, with Pappy and all of Texas riding the whitecap waves straight to the governor’s mansion. 

But of course, it’s one thing to get elected. Governing is a whole other tamale. And that’s where Pappy’s tale starts to run dry. The Texas legislators didn’t like him, but in that fabulous big Texas way, they didn’t just block is agenda—they referred to him as an “Ether Egotist,” referencing his radio chats, and in especially purple prose, “a crooning corporal of the panoplied forces of financial marauders.” How’s that for Twitter branding? 

Over time, Texas outgrew O’Daniel’s antics. As his star waned, he grew more desperate, more extreme and shocking just to stay on the minds of the electorate. His final push for reelection, after a spell in the U.S. Senate, was on a platform of vile and hateful racism, which alienated the younger constituents of his state. At one point, he was booed and pelted with eggs. At another rally in Wichita Falls, the only person there was the reporter assigned to cover his appearance. 

You don’t need me to tell you that not a whole lot has changed since the days of Pappy O’Daniel. We have plenty of entertainers and circus elections to keep our future historians busy, even if the showmanship is more tempered. I guess the silver lining in all this is that the voters do get tired of it.  

This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, hoping you’ll join us in reading Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford.