Long ago, a Fort Worth showman proved that smooth talk and big promises can win Texas elections.
In 1938, Democrat W. Lee O’Daniel went from radio host to the Governor’s Mansion to the sound of his Hillbilly Boys fiddle band shouting, “Please pass the biscuits, Pappy!”
O’Daniel’s name was invoked Thursday in the Republican campaign for lieutenant governor, and not in a good way.
Former opponent Jerry Patterson compared TV sports anchor-turned-radio talk host Dan Patrick to O’Daniel, saying Texans “deserve better than a showman.”
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“It’s an almost scary comparison,” Patterson said Thursday, endorsing incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Both Patrick and O’Daniel are “not from around here, they made their fame with radio programs, and then they ran for office using sophistry, slogans and promises,” Patterson said.
I asked a Texas Christian University historian whether Patterson might be exaggerating.
He said no.
“Given the almost 80 years that separate them, there’s more than a passing resemblance,” said Gregg Cantrell, the Erma and Ralph Lowe Chair of Texas History at the university, about a mile from O’Daniel’s landmark former home on Warner Road in the Berkeley Place neighborhood.
O’Daniel talked his way to higher office as master of ceremonies for the Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills and other Western swing music bands sponsored by flour milling companies.
His “cornpone” made him a celebrity, Cantrell said. O’Daniel campaigned to the song Beautiful Texas and railed against “professional politicians,” saying his platform was “the Ten Commandments.”
(Think of the late actor Charles Durning’s movie role in the Coen brothers’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yes, he was real.)
“He tried to position himself as far to the right as you could possibly go,” Cantrell said.
“He was a scaremonger, a race-baiter, making promises nobody could keep. Like Patrick saying he’ll ‘close the border.’ ”
O’Daniel came to Fort Worth from Kansas in 1925 as a flour sales rep.
Patrick came to Houston in 1979 from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., sports anchor jobs, then switched to radio. His glib talk-host skills have helped him talk circles around Dewhurst the way O’Daniel out-talked establishment Democrats.
“Pappy had the pundits against him, but he made all these promises and people just loved him,” Patterson said after an Austin press conference where he endorsed Dewhurst and listed “Top Ten Reasons.”
Austin writer Bill Crawford profiled O’Daniel for a 2004 book of official state photographs, Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy: Pictures of Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.
“Patrick’s mix of politics and religion is very Pappy,” Crawford said.
The comparison might be an insult to O’Daniel.
“At least Pappy had some great music on his show,” Crawford said.
Pass the biscuits, Sen. Patrick?