How We Got Here: Little Foxes in Search of a Führer

Part Three in a series; see Parts One and Two

During the 1932 election, Franklin Roosevelt ranked Huey Long as one of the two most dangerous men in America (the other being Douglas MacArthur). As Governor, then Senator from Louisiana, Long ran the state as a private fiefdom, openly contemptuous of legal mores and political customs. He openly used state militia, police and hired toughs to intimidate rivals, rig votes and certify his suzerainty over the Pelican State. On one occasion, a member of the State Legislature protested Long’s methods in a floor debate by showing him “the Constitution of the State of Louisiana.” Long, exhibiting the arrogance of a bayou Louis XIV, retorted that “I’m the constitution here now.”

Yet Long’s despotism, along with his boorish behavior (whether insulting fellow senators, snubbing German diplomats or arguing with President Roosevelt about potlikker), attracted as many Americans as it repulsed, with strong-arm rule seeming preferable to the slow machinery of democratic reform. Certainly his own hardscrabble background vouchsafed his message, along with his blunt speeches attacking rich capitalists. “Rockefeller, Morgan and their crowd stepped up and took enough for 120 million people and left only enough for 5 million for all the other 125 million to eat,” he thundered. “And so many millions must go hungry, and without these good things God gave us unless we call on them to put some of it back.”

All demagogues inspire the question: how much of their rabble-rousing is sincere, and how much cynical calculation? Only Long knew for sure. But he offered a far-reaching program known as Share Our Wealth, which called for drastic confiscatory tax rates against American millionaires (anyone earning over $8,000,000 would see all income over that threshold confiscated). In exchange, Long offered a universal basic income of $5,000 for all Americans, along with old-age pensions, veterans bonuses, free education and expanded welfare programs. How Long planned to implement this scheme remained fuzzy, but the idea resonated.

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Huey Long

“It is more and more evident,” columnist Arthur Krock wrote, “that many Democrats feel (Long) is getting ready to pounce upon their party and absorb all or a large part of it in 1936.” Long encouraged this speculation, warning that “If the Democrats nominate Roosevelt and the Republicans nominate Hoover, Huey Long will be your next president.” Along with his aide, Shreveport evangelist Gerald L.K. Smith, he transformed Share Our Wealth into a political party, expecting to win millions of votes and sabotage Roosevelt’s chances for reelection. Certainly Roosevelt feared Long, using methods political (adopting more leftist policies to co-opt Long’s message) to authoritarian (ordering FBI investigations and IRS audits) to blunt or discredit his rival.

These concerns became academic on September 8, 1935 when Carl Weiss, a Baton Rouge doctor and nephew of a Long political rival, assassinated the Kingfish in the State Capitol. (Only after Weiss fatally shot Long did the Senator’s bodyguards respond, riddling the assassin with sixty-one bullets.) Roosevelt, perhaps, breathed a sigh of relief; Gerald L.K. Smith accused Roosevelt of engineering his mentor’s death, and vowed to continue the fight. The radical opposition to FDR didn’t vanish, but without Long they lacked a leader or a clear platform. Instead, Smith and his allies became a feuding skulk of “little foxes” (in James MacGregor Burns’ phrase) with clashing egos and incoherent visions.

Initially, Smith backed Eugene Talmadge of Georgia, a scrawny, bespectacled Gothic pol vomiting forth a cruder, viler variant of Long’s demagoguery. Long, for all his faults and excesses, eschewed the racism endemic to Southern politics (“He was fair to colored people [and] good to all poor people,” a black Louisianan recalled of the man who offered free education to blacks while repudiating the Ku Klux Klan). In contrast, Governor Talmadge stoked fears about an imminent “Nigra takeover” of Georgia, denounced “foreign professors” and “outside agitators” and vowed that “before God…the niggers will never go to a school which is white.” He never wavered in his conviction that “God himself segregated the races,” condoned lynching and the Klan, and recited passages from Mein Kampf to his inner circle.

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Eugene Talmadge

Nor did Talmadge share Long’s sympathy for the working man, despite posing as a hick who kept a cow on the lawn of his Governor’s mansion. Indeed, on labor issues as much as race, the Georgian proved a savage reactionary. When Georgia textile workers went on strike in 1934, Talmadge crushed them with the National Guard and imprisoned the strikers in barbed wire cages. (Unsurprisingly, Talmadge’s strikebreaking inspired donations from the Du Ponts, Alfred Sloan and other Yankee industrialists, along with racist Southern Democrats.) Biographer William Anderson describes Talmadge’s image as “a ranting antique who represented all that had been wrong with traditional Southern economics and morality.”

After a series of speeches excoriating the New Deal, Talmadge toured the South proclaiming himself “an old-fashioned Democrat” to anyone who would listen. Thus inspired, his coffers flushed with cash from Northern industrialists and Southern oligarchs, Talmadge convened a “grassroots convention” in Macon, Georgia on January 27, 1936 to announce his presidential bid. It proved a hateful farce, with Talmadge’s aides distributing Confederate flags to attendees along with doctored photographs (the brainchild of Texas millionaire and right-to-work pioneer Vance Muse) of Eleanor Roosevelt arm-in-arm with two black Howard professors. The predictable rhetoric about constitutionalism and states rights couldn’t mask the convention’s rank, reeking ugliness.

If the setting wasn’t bad enough, the speakers confirmed every stereotype about hateful Southern rednecks. Thomas Dixon, the novelist responsible for The Klansman, denounced an anti-lynching bill being debated in Congress while assuring listeners that white civilization rested upon the murder of black men. Then Gerald L.K. Smith made a colorful vow to “put the cloth of the ballot over [Roosevelt]’s dead mouth” and led the audience in a prayer for Roosevelt’s defeat. Talmadge, humiliated that Smith upstaged him, severed his ties with Share Our Wealth and terminated his candidacy within months. (He also lost a Senate race that fall to Richard Russell, who spent decades refining a more genteel racism on Capitol Hill.)

Gerald L.K. Smith

Talmadge’s failure marks the New Deal’s cruelest irony. African-American voters, sick of Republican neglect and attracted to Roosevelt’s recovery programs, voted Democratic en masse for the first time in the ’30s (71 percent voted for FDR in 1936) and benefited immensely from his policies. Yet Roosevelt failed to seriously support civil rights, desegregation or anti-lynching bills, since racist Dixiecrats were his most reliable congressional allies. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi could argue that America is “strictly a white man’s country, with a white man’s civilization, and any dream on the part of the Negro Race to share social and political equality will be shattered” while supporting social security, the TVA and labor protections. Without FDR holding it together, this coalition slowly unraveled before shattering altogether during Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

At any rate, as Glen Jeansonne observes, Smith harbored ambitions beyond helping Talmadge: “to wreak revenge on President Roosevelt…and to attach himself to some movement to which he could apply his organizational and oratorical talents.” Despite his later attachment to the far right, Smith’s ideology in 1936 felt nebulous and opportunistic. Thus, within a year’s time, he could support Huey Long’s progressive platform, embrace Francis Townsend, bolster Eugene Talmadge and even flirt with William Dudley Pelley, deranged messiah of the Silver Shirts. He fared the worst with Father Charles Coughlin, whom he already knew from Long’s attempts to recruit him as an ally, and who considered Smith an untrustworthy rival.

Like Long, the silver-mouthed, charismatic “radio priest” Coughlin began as a Roosevelt supporter. During the 1932 campaign he adopted the slogan “Roosevelt or Ruin” and assured listeners that “the New Deal is Christ’s deal.” Yet his affection for FDR soon waned, warning that Roosevelt’s policies didn’t address the inequities underpinning America’s financial system. Proclaiming his intent to “fight against the heinous rottenness of modern capitalism,” Coughlin simultaneously smeared Roosevelt as “bent on Communist revolution” and made initially coded disparagement of Jewish “speculators.” Radio helped Coughlin’s message reach millions, earning him a national following among urban Catholics and rural Protestants alike.

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Father Coughlin

Forming a movement called the National Union for Social Justice, Coughlin initially forswore forming a third party. He evidently changed his mind after the defeat of the Frazier-Lemke Bill, designed by North Dakota Congressmen Lynn Frazier and William Lemke to use government funds for farm mortgages. Coughlin’s obnoxious lobbying for the bill earned the ire of congressmen (John O’Connor of New York threatened to “kick Coughlin from the Capitol to the White House with clerical garb”) and convinced him that “the erstwhile sham battlers, both Democratic and Republican” held no answers. Thus he formed an alliance with Smith, who’d meanwhile wooed another eccentric reformer to his side.  

Francis Townsend, a retired doctor and real estate salesman from Long Beach, California, was the odd man out. In September 1933, he first outlined what eventually became the Old-Age Revolving Pension, an innovative welfare program that would pay $200 a month to every American over sixty. Many dismissed Townsend as a crank (professional economists agreed that his plan wasn’t remotely feasible), yet his movement gained massive popularity among disillusioned progressives and senior citizens alike. “For old folks who had lived too long in the shadows,” Arthur Schlesinger would write, “the promise of $200 a month offered deliverance and dignity.”

Townsend’s movement blossomed from niche cause to national crusade, attracting millions of followers nationwide. “The time has arrived,” he announced, “when the citizenry must take charge of their government and repudiate the philosophy of want and hunger in a land of wealth and abundance.” He held rallies where audiences sang Christian hymns and invoked Dr. Townsend as a messiah; Townsend capitalized off his success by founding a magazine which advertised crank medicines and old age remedies. Townsend might have made a suitable ally for Huey Long; however, he proved a poor fit for Smith and Coughlin’s interlocking ambitions.  

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Francis Townsend

At least Smith and Townsend proved personally amiable; they gave joint press conferences which often played like awkward comedy routines. “We symbolize the following one of leader who was shot and another who is being persecuted,” Smith would announce, before turning to Townsend: “How’s that, Doctor?” “That’s all right,” Townsend replied, somewhat befuddled. Smith proved more impressive on the stump, announcing that “I’m going to show that there is something solid behind your enthusiasm…the hunger of millions of poor people.” Even Smith’s enemies conceded his oratorical gifts, though many doubted his sincerity or commitment.

Ultimately, however, none of these men became the National Union Party’s candidate. That honor fell to the aforementioned William Lemke. Characterized by David H. Bennett as “a sincere and dedicated servant of the state and sectional interests in his agricultural homeland,” Lemke built a record of advocating for farmers, opposing foreign entanglements, and little else. He was neither a national figure nor an inspiring candidate; his selection, it appears, owed more to his friendship with Father Coughlin than innate ability. (His running mate, Thomas C. O’Brien, was a Boston lawyer with no political experience beyond a single term as District Attorney; he, too, was selected due to his closeness to Coughlin.)

Meanwhile, conservatives hoping for an alternative to Roosevelt were disappointed. The National Union Party’s platform managed at once to be too radical and extremely incoherent. The Republican Party failed to offer much of an alternative. A heated primary contest raged through the spring and summer, with progressive Senator William Borah of Idaho and moderate Governor Alfred E. Landon of Kansas battling for the nomination. Conservatives pinned their hopes on ex-President Herbert Hoover, whose boilerplate invective against socialism showed he’d learned nothing from his four years in the White House. Eventually Landon prevailed, selecting conservative publisher Frank Knox as his running mate.

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Alf Landon

Landon enjoyed a somewhat schizophrenic reputation. Conservatives could take solace in his support for fiscal austerity, a stance which led many to call him “the Kansas Coolidge.” Yet Landon was an unrepentant Bull Moose Republican who’d supported Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgency in 1912 and Robert La Follette’s Progressive bid in 1924. He supported intervention in the private sector and expansion of state-run utilities, while opposing the Ku Klux Klan and restrictions on civil liberties. He defended numerous aspects of the New Deal and maintained a cordial relationship with President Roosevelt, who liked the Kansan enough to offer him a cabinet post. (Landon declined, but Frank Knox became FDR’s Secretary of the Navy, admitting that he enjoyed working under Roosevelt much more than he did running against him.)

Governor Landon was, by most accounts, an honorable man and a reasonable politician. His major shortcomings, William Allen White felt, were “a mulish stubbornness and a Napoleonic selfishness,” neither a fatal handicap in politics. He was not, however, someone to make conservatives swoon. What could the Du Ponts expect from a Republican who argued that “as civilization becomes more complex, government power must increase”? On the stump, Landon dutifully mouthed platitudes about free enterprise and New Deal socialism without conviction or charisma; few observers rated him a serious threat against Roosevelt.

Certainly the Union Party, however slim their chances, was more colorful, both in its demagogic posturing and its dysfunctional message. Their national convention at Cleveland, in July, displayed both aspects, with the disparate followers of Coughlin, Smith and Townsend cramming into Municipal Stadium. For some reason, Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party was invited; his address mocked Townsend’s old-age plan as “a quack remedy that couldn’t possibly work.” Then Gomer Smith, a rabble-rousing Congressman from Oklahoma, praised FDR as “a church-going, Bible-reading, God-fearing, golden-hearted man” to raucous applause. An embarrassed Townsend grabbed the microphone away from Smith and denounced him as a “troublemaker,” to the confusion of his followers.

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Coughlin, Townsend and Smith at Cleveland

The party leaders, at least, availed themselves well. Gerald L.K. Smith gave a sweat-drenched, Bible-thumping peroration announcing that “there are enough good people who believe in the flag and the Bible to seize and control the government of America.” Not to be outdone, Father Coughlin histrionically removed his coat and collar while attacking the President as “Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt” and Alf Landon as “the creature of three newspaper editors.” Finally the convention climaxed with Lemke’s acceptance speech, vowing “the American people are going back to the democracy of Jefferson and Lincoln in November.”

It all sounded very stirring, winning praise even from professional cynic H.L. Mencken, who lauded Smith’s oration as “a magnificent amalgam of each and every American species of rabble rousing.” Smith promised that the party would win six million votes; Coughlin, even more optimistic, expected Lemke to score ten percent of the vote. None of them expected to win, but there remained a hope that Lemke’s party could at least derail Roosevelt’s attempts at reelection.

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William Lemke

Lemke and his surrogates barnstormed the country, showing an enviable energy. Lemke, Smith and Coughlin commanded a seemingly wide base of support: Midwestern farmers, urban Catholics, poor southerners who struggled to connect the uninspiring Lemke with the ghost of Huey Long. The party also fielded congressional and gubernatorial candidates in several states, most notably William “Big Bill” Thompson, the former Mayor of Chicago famous for his friendship with Al Capone. Despite their national ambitions, the Union Party’s support proved broad yet exceedingly shallow, failing to inspire supporters not already amenable to their message.

Making little dent in the two party system, the Union Party’s rhetoric grew more hysterical as Election Day approached. Insults replaced policy: Coughlin warned that FDR had “one [foot] mired in the Red mud of Soviet communism and the other, in the stinking cesspool of pagan plutocracy.” He openly insulted the ”Jews and atheists” surrounding Roosevelt, his antisemitism growing steadily more pronounced. Smith called Roosevelt’s administration “a slimy group of men culled from the pink campuses of America with friendly gaze fixed on Russia.” Lemke, the actual candidate, couldn’t compete with their apocalyptic invective; his main contribution was labeling Roosevelt “the bewildered Kerensky of a provisional government.”

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Dr. Seuss vs. Reverend Smith

Ultimately, their efforts amounted to little. Lemke achieved a mere 891,858 votes nationwide, failing to carry any states or even to make the margin of difference anywhere. Not that Roosevelt needed the help; he steamrolled Landon by a margin of 523 electoral votes to 8 (leading to the immortal quip, referring to the only two states Landon won, that “as Maine goes, so goes Vermont”) and 60.7 percent of the popular vote. Nor did any Union Party candidate anywhere win their election. Lemke haplessly proclaimed that “we have the other parties running scared.” No one bought it, least of all his erstwhile allies; the Union Party collapsed before the next election.

Father Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith went their separate ways, embittered in their hopes for change and swollen in both their egos and hatreds. Coughlin warned that with Roosevelt’s reelection, America now stood at a crossroads: “one road leads to Communism, the other to fascism.” While he professed to choose a third way, Coughlin said that if push came to shove, “I take the road to fascism.” Even now (perhaps especially now), millions of angry Americans might yet follow.