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A Gallery of Politicians

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Dixie Demagogues. By Allan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick. New York: The Vanguard Press. $2.50. Mr. Garner of Texas. By Marquis James. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $1.50. Democracy’s Norris. By Alfred Lief. New York: Stackpolc Sons. $3.50.

Popular estimates and explanations of that peculiar institution, the Southern demagogue, have undergone an interesting transition during the last decade. Back in the ‘twenties the analysis was simple enough. Across the human geography of the South there stretched a “Bible Belt” populated by a “moronic underworld” whose natural spokesmen were “baboons and gorillas.” Mr. Frank R. Kent perfectly expressed the attitude: “To those who, like myself, believe that the great bulk of the voters belong to this moronic underworld, the success of the Huey Longs needs no other explanation.”

Granted the accuracy of this analysis, the assassin’s solution has a certain cogency. Unconvinced by such logic, Mr. H. C. Nixon held in 1935 that “the Southern demagogue is an institution that imperfectly meets a human need, which might have been more adequately met another way, but was not. Institutions are not easily or quickly destroyed.” The following year, Mr. Gerald Johnson, writing in The Virginia Quarterly Review, advanced the question, “Live demagogue, or dead gentleman?” To him it seemed that “when the choice lies between a demagogue and a political corpse, the voters who choose the demagogue may be degenerate, but I doubt that their choice proves it. Necrophilia is not a wholesome trait, either.”

The latest analysis is the most ambitious yet. The authors of “Dixie Demagogues,” Allan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick, omit scarcely a contemporary Southern politician heard of outside his own bailiwick. Opportunities for sensations are unlimited in this field and the result is not without color, to say the least. Two vaudeville performers, Governor W. Lee (“Pass the Biscuits Pappy”) O’Daniel of Texas, and the new Senator “Happy” Chandler of Kentucky, are described in action. Senator Robert R. (“Our Bob”) Reynolds is mercilessly portrayed in a chapter called “Tarheel Fuehrer,” and Senator Theodore G. (“The Man”) Bilbo is the subject of “Mississippi’s Bilbonic Plague.” The super-patriot inquisitor, Congressman Martin Dies, the red-gallussed “Wild Man from Sugar Creek,” ex-Governor Gene Talmadge of Georgia, Senator Cotton Ed Smith of South Carolina, boss-man Ed Crump of Tennessee, and Senator Rush Holt of West Virginia all sit for individual portraits and caricatures. The current investigations of the crumbling Long dynasty in Louisiana furnish sensational material for a chapter called “Fascism: American Style,” on the doings of Smith, Leche, Weiss, Maestri, and associates. One oldtime spellbinder, “Tom Tom” Heflin of Alabama, comes in for brief excoriation, though it is admitted that his day is done.

This delegation, according to the authors, represents only the more conventional type of demagogue—only “one part of the Smith’s political malady.” The other part works “behind a cloak of dignity and respectability.” Its representatives include Senators Carter Glass and Harry Byrd of Virginia, Millard Tydings of Maryland, Walter F. George of Georgia, Josiah W. Bailey of North Carolina, and the “Re-publocrats” Pat Harrison of Mississippi, Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina, and the “Texas Coolidge,” John Garner.

Although they differ in methods from the first group, “they are merely streamlined demagogues” who serve “Northern corporate and industrial wealth that has enslaved their own people.”

However charitably disposed one may be toward the conclusions reached by Messrs. Michie and Ryhlick, it is still impossible to give their work any but a qualified endorsement. One sample will serve to explain this hesitation. “When Populism came to South Carolina,” they write, ” ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman, scion of a wealthy slaveholding family, professed to adopt the cause of the rural masses and maintained this pretense until he climbed to power. Then he sold out his followers and became one of the most vicious Negro baiters in American history. . . .” Now, in the first place, Populism never came to South Carolina, nor was Tillman ever a Populist (as he is called elsewhere), nor could the one-eyed orphan of an inn-keeper be accurately called a “scion” of anybody. Moreover, Tillman’s Negro-baiting, instead of “selling out” his followers, was an important means by which he “climbed to power” in the first place. Furthermore, it was not the Bourbons who disfranchised the Negro in South Carolina, as the authors assert in the paragraph preceding the one quoted, but the Tillmanites themselves, in 1895. Then too, it is difficult to persuade an Arkansan, like the reviewer, that Jeff Davis was from Missouri, and it might entail some risk to persuade the average high school graduate that George III reigned in 1747.

Shaky historical foundations do not inspire great faith in superstructure. However, fierceness of indignation, irreverence for stuffed shirts, and lively journalism go far toward redeeming the book. For these qualities and for the color inherent in the subjects, “Dixie Demagogues” is worth reading.

Mr. Marquis James, of Oklahoma, keeper of the Valhalla of Southwestern heroes, comes forward a bit sheepishly with a brand new candidate—John Nance Garner, whom Messrs.

Michie and Ryhlick discuss in their opening chapter as “The Texas Coolidge.” As campaign biographies go, “Mr. Garner of Texas” is a better than average performance. Perfectly aware that he is portraying no “Raven” and no “Border Captain,” Mr. James scales down his canvas appropriately.

In spite of the omission of some notable details stressed by the authors of “Dixie Demagogues,” Mr. James’s picture of his hero and his background stand out with relative clarity. For one thing, there is an apparently candid account of the Garner million and how it was made, of Garner’s shrewd awareness of “the profit-taking possibilities of about everything that can be bought or sold,” and his rapturous acquisitiveness in “ten thousand small everyday transactions.” In the political background stands his original Congressional district, about the size of Pennsylvania, whose rulers, the great ranch kings, befriended the young politician and took care of his campaigns for him. It is of significance that the author of a campaign biography stresses the fact that most of the two hundred thousand fruit growers who settled in Garner’s district in the ‘twenties “hailed from the Republican states of the middle West,” and at the same time emphasizes Mr. Garner’s friendly relations with Republican leaders. The rest of the story is the familiar one of the silent, plodding party man and cloakroom worker, waiting and waiting for the seniority rule to work its inevitable way. By 1918 Garner was very near the top in the House, while outside that chamber and his Texas district he was virtually unknown.

On the same day that Garner began his plodding rise in the House, George W. Norris of Nebraska also took his seat. That was thirty-seven years ago, and in all the period since then it would be difficult to find two more strikingly contrasting political figures—whether in temperament, method, or doctrine. George Norris’s crusading temperament, his fearless independence and contempt for party lines, his breadth of vision and relentless persistence both in exposing corruption and in constructive legislation have made him the undisputed hero of progressives in both parties. His story is set forth in “Democracy’s Norris” by Alfred Lief.

After a childhood that might have been taken out of Hamlin Garland’s “Son of the Middle Border,” and a “starving-time” at school teaching and the law, Norris eased off in what appeared to be the direction of an entirely conventional career. It is odd to find him setting forth in 1892 “to grapple with the menace of Populism” and winning his first battles for conservatives. Odd too is the picture of the young pillar of Beaver City society—”a heavy gold chain across his vest . . . Shriner’s emblem in his lapel, and a fedora.” The transition from this image to that of the fearless crusader is not clear. Once he found his true role, however, there was never any wavering. His first victory was won against Czar Cannon’s dictatorial regime in 1910, and Norris confessed to subsequent party irregularities on farm relief, tariff, lame duck sessions, the big navy, Daugherty, Vare, oil, and water-power, to mention only a few. His stand against American intervention in the World War, his opposition to the espionage bill, the Versailles Treaty, and our undeclared war on Russia placed him among the most “willful” of the oppositionists. Norris’s greatest inspiration was his vision of the meaning of electricity and water power to American society. At the opening of the New Deal era, he had already been fighting for municipal ownership for twenty years, defending Muscle Shoals from monopolies for thirteen years, and for at least ten years he had envisioned the T.V.A. and a plan even larger.

Mr. Alfred Lief, author of a biography of Brandeis, has written a capable and craftsmanlike life of Norris that is frankly, though not blindly, laudatory. His book easily supplants the biography by Neuberger and Kahn of two years ago, if for no other reason than his access to the private papers of Norris and some of his colleagues. Architecture and proportion are somewhat neglected for detail of chronicle, but “Democracy’s Norris” is nevertheless one of the best biographies of a contemporary American that we have.


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