Many Americans are shaking their heads in disbelief at the spectacle of the current presidential campaigns, as if the U.S. had a long tradition of sedate, well-behaved political campaigns. At times, electioneering has been more raucous than restrained. Although presidential campaigns have, in general, become more respectable in modern times, state elections have continued to offer a traditional mix of inflamed oratory and country entertainment.
The “medicine shows” of Eugene Talmadge’s gubernatorial campaigns in the 1930s and ’40s are a case in point. His pandering to rural voters and the orchestrated outbursts from the public during his campaign speeches won him the governor’s seat in Georgia four times. The following Post excerpt — from Rufus Jarman’s “Wool-Hat Dictator” — outlines some of the tactics that won over farmers and sharecroppers.
By Rufus Jarman
Excerpted from an article originally published on June 27, 1942
There is one type of Georgian who loves Gene Talmadge with a deep and undying love — the small farmer, the tenant farmer and sharecropper, men with bearded, sun-scorched faces, who wear overalls and big black hats, stiff with the sweat and grease of 20 summers. They’re called the “Wool-Hat Boys,” down in Georgia. …
His campaign was loaded with sure-fire appeal for the Wool-Hat Boys from hill and hollow.
He painstakingly constructed a masterpiece of a rabble-rouser as a campaign address and delivered it 200 times. A mobile claque always traveled with him from one speechifying to another, and the inner guard saw to it that recruits hit the Talmadge sawdust trail at the proper moment. Stooges included the Tree-Climbing Haggards From Danielsville. Of varying shapes and sizes, the numerous Haggards shinnied up pines near the platform and shouted down such encouragements as: “Tell us about Ole Sargon Tom Hardwick, Gene.” While serving a previous term as governor, Hardwick had endorsed the patent medicine Sargon, and the ethically fastidious Talmadge never allowed him to forget it.
Others of the troupe shrilled, “You tell ’em, Gene! Take off your coat, Gene!” This allowed Talmadge to display his political trademark, red galluses [suspenders]. Once an elderly stooge had fallen asleep when the time came to respond to Talmadge’s cue, “What do you think of that, brother?” The question was twice repeated, but the old fellow could only emit an unintelligible gobble. His false teeth had slipped out and fallen into the sand.
Another stooge, an old woman wearing a Mother Hubbard, tried to save the situation by instantly quavering into a Talmadge campaign song:
“Talmadge red, Talmadge blue, I wish my name was Talmadge too.”
The star of Gene’s vaudeville troupe was Fiddlin’ John Carson, a hillbilly bard who played a 225-year-old fiddle while his daughter, Moonshine Kate, accompanied on the guitar. They assembled the crowds with such selections as the Three-Dollar Tag song, to the tune of Hesitation Blues. It went:
I gotta Eugene dog, gotta Eugene cat,
I’m a Talmadge man from ma shoes to ma hat.
Farmer in the cawnfield hollerin’ whoa, gee, haw,
Kain’t put no thutty-dollar tag on a three-dollar car.
Arriving when the crowd was sufficiently large and enthusiastic, Talmadge attacked the fertilizer companies and praised the “pore folks.” Then came a description of an imaginary baseball game in which Talmadge listed his nine opponents in fielding positions, himself at bat.
His two strongest opponents, John Holder and Tom Hardwick, were pitcher and catcher. The crowd went into ecstasies when Gene told how Catcher Hardwick would slap his mitt and shout, “Honest Jawn, Honest Jawn, th’ow Ole Gene that ole croo-o-oked ball.” Talmadge assured his hearers that he’d knock that “ole croo-o-oked ball” out of the lot — a bit of humor that went over bigger in rural Georgia than anything since Punch and Judy.
Reaching his climax when he got around to his legal troubles, Talmadge shouted, “I bin afightin’ so hard up in Atlanta for you all, and I wouldn’t quit till finally they drug of me down to the jailhouse and shuk of the keys in ma face.”
Then he would pause, tuck in his shirt, brush his hair from his forehead, and conclude softly, “My fellow countrymen, the constitution makes the governor of Georgia immune from the processes of the courts. I want you to put me where they can’t enjoin me or mandamus [impel by court order] me. If you’ll just put me where they can’t law with me, I’ll run the rogues out of Georgia and make it a place where a decent man can make a livin’. They’s a big rock house out on a hill there in Atlanta that the state has provided for its governor to live in. And when Miss Mitt and me move in there, I want you boys to come to see us and bring us a ham.”
The Wool-Hat Boys swept Talmadge into the governorship, and they brought him hams — so many that he built a smokehouse back of the mansion. He grazed a milch cow on the gubernatorial lawn, and planted cotton in a small parkway in fashionable Ansley Park, “to show the people of Atlanta what cotton looks like, growin’.”
Read the full article “Wool-Hat Dictator” to learn more about the successes, shortcomings, and shenanigans of Eugene Talmadge’s political career.