The problem with Father Coughlin isn’t just his message of hate; it’s the affection his huge audience has for him.
Cleveland, August 16 “Jesus!” breathed the newsreel man, gathering in his lines in the shadow of the stadium. “What an ending!” He was talking of Father Charles F. Coughlin, who brought the first annual convention of the National Union for Social Justice to a close by calling President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Rexford G. Tugwell “Communists,” directing his audience to “go to your homes as to a trench,” and suddenly collapsing under a hot sun and being spirited away, while 30,000 people, stunned, stood in a silent prayer.
Indeed, Father Coughlin’s heavenly fish fry is over, and if it proved anything to those who underwent it, it was that the man who hopes some day to be “a simple parish priest again” is very much with the world. As a disembodied voice, he was listened to; as a living man who walks the earth, who breathes, gestures, smiles, and bends the graciousness of his shining countenance upon them who believe, he is worshiped. They love him.
It was all Coughlin Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, save for a few hours of the first day when that “Great Betrayer” and “L—” came to town quite innocently to look over the WPA projects in Cleveland. But that was not important. Father Coughlin waited until the President left at four o’clock and then delivered a surprise address in Public Hall on money and the persecution of the Jews which made the headlines of the evening newspapers.
The show lagged a bit at the beginning, but by Saturday night Father Coughlin had to be escorted through the corridors of the Hotel Hollenden in the center of a flying wedge of burly Irishmen lest the faithful dismantle him in their frenzy, and the National Union for Social justice convention had become an orgy of affection. Maryland moved a vote of thanks to Father Coughlin’s mother for bearing him. Indiana advanced to the rostrum and pointed out that his father was born in Indiana. Kentucky called him a second Lincoln. All states agreed that he was the Greatest American of All Time, and some compared him even to Christ. Thomas C. O’Brien, the Union Party candidate for Vice-President, apparently a little cagey about superlatives, merely called him “the greatest living teacher of economics,” while F. L. Van Ness, a Kalamazoo, Michigan, artist, estimated that from 2:30 p.m. Friday until I p m. Saturday he sold 11,500 reproductions of Father Goughlin’s portrait, done in misty, saint-like pastels, at two bits each. And finally the entire assembly in convention met passed a resolution—one of a number of resolutions marked by the repeated and significant use of the term “Our Leader”—indorsing everything he ever publicly said or did as well as everything he was ever publicly to say or do.
Miss Helen Elizabeth Martin of the Bronx, New York, well-nigh swooned Saturday with the honor that was hers of nominating father Coughlin for the presidency of the N. U. S. J. Fortyish, a red ribbon holding her frizzled auburn bangs to her forehead, Miss Helen blew two-fingered kisses at the audience and standing pale and sanctified at the rostrum, declaimed dramatically, “I dedicate this moment to the two women who prepared me for it. They are in the Great Beyond …. I stand alone.” It developed that she was talking about her mother and grandmother.
Miss Helen performed one more noble deed before that momentous day ended. She clapped her hands and spontaneously fluttered across the platform at 8:02 p.m. to give her lacy white handkerchief to the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, who at the moment was living up to all advance notices by dripping perspiration and indicting bankers in Brazil for the murder of little pigs in Iowa. Dr. Francis E. Townsend, third steward of discontent, also spoke, and although he promised to lend the support of his people, he was dry and didn’t shout, whereupon a number of delegates began to walk out to late supper. Then the Reverend Mr. Smith began, and for a time it looked as if he might steal the show.
It may be interesting to note that it was a new Coughlin whom the reporters met Friday and Saturday. They were bowled over by his affability. He apologized for the harsh statements he had made. He was sorry. President Roosevelt? Of course he should be respected for his office. His visit in town? Just a coincidence, and if he, Father Coughlin, had known at what time the President was to pass Public Hall he, Father Coughlin, would have suggested that the convention adjourn so that the delegates could gaze upon their President. But Sunday afternoon, speaking in the stadium, Father Coughlin was all that he had ever been on the radio. It may be possible he was thinking of Gerald Smith’s performance the night before and its effect. At any rate, it is known that he did not prepare his Sunday speech until Sunday morning.
It was on Friday and Saturday that Father Coughlin protested to reporters that until he should be elected president—that is, if he should be elected president—he was no more important than any other delegate. “See this?” he asked, showing his delegate’s badge to the dubious reporters. “I’m just one of the boys.” This was not scrupulously believed, because there were rumors that Father Coughlin knew something of the constitution and may even have had a hand in the later indorsement of William Lemke of North Dakota. Few delegates, however, had the temerity to differ with Delegate Coughlin; one tried it and had a very bad time of it. I know, because I still bear bruises where I was shoved when John H. O’Donnell, the hard-bitten Pittsburgh alternate, was escorted off the platform. Mr. O’Donnell may well tell his grandchildren that back in August, 1936, he rose to his feet, one against 8,153, and bawled “No!” when Lemke’s indorsement came up. Five minutes later he was marching down a back corridor, still hard-bitten and silent, with police massed about him and frantic loyalists shouting “Judas!” after him. A middle-aged woman clawed her way through to scream, “How much did Farley pay you?” “Where’d he go?” Demanded a delegate who looked like an original Berzehus Windrip man, “I don’t want to see that monkey get out of here in one piece.” The police kept Mr. O’Donnell in a locked room, then took him for a motor ride and suggested he spend the rest of the day at the Great Lakes Convention, which is also a big show, but less dangerous.
One of Father Coughlin’s statements, made a few moments later when the audience began a demonstration for Lemke and O’Brien, may yet return to plague him “If I don’t swing 9,000,000 votes to Lemke,” said Father Coughlin, bright-eyed at the sight of the yelling, marching crowd, “I’ll quit broadcasting for good.”
Lemke himself was even more generous with statistics, but Lemke wasn’t wagering his future on them. Sitting upstairs in the Hollenden Sunday morning, a baldpaled, grinning figure in striped galluses and a baggy gray suit, Liberty Bill invited newspaper correspondents to visit him in the White House after March 4, next. “The doors will be open to you just the same,” said Mr. Lemke, “even though the newspapers don’t let you print the truth.” Several correspondents, touchy from the humidity, unwound their handkerchiefs from their necks and began telling the next President of the United States where to get off. Things soon quieted down, however, and Mr. Lemke, folding his freckled fists together and staring at the ceiling, went on to make predictions.
“I shall poll fifteen million. An underground swell is now becoming a tidal wave. It will sweep me into the White House and Roosevelt and Landon into discard.” While he was talking, said Mr. Lemke, he might as well straighten the boys out about his feelings where Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Landon were concerned. “To me,” he explained, “Roosevelt is a bewildered Kerensky not knowing where he’s going, and Landon represents the dying shadow of a past civilization.”
By whom was he being nominated, please?
“I’m being nominated by the sovereign people of the nation who work for a living,” said Mr. Lemke, waving his hand. He was then asked why, if he and his party were deeply concerned with labor, the Union Party platform did not specifically mention collective bargaining.
“It doesn’t have to,” retorted Mr. Lemke “That’s understood in our emphasis upon a living wage for labor.” He continued to speak of the people of the United States, the people who understand the spirit “in which our forefathers wrote the Constitution.”
Had he examined that remarkable document the constitution of the National Union for Social Justice? Did he know that the president appointed the nominating committee which presented the names for the board of trustees from whom, in turn, the next president had to be chosen? That was a closed corporation, wasn’t it, and was that written in the spirit of the forefathers?
“Well,” said Mr. Lemke, “a lot of things are closed corporations. That’s just what Congress has been lately.” This question couldn’t be pursued any farther because Mr. Lemke had meetings to attend and North Dakota hands to shake.
In all the shouting of the convention one man was quickly forgotten, yet to some extent he was an interesting figure among those present. This was Senator Rush Dew Holt of West Virginia, keynoter. Senator Holt denied that he was in the position of an innocent passerby who had unexpectedly been buttonholed and pulled in to speak, but circumstances were suspicious. He was the third choice, and the recommendation of Walter Davis, Father Coughlin’s convention marshal.
The Senator was lounging about his home in Weston, West Virginia, a week ago Saturday, he said, when he was called to the telephone and informed that Father Coughlin would like to have him make the keynote speech in Cleveland on the fourteenth. “It was Davis talking,” said Holt, stretched out on a sofa in his suite, one leg dangling, the other on the sofa arm wiggling from side to side, “and he said I could talk as I wished and wouldn’t be expected to indorse or condemn any candidate. The next day they called me back and I told them 0. K” Honestly and frankly, Holt explained, he couldn’t figure out why Father Coughlin chose him “Probably,” he said, “they picked me on my record.”
That record, as far as labor was concerned, was darned good, too, John Lewis or no John Lewis. “I’m sorry I accepted his support in the Senate race,” said Holt, sitting up. “He’s a menace. I’m still with the United Mine Workers of America—with the men who work. But Lewis is one of the most dangerous influences in America today. Do you know, he set up a dictatorial rule in the United Mine Workers, and those men can’t even vote on their own affairs!” He went on to explain as he sat there, his hair mussed, the ends of his opened tie hanging down his shirt, that his aim in the Senate was to expose hypocrisy. He’d also like to work so that the laboring man could have a better wage. But he did not like the political opportunism he found in the Senate. “I’d rather go down to defeat for a principle than win through political expediency,” he said.
Even if that opportunism permitted him to gain time to accomplish much more important reforms? “Absolutely,” said Holt. And if he lost out, wouldn’t the actual result be worse than before, so far as the reforms were concerned? “No,” said Holt, “I don’t believe any man can lose who fights for the right thing.”
Getting back to the National Union for Social justice—was he a member? “Oh, no,” said Holt, “but I think its principles are essentially good. I was glad of an opportunity to explain my views on economics and politics as outlined by the principles of the union.”
Well, did he think, perhaps, that the National Union for Social justice might ever turn into a fascist tool?
“Gosh,” said the Senator from West Virginia, “I hope not.”
Addendum: Sunday afternoon Mr. Lemke also spoke.