Throughout the initial year of President Obama’s term, there has been much consternation over the administration’s “war” with the conservative press. With commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham taking to the airwaves to label the president everything from a stealth socialist to a crypto-fascist, there is a feeling that an unprecedented, and possibly even dangerous, level of vitriol has entered our political discourse. Yet these right-wing stalwarts seem meek compared to Glenn Beck. The Fox News host, who famously accused the president of being a racist, has won millions of viewers with a mix of conspiracy theories, doomsday scenarios, and chalkboard diagrams of how radical subversives are boring their way into the supporting timbers of American government.
Beck’s influence has not been confined to the studio. To the tens of thousands of “Tea Party” protesters who descended on Washington last September, Beck was a hero—as well as a potential presidential candidate. At a November rally in Florida, he announced plans to use his “9/12” foundation to foster political activism. Beck’s ratings and his folk-hero status have led some to anoint him, along with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, as the true leaders of the conservative movement and a possible dream ticket for 2012.
Whether Beck will succeed in translating his television fame into genuine political clout remains an open question. The long plastic hallway of modern media is littered with examples of commentators who mistook high ratings for electoral prospects. Then again, these are hardly normal times. As the president is fond of reminding us, America is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And in that era, Franklin D. Roosevelt observed that, under normal circumstances, many of his more outlandish detractors would not have gained traction with the public. “However, these are not normal times,” said Roosevelt. “People are jumpy and very ready to run after strange gods.”
One strange god in particular bedeviled Roosevelt—a media figure who, despite wide condemnation in official precincts, balky network sponsors, and White House opposition, managed to not only build a national following but to found a viable political movement. His name was Charles E. Coughlin, and maybe his story has some lessons for today.
Father Coughlin, as he was known to his adoring listeners, was without question the most powerful broadcasting force America has ever known. Working from his home parish at the Shrine of the Little Flower in suburban Detroit, the “Radio Priest” built an audience estimated as high as forty million listeners for his Sunday broadcasts—at a time when America’s population was less than half of what it is today. At the apex of his popularity, he received around 10,000 letters a day and employed a staff of more than a hundred clerks and four private secretaries just to answer his mail. His church eventually had to establish its own post office branch to cope with the deluge, along with its own motel and gas station to service the thousands of tourists who visited the shrine every Sunday.
And like his latter-day successors, Coughlin’s influence extended far beyond the confines of the studio. The first edition of his radio speeches, published in 1933 during the depths of the Depression, sold nearly a million copies. One Hollywood studio offered him $500,000 to appear as himself in the film The Fighting Priest (he turned it down). Out on the stump he regularly drew crowds of twenty or thirty thousand, packing venues like Chicago’s Soldier Field and New York’s Madison Square Garden.
His support was sought by congressmen, senators, and governors. Celebrities like Bing Crosby and General Douglas MacArthur made pilgrimages to meet Coughlin, as did foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. When Roosevelt decided to make his bid for the White House in 1932, one of his first moves was to seek (and receive) Coughlin’s blessing. Little wonder. A poll conducted in 1931 found Americans already considered Coughlin the most important public figure in the country after the president.
Remarkably, Coughlin had arrived in America a complete unknown less than a decade earlier. Raised in a religious family just across the Canadian border in Hamilton, Ontario, he was ordained in 1916 at the age of twenty-five. Coughlin was associated with the Basilian Order, which was sharply critical of the excesses of modern capitalism, particularly the sin of usury. The Basilian distaste for high finance stuck with him even after he left the order to become a parish priest in 1923.
Three years later, Coughlin took over a small congregation in the Royal Oak suburb of Detroit, and promptly built a new church. Deeply in debt to the diocese, he tried a variety of ways to raise money for his congregation. Nearing the end of his financial tether, he agreed to broadcast his sermons on WJR, a local station that was in equally dire straits.
Reading Coughlin’s sermons at a remove of eighty years, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. His prose is stilted, repetitious, a bit leaden. But from the beginning Coughlin connected to listeners in an electric way. Part of his appeal, of course, was pure novelty. He was among the first to offer regular religious services over the air, and despite criticism from some within the church, he built the first true radio congregation.
Coughlin was also a master at identifying with the concerns and anxieties of his audience. He was emotional, dramatic, and evocative: the mother of a kidnapped child was having her heart crushed “in a great press, making her bleed the wine of sorrow.” The “purple poison of Bolshevism” was like “a great red serpent” winding its sinews around the American soul. And those who closed their eyes to these mounting dangers dwelled in “the smiling acres of Lotus Land where it is always afternoon, always springtime . . . dulled by the opiate of their own contentedness to such a degree that they possess no prospect of what the future years hold in store for our nation.”
But most of all, there was the voice. The novelist Wallace Stegner described it as a “voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm, that anyone tuning past it almost automatically returned to hear it again.” It was, Stegner wrote, “a voice made for promises.”
Though history now remembers Coughlin as among Roosevelt’s fiercest political foes, they began as close, if uneasy, allies. Having assailed Herbert Hoover and his gang of “international financiers” during the onset of the Great Depression, the priest looked more kindly upon Hoover’s successor. Throughout 1932 and 1933, he lavished fulsome praise upon FDR in his broadcasts and encouraged his listeners to do the same. It was “Roosevelt or ruin,” Coughlin declared on more than one occasion.
Yet Roosevelt remained wary of Coughlin. As he did with Huey Long, another potential threat to his presidency, Roosevelt maintained an outward cordiality with the priest, meeting with him occasionally and directing his staff to reply to the voluminous tips, suggestions, and notes Coughlin communicated to the White House. But Roosevelt’s private papers make clear that he saw the Detroit broadcaster as a demagogue, whom he genuinely disliked.
There was never a single decisive moment that shifted their relationship, but in the year following FDR’s election it became increasingly clear that Coughlin, despite his ratings clout, was not going to be invited into the president’s inner circle. By 1934 the frustrated priest’s ardor for the New Deal cooled, and anti-Roosevelt jibes began to creep into his broadcasts, as did an even more apocalyptic tone.
“Capitalism is doomed and is not worth trying to save,” he exhorted the flock in February 1934, calling it a “Siamese twin” of Marxist socialism. In November of that year, Coughlin announced he was forming a new group called the National Union for Social Justice. This independent organization would be based upon “16 Principles” identified by its founder—including abolition of the Federal Reserve, simplification of government, and liberty of conscience. The aim of the group, said Coughlin, was to “drive out of public life” those who had betrayed these principles and broken their promises to the people. He boasted that the union would soon recruit five million members.
Coughlin’s first opportunity to flex his new political muscle came just a few months later. In January 1935, Roosevelt sent a long-delayed treaty to the heavily Democratic Senate, which would make the United States a participant in the World Court. The administration was confident of gaining ratification. Less than forty-eight hours before the vote, however, Coughlin took to the air to denounce the treaty as an affront to American sovereignty. In a voice filled with manly indignation, he urged his listeners to “keep America safe for Americans and not the hunting grounds for international plutocrats!”
Within hours of Coughlin’s broadcast, tens of thousands of telegrams flooded the Senate, and the treaty was rejected by a wide margin. “I regard this a decisive defeat of the administration,” Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, recorded in his diary of the vote. One Democratic party official warned that Coughlin had become “a bigger menace to the President and our government than ever.” The Fighting Priest, of course, was jubilant.
But through the rest of 1935, Coughlin had trouble replicating his success on the World Court vote. His audience had never been larger, and his radio network had grown to twenty-eight stations covering every major city in the Midwest and Northeast (as a Catholic, Coughlin’s influence was always limited in the heavily Protestant South). He maintained his own full-time lobbyist in D.C. Nevertheless, Coughlin’s assaults on the Federal Reserve, the gold standard, and his support for a bonus bill for war veterans were all stymied through deft political maneuvering by Roosevelt and his allies on Capitol Hill.
Though Coughlin would repeatedly deny it, it seems clear that he had harbored some idea of the National Union as a potential third party in American politics from its inception. In typical apocalyptic fashion, he had been forecasting the demise of the two-party system for some time, telling Collier’s Magazine he thought both parties would disappear within a decade.
Seeking to fill this impending political vacuum, Coughlin embarked on a speaking tour that he hoped would recruit millions of new members for the National Union. Those who attended his thunderous rallies came away impressed by the passionate devotion of the crowd. And at first, Coughlin had some modest success. In 1936, candidates endorsed by the National Union won congressional primaries in several large states, including Michigan, Ohio, and New York.
Coughlin never believed that a third-party candidate could directly challenge Roosevelt. Yet he was convinced that the millions of voters organized under the National Union banner could weaken FDR and potentially put a Republican in the White House. As the 1936 election approached, Coughlin joined forces with the remnants of Long’s organization (the Louisiana senator had been murdered in the summer of 1935) and other third-party splinter groups to form the Union Party, which chose North Dakota Congressman William Lemke as its presidential candidate.
At the party’s convention in August, Coughlin stripped away whatever had been left of his relationship with Roosevelt, literally peeling off his vestments during a stem-winding speech that labeled FDR as the “great betrayer” and a “liar.” On the stump, Coughlin was even more graphic, telling supporters that “when an upstart dictator in the United States succeeds in making this a one-party form of government, when the ballot is useless, I shall have the courage to stand up and advocate the use of bullets.” The priest swore that if he could not deliver nine million votes for Lemke, he would retire from the radio.
He couldn’t. In fact, Lemke garnered less than a million votes, and not a single one of the Union Party’s congressional candidates won election. True to his word, Coughlin did briefly “retire” from the radio—only to allow his faithful flock to woo him back on the air early the next year.
For a while, he seemed disconsolate, saying that Roosevelt’s landslide win made him a de facto dictator and that conventional political resistance was useless. But although his influence was diminished, Coughlin was far from a spent force. When Roosevelt, in the midst of another economic slippage during his second term, attempted to reorganize the government bureaucracy, the priest regained his old form, blasting the legislation as a “dictator bill” and urging his listeners to telegram Congress.
The response was so overwhelming the wire services had to shut down all other traffic to handle the volume. The reform bill flopped. And though others opposed the legislation, FDR acknowledged that “the gentleman from near Detroit” was primarily responsible for its demise. “Demagoguery and stupidity,” the president wrote to an aide after the vote, “are the natural enemies of democracy.”
The final act of Coughlin’s conflict with Roosevelt hinged on America’s looming involvement in World War II. From the beginning, his repeated lambasting of “international bankers,” “money lenders in the temple,” and his harping on the supposed prominence of Jews in communist intrigues had generated charges of anti-Semitism. With his alienation from the New Deal and the threat of war in Europe, Coughlin’s rants took on a darker tone. His weekly newspaper, Social Justice, serialized The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a paranoid fantasia about Jewish intrigues long since debunked by scholars. His speeches began to draw comparisons to Adolf Hitler’s—and in one instance, his newspaper appeared to reprint remarks made in Berlin by Joseph Goebbels without identifying their origin. Coughlin indignantly denied the charges of anti-Semitism, even as critics began to refer to his church as the “Shrine of the Little Führer.”
Coughlin’s reputation was further damaged when he announced a successor to the National Union called the Christian Front. The group quickly developed a reputation for thuggery, brawling on the streets, and roughing up people they suspected of being Jewish. They also picketed those radio stations that were beginning to shun Coughlin’s broadcasts.
In January 1940, eighteen members of the Christian Front were arrested for conspiracy to assassinate members of Congress. Police found weapons and bomb-making materials. Coughlin distanced himself from the group, but his exile to the political fringe was accelerating. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Coughlin’s harping on international conspiracies ran afoul of both wartime sentiment and the Justice Department’s tolerance for criticism of the government.
Threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act, Coughlin and his superiors in the church agreed that he should retire from radio and close his newspaper. He returned to being a parish priest, serving quietly (for the most part) for the next quarter-century. He died in 1979, and was buried at the church in Royal Oak, whose construction had launched his career.
Viewed against the backdrop of Coughlin’s clout during the Roosevelt years, the influence of today’s cadre of conservative critics seem tame. The priest was too hot to handle. Even as FDR privately fumed about Coughlin’s invective and influence, he studiously avoided discussing him in public. Roosevelt never returned fire directly, and was careful not to make Coughlin a martyr or play to his already well-developed sense of persecution. This was not only principle but realpolitik in action: FDR legitimately feared alienating Coughlin’s Catholic following, some of whom already harbored suspicions about the New Deal.
As for the ultimate root of Coughlin’s appeal, perhaps no one summed it up better than the philosopher John Dewey. Writing in the 1920s at the dawn of electronic mass communication, Dewey foresaw that the new technology carried with it the power to divide and “atomize” society, with individual constituencies increasingly replacing the shared sense of community. As Coughlin’s biographer Donald Warren observed, the broadcaster thrived by “projecting qualities of populist sincerity and trustworthiness while providing a forum for violence-provoking political expressions.”
Reading or listening to Coughlin’s speeches, it is clear that entire chunks of text could be transposed to the present day almost without alteration; his extended laments about “the uncrowned princes of Wall Street,” for instance, and the influence of “banksters,” whose interests the government protects while the great masses look for work; or his calls to abolish the Federal Reserve and his claims that radicals had infiltrated the government. Even his strident attacks on Roosevelt as a “liar,” a “radical,” a “Communist,” and an “upstart dictator” are strikingly similar to the rhetorical assaults on Barack Obama.
In the end, though, the greatest lesson of Coughlin’s career may actually be its limitations. His fiery broadcasts could generate huge ratings, fill cavernous stadiums, and flood Washington with protestors and irate telegrams. At times, he was able to stop major pieces of New Deal legislation in their tracks. But when it came to swaying elections, his influence was practically nil. Perhaps that fact is the Fighting Priest’s most enduring legacy.Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.