CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Post-election analyses have included the quadrennial hand wringing over the influence of political talk show hosts. A word to the worrywarts: Fuhgettaboutit!
Broadcast bullies are nothing new in America, and their ability to sway voters, if it exists at all, is miniscule. Long before the cry-on-demand sanctimony of Glenn Beck, the perpetual smugness of Rachel Maddow, or the ego-driven rants of Rush Limbaugh and Chris Matthews -- long before these and other media personalities turned politics into poli-schtick -- there was Charles Edward Coughlin, a Catholic priest who owned the ratings in the nascent days of radio.
Coughlin went from airing sermons on a Detroit station in 1926, to a CBS network slot in 1930, to his own syndicated network in 1931, to virtual oblivion before the end of the decade. His rise and fall illustrate the limits of media power, even today -- and they can help us feel better about ourselves.
From the start, Coughlin's political pronouncements dwarfed his sermons. His battle cry -- "social justice through social action" -- tapped into an existing anger among citizens facing The Great Depression, and he targeted already unpopular politicians and financiers. President Hoover was "the banker's friend, the protective angel of Wall Street," while Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hoover's presumptive challenger in 1932, was "guided by Almighty God."
Coughlin reached an audience of 44 million and his personal appearances sold out venues in America's largest cities. His on-air calls-to-action could generate more than a million handwritten and typewritten letters flooding Washington from outraged citizens.
Roosevelt cultivated the priest's support, inviting him to address the Democratic convention. Little wonder, then, that Coughlin claimed credit for FDR's landslide victory in 1932 -- 57.4 percent of the popular vote and 42 of the then-48 states. He assumed his ideas would become policy. FDR did not share that fantasy and began distancing himself from the priest, whose controversial broadcasts, within a year, would include comments considered anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. Still, fear of a backlash from Coughlin's listeners kept the president from engaging in direct confrontation, even after the miffed Coughlin called the president "a liar" and accused him of "personal stupidity."
Many bishops in the U. S. had been uncomfortable with Coughlin's broadcasts from the beginning, but they feared that his largely Catholic audience would follow him, even if he left the church. Early on, Rep. John O'Connor, D-NY, a Catholic, said Coughlin "is an egomaniac. Every decent Catholic is ashamed of him." O'Connor was pretty much alone.
Critics didn't surface until Coughlin started to sink. He threatened to defeat Roosevelt for re-election in 1936 by running William Lemke, a North Dakota congressman, as a candidate of his newly formed Union Party. Coughlin promised 9 million votes; Lemke received 892,000 votes -- zero electoral votes.