The lady and the tiger: Demagogues past and present


Americans have short memories, and very few memories of any sort linking one generation to the next, or vice versa.

I’m probably about the 1 millionth person to make that keen observation, but really, fellow countrymen and women, aren’t any of you old enough to remember the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, insidiously demagogic “radio priest” of the 1930’s?

There was a time when many people in my family, especially those who’d come here from Europe not too long before, were terrified by Coughlin’s every word, particularly words like these, reported in the Detroit News:

“Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany?’’ (January 30, 1939).

I recommend that sentence to the good folk in Arizona and elsewhere who, in their rage against Mexican and other nonwhite immigrants, want to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment and shoot to kill Mexican and other nonwhite immigrants — the new Jews. It was a perhaps better Catholic than Father Coughlin who said: “We are all a nation of immigrants.” His name was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

At his height, around the time we at last entered the aforementioned war, Coughlin had 30 million listeners to any given broadcast and received as many as 80,000 letters a week. It was not that his voice was so fierce and menacing. No, I remember it (perhaps wrongly) as a soft, almost female, purr, crying out for sweet reason.

Early on, back in the first few years of the Great Depression, populist and workingman’s Coughlin had championed F.D.R. as a man who would knock down and knock out the money-grubbing Wall Street bankers and brokers.

Adolf Hitler…the need to stop Adolf Hitler and rampaging worldwide fascism…changed all that — not just for America, but, in an opposite way, for Charles Coughlin. I guess you could look at it as tragedy if you had a broader mind than I do.

Those were the days when the German-American Bund was swaggering back and forth in this city along East 86th Street; when Charles Lindbergh was admiring the air shows of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe; when another American nativist named Gerald L.K. Smith was huckstering his (and Lindbergh’s) America First Party.

But Gerald L.K. Smith was not the orator Father Coughlin was. Indeed, by the end of the war, he had fallen out of sight. I remember going in that era as a would-be journalist to a press conference Gerald L.K. Smith had scheduled for Manhattan. When I got there, stood there, listening to Smith’s flat, nasal, boring sentences, I noticed with shock that none of the real journalists on all sides of me were taking notes. All except one, whose name turned out to be Murray Kempton, and who crafted for his next day’s column a typical short masterpiece of insight and irony, or the other way round.

Religious and nativist hucksters, con men, “prophets,” have of course been on the scene as long as mankind has been on the scene; in this country alone we’ve been reading about them, finding prototypes of them, from as far back as Mark Twain’s masterpiece, “Huckleberry Finn,” if not before.

Do people still read books? Well, I spent my formative years reading such as Sinclair (“Red”) Lewis’s “Elmer Gantry” (1927), which nailed revivalism once and for all, followed by that same Nobel Prizewinner’s even scarier “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935).

Oh, can’t it? Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t think Mr. Glenn Beck’s flat, nasal pronouncements are going to rouse anybody except the already aroused — i.e., the flock of geese at last Saturday’s assemblage at the Lincoln Memorial. The same fate holds, I believe, or hope, for the snarls of Rush Limbaugh and countless others of that ilk.

What I do fear — am terrified of — are the hysteria-laden overtones and undertones of Father Charles Coughlin’s emotional and stylistic counterpart. Her name is Sarah Something, and every time she reaches (instinctively) for a nerve-tingling vibrato, I hear beneath it, or beside it, not only the white-hot Coughlin demagogy but the similar, hysteria-laden attack modes of one Joseph R. McCarthy, not to mention Joseph Goebbels (from whom Coughlin cribbed at least one speech), as well as that grand master of hysteria in oratory, Herr Goebbels’s late boss.

Vibrato isn’t the right word either. Soaring, wobbling, high-explosive, nervous-breakdown intensity comes closer to it.

Lady be good. Calm down.