My book this week is about one of the most interesting but lesser-known politicians in Idaho history. Glen Taylor served in the U.S. Senate from Idaho and ran for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket in the famous race of 1948 with Henry Wallace. He only won one general election but was on the ballot numerous times. Reading this straight-forward autobiography in Taylor’s folksy tone makes one wish there were more people like Glen Taylor around today.
Initially, Taylor notes, “It is amazing what you can get away with if you are ambitious, intelligent, determined and – ignorant.” He used these qualities to achieve a modicum of success in both show business and politics. It seems that show business and politics reward the same talents. One saloon owner told the young Glen Taylor that he would be “okay” in any business where he could work with people or work on people. The early stories of his singing career set the tone for the rest of Taylor’s life in politics and beyond.
While still an “entertainer,” Taylor began studying all manner of books. His motto was, “The object of all knowledge is action” so he put his knowledge to work. The book that changed his life and served as his philosophical touchstone was The People’s Corporation by King C. Gillette, the razor entrepreneur. From this Taylor created his philosophy of “Plenty for All” which was a “Share the Wealth” theory of agrarian populism similar to Huey Long’s “Every Man’s A King.”
The idea to enter politics came to Taylor when he saw then Idaho Governor C. Ben Ross at a campaign rally. Taylor describes his revelation, “ … Ross obviously must be a pretty good governor. He has been elected three times but it was more obvious to me that he was a pretty good actor.” If politics is putting on a show for people as Ross did, Taylor knew he could do it better since Taylor was a professional and Ross was an amateur.
Taylor’s campaigns, which began in 1938, were similar to “Pappy” O’Daniel’s electioneering techniques in Texas at the same time. There was the Taylor family playing music to draw in the crowds followed by a political speech with plenty of humor. Taylor employed other innovative campaign techniques, such as in 1942, when gasoline and rubber for tires were rationed, he rode a horse across the state to campaign.
By 1944, Taylor felt that he could not beat the conservative Democratic machine by being the “singing Cowboy” so he got rid of the horse, cowboy regalia, “street meetings” and even took to wearing a home-made toupee. He won a three-way primary and then the general election for the U.S. Senate on the coattails of FDR against an isolationist Republican.
Taylor was known as the Singing Cowboy Senator to the whole country but his service was not a joke. He took unpopular stands against his own party when Taylor felt the party was wrong. Taylor would use many unorthodox techniques to get elected but he never compromised his progressive, populist values including preventing the seating of a racist Democratic senator from Mississippi. Following his values also included being on the ticket with Henry Wallace thus ending his career in elected office.
In his last campaign, Taylor lost to Frank Church in the 1956 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Most observers believe there were questionable vote counting practices used against Taylor in the biggest electoral scandal in Idaho history. Lyndon Johnson used to joke with Church that they both stole an election to get to the Senate. Taylor’s account of his fight against the Democratic machine is illuminating for those who feel Idaho is beyond the political deceit of other places. Taylor went on to become quite rich producing his “Taylor Topper” toupees though he lived a poverty stricken life earlier as a performer and politician.
This is the most enjoyable political memoir I have ever read but it is the person that is most fascinating. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Glen Taylor may well have been the most honest man in American politics this century.” I wish old Glen was going to be on the ballot this year. It would be quite refreshing to have an honest man representing Idaho in the U.S. Senate after what we have had to go through this past year with the current occupant.
Dr. Jasper M. LiCalzi
Department of Political Economy
The College of Idaho