The Last Real Populistby Robert Hamm
1948 was an exciting, and eventually stunning year, in American politics. A united G.O.P., which hadn’t won a presidential election since 1928, was confident that its nominee, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, could handle the beleaguered President Truman, whose Democratic Party had begun to fracture. The Democrats’ Left had left and its Right was not far behind, resolutely marching out of the party convention and into the footnotes of American history. The nominees at either end of the spectrum—the Progressives’ Henry A. Wallace and the Dixiecrats’ Strom Thurmand—took away more than two million votes, but Harry Truman still managed to retain the presidency by more than that margin.
1948 also marked the pinnacle in the political career of a now-forgotten U.S. Senator, Glen H. Taylor (1904-1984) of Idaho, whose campaign as the vice-presidential running mate of Henry Wallace stands in marked contrast to the would-be populists of our current political scene. Taylor, it seems, was genuinely a man of the people.
Growing up in rural Idaho, the twelfth of 13 children, Glen Taylor ended his formal education during the 6th grade. His father, Pleasant John Taylor, was a significant influence in Glen’s life. An itinerant minister, later characterized by his son as a “hellfire and brimstone” kind of preacher, Pleasant Taylor gave Glen an early interest in acting and singing by using all his children as entertainers to brighten the services he conducted. Later on, strong memories of his father’s emphasis in his sermons on equality, world peace, and the Golden Rule helped Glen formulate his own political outlook.
From the early 1920s through the late 1930s, Glen Taylor traveled the American West as an actor, as a singer, and as a vaudevillian; with a dance band, with a theater troupe, with his company of players and finally as “The Crooning Cowboy.” It was a hardscrabble existence, and got even tougher during the Depression years. It was at this juncture that Taylor’s interest in national politics began to grow.
After all those years on the road, Taylor and his family had settled in Pocatello, Idaho, a strong union town. There Taylor began filing for Idaho Democratic Congressional and Senatorial nominations in 1938 and 1940. He lost both, but his tactics included riding the length of the state on horseback and mailing handwritten letter to 3,000 voters, thus giving him a headstart on his next campaign, which got underway in 1944. Although at the outset of the campaign his war chest showed a balance of $75, Taylor managed to defeat a former Republican governor and begin his brief but colorful tour of duty in the U.S. Senate.
There were two basic reasons that Taylor’s tenure lasted only a single term (1945 - 1951): he was perceived as being too soft on communism and too hard in favor of civil rights. Joining Wallace’s anti-Cold War ticket in ’48 only furthered public suspicions of Taylor’s leftist slant. Taylor ruefully remarked that every Idaho daily newspaper was against him except one, and that one was neutral. As for his civil rights activities, Taylor proudly got himself arrested in Alabama for going to church via the “colored” door. Even more important, he regularly rose in opposition on the Senate floor to confront the segregationist Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi, the title of whose book, Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization (1947), pretty much tells us all we need to know about that gentleman’s view of race relations in America.
Taylor’s controversial positions led to his defeat in the 1950 Idaho Democractic Senatorial primary. His farewell speech to his Senate colleagues ended this way: “At one time I stated on the floor of the Senate that I was going to vote my convictions, as though I never expected to come back. All I can say is that I did vote my convictions, and I did not come back.” After several abortive attempts to reclaim his seat, the one-time “Singing Senator” moved to California, where he ran the family toupee business, Taylor Toppers.