The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt


This proved to be an illusion. Except for the curious hold that Gerald Smith had over Townsend, relations among the four key men of the Union party were never cordial. Each was primarily concerned with promoting his own program and/or personality. Coughlin, for example, withheld full backing of Townsend’s plan even after the Cleveland convention. Moreover, when asked by reporters if he intended to make a joint speaking tour with his allies, he snapped: “Why must they be tagging around after me all the time?”

Candidate Lemke was inept at personal relations with his major supporters. He conducted his own campaign, and his contacts with the other three party leaders were incredibly infrequent.

As the weeks went by and autumn approached, the strains in the alliance began to show. Dr. Townsend’s wavering enthusiasm soon became a critical factor in the weakening of the party’s drive. After his exertions at the two conventions and his strenuous speaking tour, the sixty-nine-year-old physician fell ill. He did make a few appearances, but he could not contribute as much to the Union cause as his fellow party leaders.

Even when his health improved sufficiently to allow him to resume active campaigning, the Doctor proved to be an inconsistent champion of Lemke’s candidacy. On some occasions he would wholeheartedly praise the North Dakotan, but at other times he would qualify his endorsement. He refused, for instance, to insist that local Townsend clubs play any role in the grass-roots organization of the Union party.

By late August, pressures began building up within the Townsend movement which were to cause the Doctor to lose heart for the Union crusade. Several of his important subordinates had been complaining about the influence of Gerald L. K. Smith and had been opposing the founder’s endorsement of Lemke. When Townsend fired these men, they brought suit against the Townsend National Recovery Plan, Ltd., asking that Townsend be ousted as president. The Doctor survived this attack only after lengthy court action.

Townsend’s troubles were compounded by the poor showing of candidates endorsed by his movement in various primary elections held in the late summer. And in September and October, the pension promoter began to receive disturbing reports about the reaction of his large California following to the Lemke candidacy. A presidential preference poll of 50,000 California Townsendites showed 28 per cent for Roosevelt, 52 for Landon, 4 neutral and only 6 per cent for Lemke.

At this point, Gerald L. K. Smith might have been expected to step in to convince the Doctor to stay with the new political party. But Smith had been undergoing his own metamorphosis. After his performances at the Townsend and Coughlin conventions, he had left his political allies and embarked alone on a speechmaking tour of the South. As the Union party campaign progressed, Smith’s statements to the press began to take on a somewhat paranoid tone. He talked of a Communist plot to kill him and revealed that he had “definite information” that F.D.R. was planning to seize dictatorial power. In October, he shouted at reporters, “Politics is prostitution … The democratic method is a lot of baloney, it doesn’t mean anything. We can tell what they’re thinking without taking a vote.” Late in the month, Smith announced that he was proceeding immediately with the formation of an organization aimed at “ultimately seizing the government of the United States.” He then began a speaking tour of the East to raise money for this new venture. When asked if this tour were not part of the Union party campaign, Smith’s reply was, “I joined the Union party only for a forum. … What I am really interested in is forming this new force …”

Townsend’s reaction was quick and sharp. “If the press reports concerning the fascist action of Gerald L. K. Smith are true,” said the old man, who felt betrayed by one he had befriended, “then I hereby disavow any connection that I may have had with Mr. Smith.” Thus ended Gerald L. K. Smith’s adventure in third-party politics and his connection with the Townsend Plan. But in leaving the pension organization, he left Dr. Townsend alone and confused as to his participation in the Union party.

In the weeks before the election Townsend began moving toward Landon, telling the press, “I shall cast my vote for an untried man in hope that he may prove of greater value to the nation than the incumbent. … I do this because I will not be permitted to vote for Mr. Lemke, my choice for the office.” He referred to the fact that in his own state of California—and in thirteen others as well—Lemke’s name would not be on the ballot. In these areas, as the days passed, Townsend widened his appeal for Landon support. “Lemke has my endorsement,” he proclaimed, “but remember, Roosevelt is our sworn enemy. … He must be beaten!” This last-minute switch confused his supporters and seriously weakened the Union party.

When the returns came in on November 3, the dream of power that the radical leaders had shared when they had made their summer alliance was blasted. William Lemke received less than 900,000 votes as Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hated foe, rolled up the most one-sided Electoral College victory in American history; he received more than 27 million popular votes, to Alfred Landon’s 16 million.

All of the leaders of the new political organization were to pay a severe price for the horrendous defeat. And after the election their careers curved downhill.