Alan Brinkley’s “Voices of Protest” looks at the life and times of Huey Long and Father John Coughlin, inspirational leaders during the Hard Times of the Great Depression. Both rose to prominence from nowhere and challenged the considerable political skills of Franklin Roosevelt to maintain the loyalty and support from large groups of disaffected Americans. I highly recommend the book for the general reader, but also to those with persuasion interests. Both Long and Coughlin demonstrate the kind of skill with persuasion strategy and tactics that still apply today.
Long knew the old theatrical admonition, dress the role and the part plays itself. He dressed flamboyantly, glided in chauffeur driven automobiles, surrounded himself with armed guards and police escorts even before winning major elective office.
As an attorney defending an unpopular political figure, Long tricked opposing council by striking up friendly conversations with potential jurors Long considered hostile. Opposing council judged Long’s positive nonverbals as tip offs for Long’s preference and promptly dismissed through challenge the very jurors Long thought threatened his case.
In his first run for political office, Long campaigned with tactic now PostModern. He heavily used all available media to flood the electorate with attack messages. He complied an extensive mailing list of voters and regularly sent tailored messages to them.
Long sought free publicity in respectable media sources with clever, outrageous, and silly PR stunts. He achieved his first national exposure when he met a foreign dignity wearing a pair of green silk pajamas and robe. He started a fight with a popular newspaper editor over the proper use of corn porn with potlikker – crumbled versus dipped – and the Great Corn Porn Debate gathered national comment including from President Franklin Roosevelt.
John Coughlin stands in contrast. Where Long thought and schemed and persuaded his way into prominence, Coughlin clearly had the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time. He began a radio sermon series in 1926 just as radio was becoming a popular new medium. One is tempted to make modern comparisons to the Internet, but radio was the first mass medium to establish instant live communication between source and millions of receivers. It invented the Global Village whereas the Internet simply combines older forms.
However, Coughlin’s success was not merely luck. He used his training and experience as a priest, particularly in delivering sermons from the pulpit, to devastating effect on radio. He worked on his voice, developing that now familiar tone that is at once compelling while false – no one talks like a radio announcer in real life, but that style attracts aural attention and Coughlin knew it. Further, he wrote his radio addresses twice, first in the style of his religious training, then second, rewritten in the vernacular and phrased in the pressing events of the day.
Voices of Protest is an interesting and detailed look at two leaders in the Depression. Brinkley provides a surprisingly balanced view of Long and Coughlin who are more often represented in history and press as corny zealots playing the angles on the rubes and boobs from Red States. Brinkley takes the men seriously and describes their lives and actions with considerable skill, nuance, and detail.