Reflections of a radio demagogue
During the Great Depression, an estimated 50 million people tuned into Father Charles Coughlin’s radio programs, which were known for their ultra-conservative denunciations of the Roosevelt administration and poorly concealed anti-Semitism. Coughlin left the airwaves in the early 1940s. Nearly a quarter-century later, FOCUS/Midwest contributing editor Bernard Eismann interviewed Coughlin, and found a substantially different man.
The white-haired priest, cassock skirts flapping, moved with short, quick steps along the snow-spotted pavement that runs parallel to broad Woodward Avenue in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. As he turned to enter the church his ruddy face, hardly showing seventy-one years, was brought into sharp relief against the gray stone background of the Shrine of the Little Flower that dominates the corner with a 150-foot tower supporting a stone image of Christ on the Cross. The priest is the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a living ghost of the angry Thirties, described in a chronicle of the decade as the master in “the arts of vituperation and demagoguery.”
In his study the radio priest of the Thirties, whose vein-straining oratory enraptured hundreds of thousands more than two decades ago, recently talked after keeping silent since 1940. The fire is not gone after the years of public exile, but Coughlin has mellowed, suffering no longer from what he calls the arrogance of youth. Apparently, he has changed with age and he sound quite different from what he was in the late Thirties when Coughlin, his theories of “Social Justice” and his companions on the fringes of American political sanity fed the fires of anti-Semitism and hatred already smoldering through large segments of the frustrated and frightened middle classes. Coughlin started invoking his invective against the “modern pagans who have crucified us upon a cross of gold” in 1926 and by 1935 the Jew-baiting in his radio talks and in print was barely disguised. His following grew along with the flow of nickels, dimes, and dollars that built him and the Shrine of the Little Flower into forces to be reckoned with. In 1940, however, the curtain drew tight. The Post Office banned his magazine from the mails for printing Nazi propaganda and the Church finally imposed a censorship that he was unable to break. . . .
We talked in the richly comfortable lower floor dining room at his Royal Oak rectory, and Coughlin carefully measured his words and his tone.
F/M: Your career has been characterized as one of “vituperation and demagoguery.” How do you meet this criticism?
Coughlin: I committed an egregious error, which I am the first to admit, when I permitted myself to attack persons. I could never bring myself to philosophize the morality of that now. It was a young man’s mistake.
F/M: What general observations of that period and of what you were trying to accomplish do you have now?
Coughlin: No clergyman has business injecting himself into the practical side of politics. I could have done much better had I been more mature in my thinking at the time, and I could have accomplished much more if I had retained the advocacy of my principles.
F/M: This is a remarkable admission.
Coughlin: I don’t think so. Every man has to mature a little bit, and make an act of contrition sometime during his life, because there is no human being perfect. . . .
F/M: There is a considerable degree of noise in the country these days about a movement generally called the Far Right. . . . Am I correct in saying that those who have described themselves as extreme conservatives are incorrect in striving to return to a more traditional economic system?
Coughlin: Principles are principles. Two and two the four will always obtain, and thievery will always be considered an immorality. Those principles will remain; but, nevertheless, the application of those principles has to be reviewed once in a while. [The Far Right] is always so fearful that we’re going to become bankrupt, always fearful that the federal debt is going to become unmanageable. Well, in my concept of things, I think the federal debt should be put into orbit and let it stay there. We admit that it’s there, we’re not going to try to annihilate it. We’ll be content to pay taxes on the interest, and let it be. But why should human beings all over the world, especially our American world, suffer for the lack of federal spending or federal credit for new houses, new factories, new schools, new hospitals? To me, it doesn’t make sense, because, after all, money is simply a man-made instrumentality.
F/M: You sound like a liberal Democrat.
Coughlin: Maybe I am. Maybe I’m a liberal. A human care comes ahead of financial care, in my estimation.
F/M: This area of spending and economic and fiscal responsibility, which was so involved in the things that you preached, caused you, in the Thirties, to be highly critical of the administration of the President. In these years, it’s causing others to be highly critical of the current President. Do you feel that the degree of criticism of the chief executive should remain high, or should it abate?
Coughlin: Well, in my opinion, the President is living in a glass house, and the binoculars of all the nation constantly train upon his every action, his every thought. He knows that. All of us know it. And in our system of doing things, we have a right to inspect him. That’s Americanism. But we haven’t a right to oppose his actions to the extent that we attribute maliciousness to him or evil — “selling out to Castro, selling out to Khrushchev” — I think that’s horrible to accuse Mr. Kennedy of those things. After all, he has a wife, he has children, he has assets in this country, he has a good moral background with good training. . . . He is just as anxious for the maintenance of the United States as you or I. . . .
F/M: For the last 21 years, you have been seldom heard outside your parish in Royal Oak. What is it, if anything, that at this time makes you feel more free to express yourself?
Coughlin: I’m not necessarily free. I’m just an ordinary citizen now, having attained this three score and ten with the powers of observation that a younger man lacks. You see, when you gain not your majority, but your senile maturity, if I may put it that way, you really can reappraise things.
F/M: Has it been for you personally, then, an almost agonizing reappraisal?
Coughlin: No, no, no, no. It’s not agonizing at all. I think it’s the humilities that an old man acquires. A young man knows nothing or very little about it.
F/M: About humility?
Excerpted from Bernard Eismann’s “Reflections of a radio priest,” published in the February 1963 edition of FOCUS/Midwest. At the time, Eismann also was the Chicago-based Midwest correspondent for CBS News.