Opinion

Where's a Good Cyclone When You Need One?

Cyclone Davis Jr. was an eccentric,  political performance artist and the author of an odd book.
Cyclone Davis Jr. was an eccentric, political performance artist and the author of an odd book. Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters
The clown car of Texas politicians has not only grown terrifyingly crazy as of late, it has also become dreadfully boring. No fun. Major snooze. Looking at the likes of such sanctimonious bozos as U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, one longs for the earthy, theatrical magic evidenced by Ma and Pa Ferguson, Lyndon Johnson, Cactus Jack Garner and so many others.

More specifically, I yearn for a quasi-surrealist stump speaker such as the late bearded prophet and political performance artist Cyclone Davis Jr. of Dallas. When Cyclone died in 1954 at the age of 73 and just a few months after his final campaign, he had run for governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate, etc. But the only office he ever captured was mayor of tiny Rotan, about 50 miles northwest of Abilene, in 1906.

Asked why he continued to run in the face of incessant defeat, the self-described “bewhiskered dervish” said that running for office gives a person vision for greater things. And he was definitely blessed with the “vision thing.” He was, for example, a pioneer proponent of recycling. While running for U. S. Senate in 1941, he set up a shop under the Cadiz Street viaduct in Dallas where he collected thousands of tin cans which he converted into shingles, fences and other decorative articles to raise campaign funds.

During his 1950 campaign for lieutenant governor, Cyclone led a snake dance through one North Texas town. His 1952 gubernatorial campaign literature included a photograph of himself dressed as Saint Nick with the slogan “Nobody Snubs Santa Claus.”

“Cyclone orated in grandiose language that Edgar Allen Poe would have admired, and the stubbornest of mules would have heeded."

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A multitasker supreme, he billed himself as “an able and interesting Editor, Lecturer, Poet, Cowboy, Author, Athlete, Actor, Organizer, Politico, Builder and Banker.” As the “Texas Bank Wizard,” he masterminded the first bank “named for, owned by, and operated by cowboys,” the Cowboy State Bank in Rotan.

No Texas politician has authored anything as endearingly odd as Cyclone's 1937 self-published book Offings and Musings of A. Nutt. The tome is filled with poems, riddles, jokes, cartoons, random bits of wisdom and commonsense instruction, pictures of friends and public officials, an essay on grass, correspondence with a banker concerning a $250 loan and peculiar doodles and illustrations. The cover features drawings of WFAA cowboy singer Peg Moreland and characters named Professor A-Corn, Mr. Peanut, and Miss Pickon.

“With 400 years of glamour and 6,000,000 people,” Cyclone had printed on his book's cover, “not 400 Texans have written book of 400 or more pages. THIS IS BOTH AN INDICTMENT AND A CHALLENGE.” Well, OK then. But Offings and Musings of A. Nutt came in at 235 pages.

“Cyclone orated in grandiose language that Edgar Allen Poe would have admired, and the stubbornest of mules would have heeded,” reminisced one small-town editor in 1964. “He sprayed the air, or the mails, with invective so proficient and colorful it was entrancing. The difference was, no matter how scalding his adjectives and descriptions of his pet foes ('that journalistic harlot, The Dallas News,' was always his favorite), through it all there was always a twinkle in his eye and a charm in his manner.”

Born Arlon Barton Davis, Cyclone Jr. inherited his twister-force moniker from his father, James Harvey “Cyclone” Davis, a populist organizer and U. S. Congressman before World War I. A Kentucky newspaper dubbed him “A Texas Cyclone” in 1894 for his tornadic oratory, black sombrero, frock coat, flowing beard and stomping boots.

While many of his pronouncements are cringe-worthy viewed through a contemporary lens, Cyclone Davis Sr. slung mud with eloquent, fiery gusto.

“He may be a human jackal,” Cyclone Sr. roared of one political opponent. “He may be a son of the devil, although to call this aggregation of insolence, this consummate image of depravity who moves about the sacred chambers of our legislative hall with moral putrefaction oozing from his hide a child of the devil would be to wrong the devil. He may be a skunk who, in the lottery of life, got two legs instead of four. It may be supposed that he, like the toadstool, simply exuded as a foul and fungus growth from some den of infamy and darkness, where he lived in boon companionship with a gruesome gang of thugs, sandbaggers and fallen women before he was commissioned by the syndicated interests to turn the slime pit of his lecherous personality upon my distinguished colleagues and myself.”

Compared with Papa Cyclone's sizzling oratory, Junior's pronouncements sounded like a lovefest. When Cyclone Jr. fell ill in 1954, hospital switchboards were jammed with concerned callers. Many recalled the frontier-style campaigner's announcement for the governor's race earlier that year. Cyclone Jr. proclaimed, “The National Thinkers Council, 530,000 Friends of the Aged Councils, the Texas Pension Association, the Society of Six Hundred and, of course, the American Brush Club, and some few boneheads have filed their 73-year-old champion protagonist of Tom Paine's Rights of Man for governor of gullible, galloping Texas. Cyclone Davis, the bewhiskered sage of Sulphur Springs, for twenty years a resident of Dallas, and perpetually importuned for thirty years to run for public office, dollar-drafted by every state in the nation, three foreign countries, and the District of Columbia, has of recent years responded to that appeal by running for almost every office under the sun and never been elected to but one.”

Demonstrating that we could really use a man like Cyclone Jr. as the chief executive of our big fat land mass masquerading as a mere state today, he promised if elected Texas governor to return “this boss-ridden state back to the rule of the people, wresting it from the hands of a rapscallion Republican ruinous rule ... now perpetrated by a bunch of decoy ducks posing as Democrats under a Dixiecratic banner of servility to a buccaneering batch of boodling bosses.”

After losing the race but before the strike of the kidney ailment that untethered his spirit, Cyclone Jr. made one final optimistic leap of faith. Perhaps sensing that he neared the end of his earthly journey, he robustly declared his candidacy for the United States presidency two years ahead of the 1956 election. “How can I lose?” he asked incredulous members of the press. “I'm an international character. I've talked face to face with more people than any other politician who ever lived. Besides that, I'm a freak of nature: I haven't been sick — not even a headache — in over 60 years. People are bound to vote for a healthy politician.”

Gene Fowler is the author of Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters and co-author of the recently published Metro Music: Celebrating a Century of the Trinity River Groove.
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