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Bridging the Gap

By: Claude R. Marx
July 18, 2018

oth sides in the long and hard-fought battle for the Republican Party’s ideological soul have argued that their adversary’s victory would take the nation down a dangerous path. The current GOP is solidly conservative and populist, but there was a time when many of its elected officials and their allies in the press had strong liberal bona fides.

William Allen White was one of the most prominent progressive Republicans. His work as a party activist, editor, and publisher of Kansas’s The Emporia Gazette shaped the nation’s political direction for 50 years. Even so, when White is remembered, it is usually as a supporting figure; the spotlight usually shines more brightly on larger-than-life personalities like Theodore Roosevelt.

But White gets the star treatment in Charles Delgadillo’s new political biography. Delgadillo’s treatment of White’s career is excellent, but he gives short shrift to his personal life and vivid personality. Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White will satisfy scholars and hard-core history buffs, but its turgid prose might prevent it from appealing to a broader audience.

During his 50-year career, White evolved from a pragmatic conservative to a liberal, albeit one who was never completely comfortable with an activist government. He also was the voice of sensible Main Street values, although his friendship with presidents and other leaders made him more than a typical small-town journalist.

White died in 1944. Journalists’ legacies are usually short-lived and many people, when hearing White’s name, will respond only with a blank stare; an unfortunate reality considering that many current political conflicts have their roots in White’s time. Moreover, White’s amiable demeanor and ability to find the good in people and ideologies with which he disagreed is a reminder that the current rancor in the nation’s discourse is not inevitable.

Delgadillo, a lecturer in history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and Norco College, outlines White’s evolution from moderate conservative to “an insurgent who fought a fifty-year crusade for liberal reform, usually through and sometimes against the Republican Party.” Yet while White saw a limited role for government in the quest to improve people’s lives, he was skeptical of using it as an impetus for widespread social change. That’s why he never abandoned the GOP even as it turned solidly rightward.

He broke on to the national stage with an 1896 editorial “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” which tried to forge a middle ground between populists and conservatives. In the publication’s wake, he became known to national politicians who sought his advice frequently thereafter.

The period’s media ethics were different from our own—journalistic objectivity and seeming non-partisanship was not emphasized. White’s simultaneous work as a journalist and party activist (he was a delegate to most Republican conventions and even ran for governor once) was an accepted practice in both parties. Delgadillo ignores the ethical issues for the most part, nor does he give readers a sense of the period’s broader media landscape. Those wanting to learn more about that part of American history would do well to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. White is a major character in Goodwin’s narrative, which focused on how Roosevelt coopted his journalistic friends to help him implement his reform agenda. TR often helped reporters plan their coverage and sometimes even reviewed stories before they were printed.

White and TR were personal and political friends and White confesses when they first met in 1897 “Roosevelt bit me and I went mad.” Delgadillo notes that “White found in Roosevelt the sense of civic duty and national vision that the older machine established” and describes TR as “an ember that slowly smoldered in White’s soul.” TR had that effect on many, including some modern-day writers. The result is a series of books by the like of Goodwin, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris that have contributed to the over mythologizing of the 26th president. The TR-White bromance colors Delgadillo’s narrative and results in unfair assessments of other politicians, with whom both men feuded. Taft, whom they disliked in part because he had the temerity to not be TR, is inaccurately depicted in this book as a dogmatic conservative who sought to undo much of Roosevelt’s progressive legacy.

That wasn’t the case. Taft was a progressive conservative whose trust busting legacy was stronger than TR’s and he set aside lands for conservation at a pace that rivaled his predecessor. The biggest break between Taft and TR, aside from Taft’s less flashy and more cerebral personality, was that Taft was a former judge who revered institutions and the rule of law. He took issue with progressives’ desire to use extrajudicial means, such as recalling judges for making decisions voters and activists disagree with, to achieve their goals.  This distinction is something that Delgadillo’s otherwise strong analysis of Progressive era politics overlooks. 

Much of Crusader for Democracy is spent discussing White’s involvement in the Kansas Republican Party’s internal political fights. He gets bogged down with controversies over patronage and nominees for certain statewide offices. While readers interested in the history of the Sunflower State will find this interesting, fans of national politics might be tempted to skim those parts.

Delgadillo also touches on White’s career as an author of nonfiction and fiction. One book he overlooks is White’s masterful portrayal of President Calvin Coolidge in A Puritan in Babylon (1938).  White admires Coolidge, though, of course, he finds him inferior to TR. White’s writing is clever, if overly flowery, as evidenced by his description of Coolidge while a state senator in Massachusetts:

He knew what tricks he had in his bag. He capitalized taciturnity and was not above, then nor ever, a little subtle clowning, pretending to be dumber than he was, cackling dry quips or, when he dared, putting an edge on them that ripped the skin as it precipitated a giggle—but never his giggle.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Coolidge’s temperamental and ideological opposite, was the last president during White’s life. While the two were friendly and White saw the need for a strong governmental response to the Great Depression, he felt the New Deal went too far. Being a Republican was at the core of who White was; he stayed with the party and never voted for the Democrats.

But White was extremely critical of some of FDR’s critics on the far left and right, such as Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana and radio priest Father Charles Coughlin. White abhorred demagogic leaders but his criticisms were generally civil, even when he felt strongly about someone. He generally saw those who opposed him as adversaries, not enemies.

Those who read Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White will learn much about this important man that can offer us a blueprint for navigating through our current tumultuous political times.