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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 983

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This is the grave of William Allen White.

Born in 1868 in Emporia, Kansas, White grew up in the town of El Dorado, Kansas, not far from Wichita. His family was pretty well-off for small-town Kansas and he went to Emporia College, back in the town of his birth. He became interested in newspaper work and got a job with the Kansas City Gazette after he graduated.

In 1895, White decided to go back to Emporia and buy a newspaper there. This was not uncommon. There were many small town newspapers at the time and the towns had a larger enough reading population that even a town like Emporia might have a couple of them. White wanted to run one. It was a great way to get into politics and make an impact on the world around you. He had saved up $3,000 so he bought the Emporia Gazette.

White at this point was a conservative Republican. The conservatism would change, if not the identification with the Republican Party, but that’s where he was in the 1890s. He was horrified at the idea of William Jennings Bryan becoming president. So he used all his considerable powers of the pen to slam on Bryan as a crazy radical and promote William McKinley. In fact, he got national attention with his editorial, the title of which was later stolen by Thomas Frank to promote his misguided book, titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” In this case, it was Kansas voters love of Populism that was outrageous; a century later, it would be the inherent conservatism of that state that would outrage Frank, even if he reduced most of it to an economic determinism that suggested that voters “true interest” meant “economic interests” and thus they “voted against their own interests,” as if they couldn’t decide for themselves what their interests were. In any case, White’s editorial got reprinted throughout the nation and it made him a Republican superstar. In fact, he and Theodore Roosevelt became close personal friends after this. White’s whole point here was the kind of Chamber of Commerce pablum that you hear today because states such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts have crazy things like unions and corporate regulations. The most commonly repeated part of the editorial slammed Kansas Populists for creating an anti-business climate where corporate leaders wouldn’t want to invest. It read:

“There are two ideas of government,” said our noble Bryan at Chicago. “There are those who believe that if you legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, this prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class and rest upon them.” That’s the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffing out of the creditors and tell the debtors who borrowed the money five years ago when money “per capita” was greater than it is now, that the contraction of currency gives him a right to repudiate.

Ugh.

White did change his tune over time though. He became closer to the Progressives, partially because of his close relationship with Roosevelt. But White had a real shtick–the voice of the voiceless man of Middle America. This kind of tiresome bloviating from self-proclaimed representatives of rural America has a long history–think Paul Harvey among many others. And it plays straight into the Silent Majority of Richard Nixon and the bitter racist anti-urban politics that has driven the nation toward fascism in this century coming straight out of towns such as Emporia, Kansas. But White made a lot of money doing this. His columns soon became nationally syndicated and he was the most famous small town newspaper editor in the country. He also began to take on more of a common man and anti-corporate mentality. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for his column “To an Anxious Friend,” after he himself was arrested while protesting the way the state of Kansas had crushed workers in the 1922 railroad strike. It read, in part:

You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free enforcement of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people – and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive. That is the history of the race. It is the proof of man’s kinship with God. You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice. Peace is good. But if you are interested in peace through force and without full discussion – that is to say, free utterance decently and in order – your interest in justice is slight. And peace without justice is tyranny, no matter how you may sugar-coat it with expediency. This state today is in more danger from suppression than from violence, because, in the end, suppression leads to violence. Violence, indeed, is the child of suppression. Whoever pleads for justice helps to keep the peace; and whoever tramples upon the plea for justice temperately made in the name of peace only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man, which God put there when we got our manhood. When that is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line.

So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold – by voice, by posted card, by letter or by press. Reason never has failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.

Much better than what he was writing in 1896 and also an important point in the transition away from the Red Scare that had so suppressed free speech between 1917 and 1921. He became a big time “save capitalism from its own excesses through reform” guy, which made him a solid Progressive. Now, he had some limits here. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933, White could support big parts of the New Deal. In fact, FDR tried to lure him into supporting his presidency. White could provide some limited support–but still voted for every Republican running against him. This was not real unusual for Progressives, who found the Great Depression horrifying but also couldn’t really get past the big government programs required to do something about it. The idea of the small-town individual making his way in America was something that Progressives were so deeply intense about that for many of them, FDR was as scary as the Depression itself.

One area where White really did imbibe Progressivism was in his belief in a world order based on the cooperation of nations. Although he certainly couldn’t vote for Woodrow Wilson, White not only supported the League of Nations but wrote a favorable biography of the president. It was also in the preparations for World War II where White could really get behind FDR. This was in part because White had this idyllic vision of politics without politics–where the nation should naturally unite around What is Right, though not with that having any ideological consistency. So fighting the Nazis was appealing to White not only because the Nazis were evil but because it united Americans around What is Right, again, a goal in itself to the aging editor. There was one big threat to this for White–the great evil of America First, which he used his strong voice to denounce repeatedly and effectively.

White was also a big literary guy, though one whose populism was pretty out of fashion by the 1920s. He had ideas about literature of the common man that he tried to write himself, largely in some forgotten novels. But he was a populist (if very much not a Populist) in this way and helped found the Book of the Month Club, which for whoever middle-brow these sorts of things are (think Oprah’s Book Club this century) are really a good thing, just to get people reading something they might not otherwise. I think I started turning on the very talented but also gigantic dildo Jonathan Franzen when he rejected the Oprah Book Club designation for being beneath him, which of course got him more publicity than anything else could.

Anyway, White was active until the end of his life, dying in 1944 just after a day’s work completing a chapter of his autobiography, at the age of 75. Heart attack, I assume. His son, William Lindsay White, finished the book and kept running the paper.

William Allen White is buried in Maplewood Memorial Lawn Cemetery, Emporia, Kansas.

If you would like this series to visit other American newspaper editors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post who was assassinated in 2007 by a hit man for his reporting, is in Alameda, California and Cissy Patterson, who ran the Washington Times-Herald as one of the first women to ever run a major paper, is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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