The name William Allen White is largely unknown to Americans today. White was born in Kansas in 1868, making him an exact of contemporary of two of my heroes from the Missionary Generation, W. E. B. Dubois and Henry M. Stimson. His father was a doctor and a Protestant and a Democrat; his mother was born a Catholic, orphaned, raised a Congregationalist, attended college, and was, as White repeatedly puts it, a "black abolitionist Republican." White was born in a small town, Eldorado, where, as he proudly explains, the first building to go up was a two-story state of the art schoolhouse. He describes his childhood in detail rivaling that of Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel, and he is astonishingly frank about his emotions throughout his life. He frankly confesses that he hated a younger brother who arrived on the scene when he was about four, and that he was not at all sorry when the brother died a couple of years later. White eventually attended two colleges, including the University of Kansas, but he did not graduate, largely because he was already deeply involved in journalism. After working for the Kansas City Star, he started his own paper, the Emporia Gazette, in the 1890s, and remained its editor until his death in the midst of the Second World War, whose conclusion he, like Franklin Roosevelt, did not quite live to see.
White's generation, as I pointed out in No End Save Victory, probably lived through more dramatic technological changes than any other, and he describes the impact of all of them, save the airplane. (White died in the midst of working on his autobiography, and he had only reached the mid-1920s when he put it down.) But he also lived through enormous political changes which he describes in great detail. In his youth, he freely admits that he was a happy child of the upper classes who saw nothing wrong with the established order. And as a matter of fact, he became famous during the 1896 campaign between McKinley and Bryan by writing an editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?", that went viral (via the telegraph) and was redistributed in millions of copies byMcKinley's campaign manager Mark Hanna. The matter, the editorial claimed in language reminiscent of contemporary Republicans, was that populism was driving capitalists (he did not say "job creators") and wealth out of the state. White was by this time a Republican. He had reached his twenties without party affiliation, and his only strong political view at that point was opposition to the protective tariff, a Republican shibboleth. But he joined the party, he said revealingly, because he wanted to have a real impact on public affairs, and joining one of the two parties was the only way to do so. It is one of the many tragedies of contemporary American life that that attitude is nearly extinct and that young men and women are more inclined to distrust any political party.
I was constantly reminded, reading the early chapters of White's book, of the far greater role politics played in American life in the nineteenth century than it does today. Without the radio, movies, or large-scale spectator sports, it, along with commodity prices, was the main source of day-to-day entertainment in the land, and millions of men and women, like White's parents, took it very seriously. As a Democrat, White's father waited patiently for the return of his party to power after the Civil War, and by the early 1880s, he was well acquainted with the new Democratic governor of New York, Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, in whom he was pinning his hopes. It is hard to imagine anyone in America today, of any age, who could have identified an up-and-coming politician from another part of the country as a possible President at a comparable stage of his career.
"What's the Matter with Kansas"--whose title was borrowed, of course, by Thomas Frank, in a book several years ago on the rise of the Republican right--introduced White to the upper reaches of the Republican Party, including both Mark Hanna and McKinley himself. Meanwhile, he was making a name for himself as an author of newspaper articles and books, and making important connections in the New York publishing world. He was also an important figure in Kansas politics, and he describes the politics of the Gilded Age in great detail, explaining how railroad lawyers carefully built up networks of influence in every town so as to control party conventions ,who in turn elected legislatures, who in their turn elected U.S. Senators. Corruption today, of course, is more straightforward, since politicians beg money from corporations directly, and it is no longer necessary to cultivate reliable supporters among the population at large face to face.
Trips eastward on the train became a regular feature of his life. A great turning point occurred in 1897, when White went to Washington to avoid being appointed the postmaster in his small town, and heard that the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, wanted to meet him. White was immediately seduced by Roosevelt's concern for economic justice and the common man, and Roosevelt, from the next-older generation, became the great inspiration of his life. This was the beginning of White's conversion to Progressivism. He did not want Roosevelt to become Vice President in 1900, and indeed, he tells, much more frankly than TR's recent biographer Edmund Morris, how it was Senator Platt, the Republican boss of New York, who arranged the nomination to get TR out of New York, where he had become Governor after his exploits in Cuba in 1898. White hoped that TR might succeed McKinley in 1904, but as it turned out, an assassin's bullet raised TR to the White House.
White returns again and again to the Progressive platform that developed thanks to Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, and others in the first decade of the 20th century. It included the direct election of Senators, direct primaries to nominate candidates for all offices, the eight hour day, new rights for labor, and some control over the Trusts. Women's rights were another part of the platform, and Progressives pushed not only for women's suffrage, but for an eight-hours day for women, knowing that factories that employed both sexes would have to extend the same benefit to men as well if it passed. It was, as White emphasizes, a bipartisan movement, which by 1912 commanded majority support in both parties. But it was not, White says repeatedly, a movement of the masses, but rather of the middle class, who believed for moral reasons that the economic order had to be reformed and the benefits of progress spread more widely. Not for nothing, as I have noted before, have ideologues like Glenn Beck identified Theodore Roosevelt as the source of the evils of the 20th century. It is exactly the idea that the distribution of income and wealth has to reflect moral principles that the Republicans have been trying to wipe out since Reagan, and that Bernie Sanders is now trying to revive.
White realized during TR's presidency that while his hero talked a moving game of justice, progress, and war on the "plutocracy," he was always willing to make necessary compromises to get anything done, and his entourage always included one George Perkins, a partner of J. P. Morgan. (Morgan saved TR and the country in 1907, when he singlehandedly stopped the third major panic of White's life, after 1872 and 1893.) Roosevelt left office in 1909, of course, and his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, immediately turned into putty in the hands of conservative Republicans. In 1912, Roosevelt took Taft on for the Republican nomination under the new rules, winning every primary but losing at the Convention thanks to the strong-arm tactics of the party leadership and the corruption of southern Republican delegates. It was because he felt cheated out of the nomination, not for ideological reasons, that TR, with White's support, decided to bolt the party and run on a Progressive ticket. That doomed Taft but elected Wilson, whom White found nearly as congenial politically--although he never warmed to him personally at all.
Prohibition and pacifism were both common among Progressive men and women. (White notes the emerging female presence in progressive politics, including friends of his like Susan B. Anthony, Ida Tarbell, and Edna Ferber.) White, who drank very little all his life, shared both views, and sympathized with Wilson's desire to stay out of the First World War, rather than with TR's frantic attempts to get the United States into it. Looking back on these events nearly thirty years later, White realized how the war had doomed Progressivism. He strongly supported Wilson's war aims, and he took his family to Paris where he covered the peace conference, gradually realizing, as he wrote, that Wilson ws being outmaneuvered by Clemenceau, who was turning the League of Nations into a mechanism to maintain the old balance of power. White also visited the American-occupied Rhineland, where he was struck by the excellent relations between the German population and American troops. The Germans, he noted, were shocked by fraternization between American officers and their men, and could not believe that the men obeyed their officers out of respect, rather than fear. White was devastated by the defeat of the League of Nations, which he blamed partly on Wilson's refusal to compromise. He was even more devastated by the nomination of Warren Harding for President (following the unexpected death of TR in 1919), and his decision to endorse Harding was one of the most difficult of his adult life. White met Harding several times during his Administration and regarded him as a victim of the men around him. Unfortunately White died before he could discuss Calvin Coolidge, although he had already left behind a biography of Coolide, A Puritan in Babylon, which I have never read.
Although White was a journalist rather than a historian, I identified with him throughout much of the book. He had loved politics all his life, and he was keenly aware of the great historical changes through which his country was passing in a way that most of my contemporaries have not. I have no doubt that he would have instantly grasped the insights of Strauss and Howe. He loved to read, and he was, like myself, a pianist, albeit of a different sort. He was an all-around intellectual and devoted to his two children, one of whom, his daughter Mary, died tragically after a riding accident when she was about to enter Wellesley College. And he wrote constantly. The difference, alas, was that there was a national market for his ideas. He became wealthy, by the standards of his time, based upon his writing of both non-fiction and fiction. I think White would have enjoyed reading this blog on a weekly basis--but in his day, it wold have had many more readers. That is a commentary on the differences between his era and mine, not any differences between him and me. Like Henry Adams, he is a kindred spirit to whom I shall return, even though he died a few years before I was born.