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BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Godly Hero’ Makes Valiant Attempt to Revamp Reputation of Democratic Presidential Candidate William Jennings Bryan

Posted by kinchendavid on July 17, 2006

A Godly HeroReviewed By David M. Kinchen
Hinton, WV  – The popular image of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) has been so molded by the portrayal of a character modeled on him – first in the play “Inherit the Wind” (1955) and next the 1960 movie version starring Frederic March as the Bryan character and Spencer Tracy as the Clarence Darrow one that it would seem impossible to reshape the image of the “Great Commoner” and the “Boy Orator of the Platte” as anything but a fundamentalist bigot.
“Inherit the Wind” was based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, TN, where 24-year-old biology teacher John Scopes was on trial for teaching evolution in the Dayton high school. Michael Kazin in “A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan” (Knopf, 400 pages, 24 pages of illustrations, bibliography, index, $30) is only partially successful in his attempt to portray Bryan as a man who embodied many ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his efforts to become President.
The problem with Bryan and his Presidential runs in 1896, 1900 and 1908 is that he was a Democrat when the party was controlled by bigoted white Southerners and big city bosses presiding over immigrants who differed culturally from the WASP base necessary to be elected in those days – and today, for that matter.
A Northern Democrat – Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, and moved at any early age to Lincoln, Nebraska – was almost an oxymoron 100 years ago. The Republican Party of a century ago included virtually all the blacks who were allowed to vote – it was the party of Lincoln, after all – and the vast majority of middle- and upper-class America.
Bryan, a lawyer, congressman and undoubtedly the greatest orator of his age, never spoke out against the resegregation of the federal government when Virginian Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated in 1913 and Bryan was secretary of state. In fact, throughout his life Bryan showed little or no inclination to accord black citizens the respect he had for women – he was an early proponent of female suffrage – or his rural small town and agricultural base.
As Kazin, an elegant writer and experienced historian (he’s a professor of history at Georgetown University) amply demonstrates, Bryan’s Presbyterian religiosity and backing of prohibition didn’t resonate with the Catholic and Jewish immigrants of the big cities who were rapidly becoming the core constituency of the northern element of the Democratic Party.
Covering the 1904 Democratic national convention, when Bryan lost to Alton Parker, 24-year-old Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken marveled at the oratory of Bryan: “It swept up on wave after wave of sound like the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica, and finally burst into such coruscations that the crowd first gasped and then screamed…”
Twenty-one years later, Mencken was in Dayton and he attacked Bryan — recruited to assist the prosecution side of the test case against John Thomas Scopes – as a fundamentalist bigot, agreeing with Darrow’s assessment of Bryan as “the idol of all Morondom.”
Echoing fears that resonate today with many secularists, including this reviewer, Mencken’s “loathing was driven by fear,” Kazin writes in his description of the trial in the eastern Tennessee town of 2,000. “He predicted that Bryan would quickly become a saint to millions of ‘yokels’ outside the big cities who were intent on turning America over to the KKK and like-minded regiments of Bible-spouting youths. The specter of a theocratic state run by idiots has haunted intellectuals ever since.”
Many Bush-haters would agree with this assessment even today and wonder how the Democrats can come up with a candidate who can repeat Bill Clinton’s triumph. As Kazin points out, Americans continue to have a religious streak – as much as 80 percent – that makes Europeans wonder about our sanity. Unless and until the Democrats come up with a Bryanesque candidate – minus the racism – they’ll have a difficult time winning the Presidency.
I’ll give Kazin an “A” for effort in his attempt to turn Bryan into an ur-FDR or Harry Truman – especially Truman, who came from a similar Middle Western Protestant background but managed to rise above the close-mindedness that all too often blights the nation’s heartland – my native region.
In aligning himself with racists like Ben Tillman and Josephus Daniels – whose newspaper in Raleigh, NC is blamed by Kazin for fanning the flames of the bloody 1898 race riot in Wilmington, NC– Bryan never rose above his background as Truman did. Kazin is an honest writer and makes no attempt to leave out the bigoted aspects of Bryan – and his even more bigoted wife Mary. In her comments cited by Kazin while Mary Bryan was observing the country folk of eastern Tennessee, she reveals herself to be as biased as Darrow and Mencken. On top of this, she was an anti-Semite, which Bryan doesn’t seem to be. Bryan, Kazin notes, protested the printing in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent newspaper of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
To his credit, Bryan opposed the imperialist moves of the U.S. under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, especially the brutal crushing of the Philippine insurrection. He served as a colonel of a Nebraska regiment in the 1898 Spanish-American War, but he and his troops never left Florida.
As Wilson’s secretary of state he strongly opposed the entry of the U.S. into the war ravaging Europe and resigned in 1915 over Wilson’s tilting strongly toward the Allies and against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. He fought for the direct election of U.S. senators, the income tax and prohibition – all part of the agenda of Progressives like Hiram Johnson of California and Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin.
Kazin agrees with many historians today – and my personal view – that the entry of the U.S. into the European war was a disastrous error. Kazin: “…in retrospect, he [Bryan] was quite correct to oppose American entry into the Great War. It was not a conflict that history has justified. The main consequence of turning Europe into a killing field was a great bitterness from which grew, like poisonous plants, the trio of Fascism, Nazism, and Bolshevism.”
Kazin faults Bryan for resigning his post as secretary of state, arguing that he could have influenced Wilson – whom he worked to get nominated and elected – much better if he had stayed in the position than on the outside. After all, thanks to a grueling lecture tour that took him all over the world, Bryan had more recent knowledge of the world beyond the U.S. than did Wilson, Kazin says. There’s an old vulgar saying that it’s better to be inside the tent peeing out than outside peeing in. This certainly applies to Bryan’s departure from a post of influence, where he could – possibly – have influenced Wilson to keep America out of the Great War.
“A Godly Hero” is a valiant attempt to rehabilitate Bryan’s image as a “Christian liberal,” in Kazin’s words. Despite being loved by multitudes for his battles against big business and protecting the rights of workers to organize, I don’t think the reputation of William Jennings Bryan can overcome the attacks on him by great haters like Mencken and John (“Ten Days That Shook the World”) Reed, who joined the chorus of those belittling Bryan’s efforts. Kazin’s insights are valuable and he has written a book that I predict will be on the short lists of major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Publisher’s web site: www.aaknopf.com

(Originally published Jun 2, 2006)


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