King on Delgadillo, 'Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White'

Author: 
Charles Delgadillo
Reviewer: 
Elliot King

Charles Delgadillo. Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 315 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2638-0.

Reviewed by Elliot King (Loyola University Maryland) Published on Jhistory (August, 2019) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52653

William Allen White holds a singular position in the history of American journalism. On the one hand, his career spanned an era in which celebrity in the field shifted from the editors and publishers of major newspapers, particularly those published in New York, to reporters and columnists, especially those who could build national reputations, such as Lincoln Steffens, Walter Lippmann, and Ida Tarbell. On the other hand, it was still a time when an enterprising young person could start or purchase a newspaper in a small town and succeed financially. Even though he earned a national reputation, White remained the editor of the Gazette in Emporia, Kansas, for his entire career.

Most interestingly, however, White was prominent in a period when, despite the conventional wisdom of most histories of journalism, journalists were still deeply embedded in the partisan practice of politics. Although journalism historians debate whether objectivity and reportorial balance became dominant professional values in the 1830s, the 1880s, or sometime before or after that, the White story, as told by Charles Delgadillo, conclusively demonstrates that reporters and editors were integral political actors at least through the first part of the twentieth century.

White’s political activity is the main focus of this engaging and well-written history of White’s life. Although the book is not a full-blown biography, Delgadillo, a lecturer at California State University, Pomona, details White’s involvement with Republican and then progressive Republican politics from the 1890s until his death in 1944. During that period, White played a major role in the political machinations of the Republican Party, which was bitterly divided between progressive and conservative wings at both the state and national levels and came to be perceived nationally as an authoritative voice of the American heartland and small-town America.

Delgadillo starts the story by sketching the early part of White’s life. His family traced its roots to the English Puritans who settled in Massachusetts in 1639. His father was born in Ohio in 1819 but eventually settled in Emporia in 1859. His mother, an orphan who became a teacher after attending the abolitionist Knox College, moved to Emporia after she was fired for challenging segregation at her school in Council Grove, Kansas, in 1865. According to White, both parents were politically outspoken. His father was a Jacksonian Democrat while his mother had become a Republican after hearing Abraham Lincoln debate Stephen Douglas in 1858. The Whites ran a hotel, dubbed the “White House,” in Emporia, and Will, as he was called, witnessed vigorous table conversations with guests, including Susan B. Anthony.

White was born in 1867. His father died when White was fourteen and his mother became the dominant influence in his life. He graduated high school in 1884 and had two uninspired stints at Emporia College punctuated by work as a printer’s devil, typesetter, and eventually cub reporter at the El Dorado Republican, the Emporia News, and then the El Dorado Democrat. White eventually enrolled at Kansas University. At KU, White worked for the campus newspaper, literary review, and yearbook. He also contributed articles to local newspapers.

After a failed geometry class made graduation unlikely, White left KU without a degree to become the managing editor of the El Dorado Republican. The editor, Thomas Murdock, was the Republican boss of Butler County and used his position as a state senator for influence peddling, self-dealing, bribery, and other forms of graft and corruption, large and small, according to Delgadillo. Murdock continued to write most of the editorial copy for the newspaper and White did everything else.

It was during the election of 1890 that White began to make a name for himself both as a journalist and a Republican Party operative. In that election, the Populist movement gathered electoral steam and White joined most Kansas newspapers in attacking them. His articles were picked up and distributed widely by other newspapers in the state. He also campaigned against the Populists alongside Charles Curtis, who eventually became vice president of the United States. Although the election was a disaster for the Republicans, in its aftermath White began his climb through the ranks of journalism, moving first to the Kansas City Journal, a Republican newspaper, and then the Kansas City Star, run by the legendary publisher William Nelson. By then, Nelson had established a reputation for honest reporting and advocacy for his community.

White received choice assignments at the Star. He accompanied future president Ohio governor William McKinley when he toured the state in 1895. He also joined the inner circle of Cyrus Leland, who ran the Republican Party machine in Kansas. White had initially met Leland in 1891, when, still at the Journal, White had set up the Kansas Day Club, a social organization for young Republican leaders.

At this point, White had followed a fairly unremarkable career trajectory. He could have spent his entire career at the Star. Or he could have eventually moved to a larger and more powerful newspaper in Chicago or New York. Instead, in the spring of 1895, he opted to purchase the hometown Emporia Gazette for three thousand dollars. The Gazette had been established five years earlier as a Populist newspaper. The deal was financed by Republican Party operatives, who also kept the newspaper solvent in its early days through advertising and printing contracts. Under White, politically the Gazette firmly stood in the anti-Populist wing of the Republican Party, which vigorously supported maintaining the gold standard as the basis for monetary policy.

But White was also not destined to simply be a country editor either, as much as he liked to project that image. The article that propelled him onto the national stage both as a journalist and a force within the Republican Party was written on August 13, 1896. As Delgadillo tells the story, White had returned to the Gazette’s office angry and upset because he had been harassed by political opponents as he had walked through town. He was in a hurry to leave for a trip to Colorado. When White learned that the Gazette did not have enough copy to be printed while he was gone, he dashed off an editorial titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” In it, he blasted the Populists but concluded that there was nothing wrong with Kansas. Ironically, the article, or at least the headline, proved to be so powerful that it provided the title of a 2005 book by Thomas Frank, which sought to understand why Kansas had become so conservative.

The article grabbed the attention of a vice president at the Santa Fe railroad, who forwarded it the Chicago Herald Tribune, which reprinted it, as did many other newspapers around the country. Eventually Mark Hanna, the national Republican Party leader and the manager of the McKinley presidential campaign, distributed one million copies of the editorial, judging it an effective response to the Populists. In the wake of the article, White had the opportunity to meet Hanna, who introduced him to President McKinley. Perhaps more important, McClure’s magazine offered him a contract for six short stories, initiating a long relationship with the progressive magazine and the national journalists associated with it. But the most significant outcome from the editorial was that White met Theodore Roosevelt, who became his friend and political inspiration.

From that moment on, White’s career was defined by four vectors. He continued to operate the Emporia Gazette. He wrote for national magazines like McClure’s. Although he steadfastly refused to accept formal political office for himself, he was a leading operative for progressive Republicans as they battled conservatives in their own party as well as the Democrats. And he worked for the civic betterment of Emporia.

Although Delgadillo reports on all aspects of White’s career and includes some details on his personal life, he primarily zeros in on White’s political activities. The editor of the Gazette was deeply involved in partisan politics, from the nitty-gritty of awarding patronage to Republican operatives to the larger scope of running campaigns and fighting lofty ideological battles on behalf of the progressives. Indeed, one of White’s first missions after he had skyrocketed to the national stage was to try to secure a patronage position for his old mentor Leland at the start of the Roosevelt administration.

For the next thirty years, White fought for progressive goals, such as regulation of railroads, the direct election of US senators, and women’s suffrage. After the election of 1912, he helped establish the Kansas Progressive Party but returned to the Republican fold upon its demise. In addition to his writing for national magazines, he wrote novels. His most successful work of fiction was the 1908 book A Certain Rich Man, which over its lifetime sold 250,000 copies.

Overall, Crusader for Democracy is well written and meticulously researched, drawing on many primary sources. White’s career provides great insight into the rise and fall of the progressive wing of the Republican Party (a faction that many people who know of it sorely miss). Perhaps most significant, however, Delgadillo challenges the conventional wisdom about the historical development of the relationship of journalism and politics. While primarily a journalist and author, White was also a boots-on-the-ground political player. In White’s view, those activities were not in conflict. Indeed, they were in harmony. By turning the spotlight on White’s political career, Delgadillo has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the relationship of journalism to politics in the first part of the twentieth century.

Citation: Elliot King. Review of Delgadillo, Charles, Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52653

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