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a godly hero

28 october 2008

I recently referred to Barack Obama as "Bryanesque" in terms of his convention speechifying. Obama's address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention didn't have as immediate an effect as William Jennings Bryan's to the 1896 convention. Obama had to wait four years to become his party's nominee; Bryan was nominated after only a few ballots. But there is an echo of William Jennings Bryan in every popular Democratic Party leader since the 1890s. Woodrow Wilson, Huey Long, FDR, JFK and RFK, LBJ, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton all had Bryanesque features. And though it seems perverse to compare Obama to the lifelong racist Bryan, there's a resemblance in their youth, in their ability to mobilize a national following, in their oratory, and in their becoming personality-driven candidates, while not abandoning the substance of the issues that put them on the map (free silver for Bryan, opposition to the Iraq War for Obama). In his recent study of Bryan, A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin explores how the Great Commoner remains an indelible presence in his party, even if his name may largely be forgotten.

Bryan was dubbed "the Great Commoner" by journalist Willis Abbot (Kazin 67) after he refused a private sleeping car during his 1896 presidential campaign. But he was not really much commoner than many other American politicians of the period. Son of a small-town Illinois judge, Bryan went to college and law school, and then set off for the opportunities of the West, fetching up in Lincoln, Nebraska to start a successful law practice and an activist, populist political career. He was no Roosevelt, it's true, but his antecedents are not terribly distinguishable from those of Wilson, or Chet Arthur, or William McKinley, Bryan's opponent in two elections.

But Bryan traded vigorously on the "Commoner" image, even naming his weekly newspaper The Commoner. (Oprah was not the first person to have a periodical devoted to themself.) His views were popular as well as populist. Kazin points out that most of the letters written to Bryan – at least those that have been preserved – are from clerical, professional, and other middle-white-collar ranks of life. But that may reflect literacy and habits of communication as much as it reflects the class basis of Bryan's following. He was undoubtedly the favorite candidate of the hard-strapped family farmer, still a huge class in the 1890s and 1900s. He won support from some urban and industrial workers, at least in the West. And he held the "solid South," in large part because his aforementioned racism prevented him from speaking out for any kind of desegregation or equality of opportunity for black Americans. Bryan was anathema on Wall Street, and not all that much more popular on Main Street. But once you got outside the city limits, he was pure silver.

Bryan held two public offices in his entire career. He was a two-term Congressman from Nebraska (1891-1895), and he spent two years as Wilson's Secretary of State (1913-1915). For the rest of his more than 35 years as a public figure, he made his living primarily on the Chautauqua lecture circuit. He was the secular version of Billy Sunday. And not all that secular. Though unordained, Bryan preached sermons with strong partisan implications. Late in life, he would run for moderator of the national Presbyterian assembly. As in his three runs for the White House, he finished second. But Bryan's status as moral victor seemed to be enhanced with every electoral loss.

Indeed, though he never won an election outside of his Nebraska district, Bryan's policies would win through time and again. Silver indeed joined gold in the national currency. Bryan picked up progressive demands like those for an income tax and for the direct election of Senators; both became part of the Constitution. He argued for Prohibition, for women's suffrage, for nationalized industries, for much, in fact, of what became the New Deal. His energetic, persuasive approach to peacemaking foreshadowed Jimmy Carter's efforts at Camp David. Bryan believed that those who talk to their enemies, without preconditions, will be much less likely to fight. The Sadat-Begin accords are right out of his playbook, as is Obama's well-publicized desire to sit down with intransigent enemies. Not for nothing was Christian pacifist Leo Tolstoy one of Bryan's main influences and stoutest international supporters. It's an unlikely pairing (Kazin reprints a photo of Bryan and Tolstoy squinting into a camera on a snowy Russian day), but one that continues to resonate in reality-based diplomatic practices a century later.

One of Kazin's themes is how unlikely the whole package of Bryan appears today. Despite his now-standard views, despite his commitment to evangelicalism (hardly exiled from American politics in the 21st Century), the emergence of a folksy Christian liberal seems impossible 80 years after the Commoner's death. Kazin has to almost force himself to admire Bryan at times, perhaps more because of personal style than principle. Bryan was overbearing, mercurial, truly demagogic, and an odd mix of lovable and prickly. He was fond of painting himself into corners, as when he resigned from the State Department in the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania. While much of official Washington was angry at Wilson for not going immediately to war with the Kaiser, Bryan was more annoyed with Wilson for not being more even-handed in hewing to his protestations of neutrality. (The Administration's trade policies slanted heavily toward the Allies.) Bryan had a certain point, but just after over 1,000 civilians had died in the attack was probably not the time to make it.

Bryan was like that. His timing was bad and his manner frequently gauche. In that way he seems to be an epitome of the Democratic Party, and to have avatars from Al Smith to Howard Dean. But I began this review by comparing Bryan to the suave, unrufflable Barack Obama, and that comparison is also just. It goes to show how capacious the great Nebraskan's personality was.

Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Knopf, 2006.