It’s a sign of the times. The question, that is. And it’s not just Kansas. The country is deeply divided. Populism is on the rise. Politics is partisan to a perilous and paralyzing degree. In the air, there’s a menacing sense that, depending on the outcome of the November election, the nation might be plunged into a new Dark Age. Or convulsive violence.
The year is 1896.
Out steps William Allen White who despite his self-image as “a child of the governing classes” is a nobody. A college drop out. A wannabe poet, pundit, and journalist; “a young fool” he wrote in his Autobiography.
White burst onto the national stage like a lightning strike. He had gotten his start — his first real job — at the El Dorado Republican, his hometown paper. By 1896, he was the 29-year-old editor of The Emporia Gazette. In that capacity, he wrote a scathing editorial, "What’s the Matter with Kansas?," aimed at William Jennings Bryan, “The Boy Orator of the Platte.”
Bryan was the Democratic candidate for president in 1896, an eloquent Populist from Nebraska who advocated “free silver” (a.k.a., bimetallism). At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, July 9, 1896, he famously concluded his speech with the words “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes, White “ridiculed his home state for endorsing Bryan’s ‘wild-eyed’ rhetoric that pitted the rich against the poor and was sure to ... extinguish the possibility of progress.”
White’s editorial was hardly less wild-eyed: “That’s the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffing out of the creditors. ... put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can’t pay his debts, on the altar, and bow down and worship him.”
His anti-Populist screed was republished in newspapers across the country. McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, had it reprinted and to put it to good use in the campaign. McKinley won the election and White won a place in history. Ironically, it was this anti-liberal editorial White would later disavow that also brought him to the attention of S.S. McClure.
But that’s not the end of the story. William Allen White, you see, unlike the proverbial tiger, would change his stripes. He would become a leading voice for progressive reforms and, as a regular contributor to McClure’s Magazine, he would be part of an elite circle of writers that included the likes of Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, as well as other famous muckrakers of the Progressive Era.
But White was different from all the others. He was a lifelong Republican, a moderate with a great mind and facile pen who would have been at home in the party and country that liked a fellow Kansan named “Ike”.
White never forgot where he came from. He had been to cities, he later recalled, but on his first visit to New York in 1897 the skyline “made (his) eyes bug out”. He would make many trips to New York before his death in 1944, but he always returned to Emporia.
His greatest virtue, the quality that distinguishes him from most of the others of his generation — and ours — is that he never let party affiliation demagnetize his moral compass.
Thomas Magstadt, of Westwood Hills, is a write and educator. A new edition of his college textbook "Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues" is due for publication.