Caustic newsman Pegler vanished, couldn’t stop stepping on big toes

Who’s who In 1941 Time magazine polled its readers for candidates for its Man of the Year award. Readers responded: 1. President Franklin Roosevelt, 2. Josef Stalin, 3. columnist Westbrook Pegler.

Westbrook who? Although Pegler had dominated the newspaper columnist business for more than a decade, won a Pulitzer Prize, was the talk of journalism, and became the star of both the Scripps-Howard and Hearst chains, he is today largely unknown.  He was converted into non-celebritywestbrook-pegler status because the affronted nabobs of newsdom and academia have ignored him for decades except for a few disparaging remarks whenever his name came up in print.  He had tread upon too many aching progressive toes to be forgiven. Truth be told, Pegler clomped on nearly everyone’s toes. His hard-bitten philosophy divided humanity into two classes, those in authority and the little people. The big shots were his natural prey. Among the hugest of the VIPs was the family of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the nation’s labor unions, rapidly burgeoning under the New Deal administration and many riddled with corruption.  Both Pegler targets were the most revered icons of American liberals whose wounded response was, “How can he do this to us?”

They well may ask, because Westbrook was a registered Democrat and one of Roosevelt’s most enthusiastic early supporters.  Unfortunately for the president, Pegler was one of those absolutely honest people who could not abide flaws in persons or institutions he admired.  Regardless of the person’s contributions to the nation, any hint that he had feet of clay, itchy palms, corruption, or a lack of basic humanity brought down the Pegler wrath.

Antics of the Roosevelt tribe soon disenchanted the columnist. Mother Eleanor seemed to be striving for public acclaim and glory while the kids appeared to be trading on the family name for earthly riches. As for papa Roosevelt, Pegler accused him of overruling his military experts to award $40 million in contracts to industrialist Howard Hughes for two aircraft, the F-11 and the HK-1 (popularly named the Spruce Goose, which flew only once).

Pegler wrote stingingly about how New Deal bigwigs did business: Hughes had provided “softening-up parties” for government officials. He paid movie starlets $200 to attend these parties. Their duties included swimming nude in Hughes’s pool. Julius Krug, the chief of the War Production Board, was someone who often attended.. One congressman, a frequent guest, claimed: “If those girls were paid two hundred dollars, they were greatly underpaid”.

Pegler always attacked on a personal level, and if one was a power broker with a hand in the public purse the assault was always with all four paws and claws. Steering clear of ideology and politics, Pegler kept his relentless spotlight on the character and personality of his targets. Roosevelt he nicknamed “Old Moosejaw,” and Eleanor became “La Boca Grande” (big mouth).  He thought Adolf Hitler had created in the Nazi Party a combination of Al Capone and the Ku Klux Klan. Benito Mussolini looked to Pegler like a fighting drunk, such as one might encounter in any Chicago bar. Another favorite whipping boy was Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, whom Westbrook addressed thusly:

Two favorite Pegler targets: Roosevelt and wife Eleanor

“Hey, Ickes, you penny-ante moocher, tell us about the two times you put yourself away in the Naval Hospital in Washington, for $3 a day, all contrary to law, and you a rich guy able to pay your way at the regular hospitals as all other sick civilians have to do … Why you cheap sponger, you couldn’t rent a hall-room in a pitcher-and-bowl fleabag for three bucks a day. You know who paid for your hospital bargain, don’t you? Well, I did. ….”

Ickes’ mean, skinflint nature surfaced again when his wife was killed in the wreck of a car driven by a hired chauffeur. Ickes sued the man for damages, but the chauffeur died leaving only $696. The court placed this little sum beyond Ickes’ reach because he didn’t file the law papers in time. The money went instead to the chauffeur’s widow and five children. Pegler commented: “The thought that Mr. Ickes might have had it for himself but for an error of timing is one that wrings my own great and mushy heart.”

Pegler earned additional liberal animosity when he halted the takeover of a newly formed movie union by revealing that its two proposed bosses had criminal records. He created more controversy by charging communists were infiltrating the American Newspaper Guild. But what seared the marrow of progressive bones was his column, “Evolution of the Liberal.” He began it by observing that early liberals hated the regimentation exemplified by the Kaiser’s goose-stepping legions in World War I.

“Little did we think then,” Pegler wrote, “ that liberalism would curl up its tail and sting itself full of poison in its angry threshing before two decades had passed, but now ain’t it the truth.

“For today the surviving members of the group who fought most angrily against goose-stepping in the early ‘20s are almost all to the found in that element who hold that any worker who prefers to remain a loner, or individual, is a pathetic coward, a dirty traitor to his fellowmen, in receipt of secret pay from his boss, a mulish and selfish parasite, enjoying the benefits of other men’s struggle and peril or a Fascist. …

“If he is thrown out of his job, in which it has been contended by liberals that he has a property right, that is his own fault. If his family suffers mental and physical harassment and goes hungry and cold, that again is his fault, and the failure to protect and provide is his to answer for. If, by the verdict of a union, after a trial in his absence, he is forever barred from all employment where unions govern the work, that again is his own lookout. …

“The day came when liberals who had fiercely hated the goose-step, goose-stepped in a sort of prisoner’s-march before premises struck by

Dictator Mussolini: fighting drunk?

minority vote to revile individual men, stone and beat them, for their refusal to submit to regimentation and discipline. And men who insisted that they placed truth above all things so far abandoned their liberalism that they plainly admitted that they preferred to suppress, ignore or deny truths about corruption and a thousand forms of oppression in labor unions rather than hurt their new cause of regimentation or goose-stepping..”

Pegler’s scathing cynical pen spared no one, not even his fellow prognosticators in the newspaper column business.  He came down on his own occupation like this:

“What is it that you would like to be told about all your favorite myriad-minded commentators?  Economics, pig prevention, the Constitution, the law, politics, war, history, labor, the C.I.O and the A.F.L, housing, international relations, birth control, the infield fly rule, Fascism, Nazism and Communism, inflation, agriculture, war, phrenology?  Name me something we can’t tell you all about with absolute, irrefutable authority and no two, perhaps, in agreement on any single point.

“We include experts on the budget who can’t balance an expense account; economic experts who can’t find the 5:15 on a suburban time-table much less read a balance sheet, labor experts who never did a lick of work in their lives, pundits on the mechanical age who can’t put a fresh ribbon on their own typewriters and resounding authorities on the problem of the farmer who never even grew a geranium in a pot….

“What causes us?  Well, as nearly as I can figure it out, this trade began as a sort of journalistic vaudeville intended to entertain the customers and exert a little circulation pull of a slightly higher tone than that of the comics.  Actually, even now at our grimmest, we aren’t one, two, six with a real good comic strip in which some evil man is plotting to put out a little girl’s eyes or throw a little boy into a blast furnace, a reassuring fact, if you are considering the good sense of the nation, as the syndicate managers, in their nasty way, are always reminding us.

“You might think that once in a great while we would run out of intelligence, and  I  often marvel at my own inexhaustible fund of knowledge, but it just keeps along bubbling up….  Maybe I shouldn’t be writing like this, revealing secrets of the trade and all, but I just got to thinking it over and, honest to God, it is getting plum ridiculous.”

Pegler’s inability to quit bashing his favorite hate objects, like the Roosevelts,  finally caused him to fade from public view. The worst sin any columnist can commit is to bore  his readers with endless axe-grinding. Energetic liberal attacks and media apathy have insured he remain obscure….until now.

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