Crusader

“Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White,” by Charles Delgadillo. University Press of Kansas, 2018. 328 pages, $34.95.

Of all the genres of books I’ve reviewed, I’d say the group I’ve been the hardest on were biographies that focused in on a single aspect of the subject’s life. Many of them were boring and missed the forest for the trees. No one wants to read a biography of Al Capone that ignores his criminal life and focuses on how many times he called home each day.

With “Crusader for Democracy” by Charles Delgadillo, I’m going to make an exception to the rule. Focusing in on a single aspect of a person’s life is okay as long as it was the main one. Delgadillo gets it right by examining the political activities of William Allen White.

William Allen White, one of the most famous Kansas natives and almost certainly the most famous Emporia native, was a newspaper editor, author, speaker and Republican activist. He was a liberal Republican who became starstruck with Teddy Roosevelt and went on the warpath to introduce liberal platforms to a staunchly reactionary Republican Party. Politics were White’s life. His newspaper and books were all produced in the service of White’s political agenda.

Delgadillo takes us through each stage of White’s political life, from a machine Republican, to reformer, to third-party Progressive, to reluctantly returned prodigal. He goes through reams of correspondence, editorials, articles, speeches and more to give us a taste of the eclectic nature of White’s beliefs.

White was, at heart, an optimist who believed the best of common man. He was often opposed to the Republican Party’s platform, but stuck with them because he didn’t identify with the base of the Democrats, even if they sometimes brought the reforms he’d advocated. There are periods of irony when White went through phases of advocacy for certain reforms, only to find himself opposed to them when they actually appeared.

One example of an about-face from White is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s court packing scheme. White believed, as Delgadillo puts it, “ample precedent existed for adjusting the number of justices on the bench if the Court continued to sabotage reform.” But when Democrats swept both chambers of Congress in the next election, White suddenly “appreciated the Supreme Court’s ability to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority.”

Always forceful in his opinions, but not always certain of what he wanted, White struggled during FDR’s administration to know whether he admired or was wary of the president. On the one hand, he absolutely believed government should provide a safety net to the disenfranchised. On the other hand, he found the president snakish and described him as a “double crossing (egomaniac) with a harlot’s charm and a child’s emotions.” This period of double mindedness toward the end of his life is where this book really shines.

The only thing I wish this book did differently is define its terms at the start. The words “conservative” and “liberal” are comparative in nature. So their definition lies in what the person is comparing their belief to. White believed a lot of things modern conservatives and liberals believe, but he was hostile to the conservative faction of his day. It wasn’t immediately clear to me at the start of the book what exactly the conservatives of his day believed. This is too late in history for the old Republican war of Stalwarts vs. Half-Breeds that came to a head around the presidencies of Garfield and Arthur. I was able to figure it out later, but I just would have appreciated one or two paragraphs telling me what the different factions of the two political parties believed at the time.

I give this book the recommendation I give a lot of books. You’ll like it if you’re interested in the premise, but if you’re not, it probably won’t change your mind. It’s well written, informative and occasionally fun.

Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.

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