Revisiting the controversial career of Westbrook Pegler.

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March 4 2004 6:43 PM

Dangerous Minds

William F. Buckley soft-pedals the legacy of journalist Westbrook Pegler in The New Yorker.

Westbrook Pegler
Westbrook Pegler

Those younguns at the Columbia Journalism School (to borrow a trope from the Times' gossip page) must be scratching their heads over William F. Buckley Jr.'s paean to the late newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler in the March 1 issue of The New Yorker. Who he? Why now? To read Buckley's loving appreciation, you would think that Pegler, once the top right-wing gun of the popular press (he died in 1969), was a wicked-tongued but harmless rascal who spoke truth to power, stood up for the little man, and refused to cut his "odd integrity" to fit the changing moral fashions. In Buckley's portrait, Pegler's signature "scorn and derision" for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt was a mistrust of "people who had power or standing." His rabid union-bashing stemmed from a "concern for the unprotected" (following the same logic by which antiunion laws are called "right to work" legislation). And Pegler's nasty anti-Semitism? That was merely the unfortunate outcome of a courtroom humiliation he suffered at the hands of Louis Nizer, a trial lawyer who happened to be Jewish. Little matter. Buckley predicts that "literary pleasure seekers will care not at all about what were his prejudices."      Students of history, however, may come to a different conclusion. Since Buckley floats a defense of Pegler while burying the charges against him, let us be clear about who this man was and what he represented. Pegler's career took off in 1933 when he became a nationally syndicated columnist with Scripps-Howard, roared along under the Hearst family, and ended 30 years later under the auspices of a twitchy sect of neo-Nazis and professional racists from the White Citizens Council and the Rev. Billy James Hargis' truly reptilian Christian Crusade. At his peak in the 1930s and 1940s, Pegler was a leading popularizer of one of the most concerted antidemocratic crusades in this country's history: the vicious backlash against the New Deal and the labor movement to which it gave legal protection. This anti-Roosevelt front included the country's major industrialists, anti-Semitic, red-baiting pamphleteers, Congressman Martin Dies' Committee on Un-American Activities, and an assortment of Depression-era demagogues (and men on horseback who conspired with Hitler's agents in this country).

Although Pegler did not turn against Roosevelt until the president's second term, he quickly became a shrill cheerleader for the right's campaign to paint the New Deal's democratic advances as an internationalist Communist plot. Pegler compared union advocates of the closed shop to Hitler's "goose-steppers." (In his view, the greatest threat to the country was the corrupt labor boss; his exposé of a union official's mob connections earned him a Pulitzer in 1941.) By the 1950s, however, Pegler was showing some nostalgia for the Third Reich. His proposal for "smashing" the AF of L and the CIO was for the state to take them over. "Yes, that would be fascism," he wrote. "But I, who detest fascism, see advantages in such fascism."

The absence of such "isms" in The New Yorker article verges on the perverse, reducing the great political forces that Pegler shaped and was shaped by to the idiosyncrasies of a sui generis newspaperman. In admiring Pegler's famous declaration of solidarity with the common man—"I am a member of the rabble in good standing"—Buckley neglects to say that it came from a column in praise of a California lynch mob that killed two (white) men charged with a kidnapping-murder (though he mentions this case elsewhere in the piece). And I doubt readers would be charmed by Pegler's unyielding disregard for "the least inhibition of political correctness" if Buckley had offered examples of that steadfastness: his assertion in November 1963 (at the height of the civil rights movement) that it is "clearly the bounden duty of all intelligent Americans to proclaim and practice bigotry"; his embrace of the label racist, "a common but false synonym for Nazi, used by the bigots of New York"; or his habit of calling Jews "geese," because they hiss when they talk, gulp down everything before them, and foul everything in their wake.

Then there is Buckley's treatment of the libel suit that supposedly turned Pegler against the Jews. Quentin Reynolds—one of the first foreign correspondents to warn American readers about Hitler—sued Pegler in 1949 after Pegler charged Reynolds, in his column, "with lying, with physical cowardice, and with immorality." (Presumably the unnamed "immorality" is communism; Pegler had called Reynolds a Communist sympathizer.) When Louis Nizer, Reynolds' lawyer, won his client the largest judgment ever awarded in punitive damages ($175,000) after five years of litigation, the country was by then under the spell of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy's name goes unmentioned in the article, even though he was the political hero shared by Pegler and Buckley. Pegler was the McCarthy committee's occasional collaborator as well as its big media flack. Buckley, meanwhile, co-authored (with one of the senator's future speechwriters) what Sam Tanenhaus described in the New York Review of Books as "the most sustained defense of McCarthy," the 1954 best-seller McCarthy and His Enemies. In it, the authors spell out rather chillingly whom the McCarthyites' true target was: not the then virtually dead American Communist Party but the liberals who had "no stomach for battle" and had criticized the red-hunters for trampling the Bill of Rights.

Of all the "isms" that Buckley declines to mention, the most puzzling omission, then, is McCarthyism. That makes even us middle-aged 'uns scratch our heads over what moved Buckley to write the piece. Resorting to the "Jewish science" that Pegler detested, I would say that Freud might call this a case of "conservative guilt." There's something overdetermined about Buckley's enthusiasm for Pegler's rude beginnings (in Buckley-speak, his "formally exiguous credentials"), his brawler's instincts, "his disdain for the ways of the rich," and for "all those educated men out there." It's jarring indeed to see William F. Buckley Jr. discovering his inner Pete Seeger.

Moreover, I detect a hint of defensiveness in Buckley's hauling out the late Murray Kempton as the estimable left-leaning beard who lent his blessings to Pegler's "fanatic heart" at a party the two writers threw for Pegler in 1963. ("He never told a lie that he had not told himself first," is the best Kempton can muster—by which I assume he means that at least Pegler believed his own propaganda. Or that he didn't.) This sort of "exception that disproves the rule" defense is the last refuge of lost-causers, whether it's Alabama's old "Segregation Forever" Gov. George Wallace showing off his new black best friends or Robert Bork hoping to finesse the Supreme Court appointment through the testaments of liberal colleagues to his charming and witty personality. (Funny that rehabilitationists from the left seem to have no parallel compulsion to produce evidence that, say, Lillian Hellman was a drinking buddy of Roy Cohn, though I am feeling an urge here to point out that my grandfather's roommate at Harvard Law School was Robert Welch, future founder of Pegler's last gainful employer, the John Birch Society.)

Perhaps Buckley is engaging in a bit of legacy-damage control, shoring up his reputation as the good-faith "gentleman conservative," lest those who made a career trying to ruin others for being "soft on communism" should some day be judged by history as being soft on fascism. This is the ironic conclusion he invites by undertaking such a furry postmodern rehabilitation of Westbrook Pegler.

Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home, had a crush on William F. Buckley Jr. during her Republican youth.