EMPORIA, Kan. – This Kansas town lies a little east of the Keystone XL pipeline path, but we stopped here to visit the one-time home of William Allen White, a leading journalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. White burst into national attention with an editorial called “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” – a scathing critique of populism. Thomas Frank borrowed that title for his 2005 book on how the state dominated by blue-collar workers became one of the reddest of Republican red states.
In White’s day, the main issues were the expansion of railroads, protectionism and the gold standard. The railroads were, in a sense, the pipelines of that era, requiring construction workers, using land along their routes and transporting goods. It was a time of fierce political and economic struggle in what White described as “the vast magic carpet of prairie and plain and mountain.”
In his editorial, White said that populist policies in Kansas had scared away investors who had the capital needed to boost the state’s economy. And people were fleeing too, he said; the year before 10,000 babies were born, but the population grew by only 2,000. Dripping with sarcasm, he wrote, “Because we have become poorer and ornerier and meaner than a spavined, distempered mule, we, the people of Kansas, propose to kick; we don’t care to build up, we wish to tear down.”
For us, this seemed like a good moment to detour to the distant past. The Keystone pipeline has already been built here in Kansas. It was part of the previous project, completed around February of last year. This stretch of the pipeline is 36 inches in diameter, big enough to accommodate oil sands from both the existing Keystone and the proposed Keystone XL pipelines, each of which would be 30 inches in diameter. Why won’t this segment overflow? Because some of the oil will be diverted, sending it from Steele City, Neb., to the Midwest.
So on to the past, at least for a morning. I’m interested in White because I believe he helped change the tone of journalism from the sharp partisanship that began right after the American Revolution and continued through the early 1800s, when newspapers were closely aligned with political parties. And I think he helped set a tone of detachment, or independence, that lasted much of the next century – and which recent political bickering and the rise of an opinionated Internet may be reversing.
In 1895 at the age of 27, White bought his own newspaper, the Emporia Gazette, in this modest-size town and ran it with a sense of keen interest but also disinterest. Although he declared himself a Republican, he said that unlike other newspapers of the day he would confine his opinions on the editorial page, where, he wrote, “the gentle reader may venture at his peril.”
He later wrote that “Indeed I believed then and believe now that a newspaper that prints the news—all of it—that is fit to print can take any editorial position it desires without loss of prestige or patronage. People choose their paper not because of its politics but because of its integrity, its enterprise, and its intelligence.”
That didn’t mean that the Emporia Gazette was boring. “We were chatty, colloquial, incisive, impertinent, ribald, and enterprising in our treatment of local events,” he recalled in his autobiography. “Looking back over it now, I can see that much of it was based upon a smart-aleck attitude; but the people liked it. Circulation grew.”
The house here in Emporia was a frequent stop for political candidates, including five U.S. presidents. White was particularly fond of holding court on the large porch, often sitting in the hammock there. We saw White’s manual typewriter, the leather chairs in the dining room, and the bedrooms and guest room upstairs where somehow the enormous President Taft once slept. The black car outside, which belonged to White’s son, was sleek and shiny and had a license plate that read: GAZETTE.
Ultimately, White became an avid admirer of Teddy Roosevelt and wrote in favor of the reforms of the Progressive movement. He would have been a supporter of modern campaign finance regulations and a critic of the Citizens United Supreme Court case.
He once wrote that “the interstate corporations – for instance, railroads, insurance companies, banking interests, the packing houses, the commodity industries, oil, coal, textiles, and the like – had in Wall Street powerful politicians who looked after their business in every state. In every state these corporations financed the political machinery of both parties.”