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The Common Touch
A historian takes an admiring look at a great American populist who never became president.

Reviewed by Alan Wolfe
Sunday, February 5, 2006

A GODLY HERO

The Life of William Jennings Bryan

By Michael Kazin

Knopf. 374 pp. $30

Even the most avid political trivia buff may have trouble recalling the name of Henry Gassaway Davis. The 1904 Democratic nominee for vice president, Davis (paired with the only slightly better-known Alton B. Parker) was not only, at 81, the oldest candidate for national office ever tapped by a major party, he was also one of the least successful. Running against Teddy Roosevelt and Charles W. Fairbanks, the Parker-Davis ticket won no states outside the South and (with the exception of Missouri) lost all the others by double-digit margins.

The Parker-Davis campaign has one further historic distinction; in the four elections between 1896 and 1908, it was the only Democratic ticket not led by William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, as Michael Kazin makes clear in his splendid new biography, spent his political life fighting against the plutocratic impulses in the Democratic Party that produced colorless candidates such as Davis and Parker. He may never have won the presidency, but, Kazin argues, he left behind a reform-oriented party that eventually resulted in FDR and LBJ.

A Godly Hero is an intensely political biography; by its 46th page, Bryan is already engaged in his first presidential run. This may be because he had little time for a private life; although a devoted husband and the father of three rather successful children, he spent nearly all his time on the road. Front-porch campaigns were not Bryan's style; he was a brilliant public speaker who, as it happens, loved to speak in public. Unable to raise huge sums of money and treated with contempt by many of his party's leaders, he won his votes by appealing to the aspirations of ordinary Americans burdened by debt, rendered insecure by the vagaries of the market and worried about their country's increasing involvement in overseas adventures.

Bryan rivals Alexander Hamilton as the most important American politician never to be elected president, and a major biography of him is long overdue. Kazin brings to his an unwillingness to treat Bryan as a simpleminded buffoon who, inspired by his Christian certainties, bet against modernity and lost. Relying on a cache of letters written to Bryan by people moved by his campaigns, Kazin favorably compares the "Great Commoner" (the obvious nickname for a man who spoke so movingly to the needs of ordinary Americans) to many contemporary American leaders -- who are either religious but lack a passion for social justice or who identify with reform but fail to speak with Bryan's prophetic sincerity.

Although appreciative, Kazin's treatment of Bryan is anything but a whitewash. His populism, for one thing, was for whites only. A typical Democrat of his time, he was too dependent on white Southern voters ever to promote racial equality, and at the end of his life, when office no longer beckoned, he endorsed Jim Crow laws in a 1923 speech to the Southern Society of Washington, D.C. Nor was Bryan's rigid moralism the most appealing quality in a political leader; even Kazin concedes that "it is probably fortunate that he was never elected president." Whether Bryan was a godly hero is open to question; whether he was a flawed one is not.

For his part, Kazin insists that, on any subject other than race, Bryan was a force for good in American politics. The evangelicals who supported him may have been anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic, but there is no evidence that he shared their prejudices. He obtained the votes of isolationists, but he supported the Spanish-American War and served as Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state until his horror at World War I led to his resignation. "His critics," Kazin writes, "scorned him as the anti-intellectual chieftain of a rabble of know-nothing followers. But Bryan's people did not lack ideas; they simply preferred they be wrapped in passionate conviction. To expect the citizens of a mass democracy to choose a leader as if they were electing the president of a learned society is to make a serious and rather undemocratic mistake." Bryan's democratic sensibilities, in Kazin's view, save him from the charge of reaction. Whatever his flaws, he gave ordinary Americans a sense of hope -- hardly something that could be said of Alton B. Parker or Henry Gassaway Davis.

Bryan, Kazin concludes, not only stands up well against the right but also has something to teach the left. One of the most interesting sections of A Godly Hero compares Bryan to John Reed, the upper-class revolutionary. (Typical of their respective fates, Reed was played by Warren Beatty in "Reds," while Bryan, in "Inherit the Wind," got the less photogenic Fredric March.) Reed and his friends thought of themselves as great radicals, but their spirit of free love and cultural anarchism cut them off from the very mass of Americans whom Bryan was capable of reaching. In a society as religious as the United States, leftists commit political suicide by turning their backs on what Bryan tried to accomplish.

For all of Kazin's efforts to salvage Bryan's reputation, his legacy remains complicated. Form and content mix uneasily in Bryan's politics. The content of his speeches, as Kazin rightly emphasizes, leads in a direct line to the progressive reforms adopted by 20th-century Democrats. But the form his actions took -- a romantic invocation of the American past, a populist insistence on the wisdom of ordinary folk, a faith-based insistence on sincerity and character -- lead just as directly to the Republican Party of Karl Rove and George W. Bush.

Kazin is at times far too soft on his subject, especially when he argues that Bryan's opposition to World War I was more realistic than Wilson's support for it. But A Godly Hero is still a must read -- not because Bryan laid the foundations for 20th-century liberalism but because populism is the default sensibility of American politics, whether it takes the leftist route of insisting on economic security or the rightist one of searching for moral certainty. Michael Kazin, already our leading scholar of populism, is now our best interpreter of its greatest practitioner. It would be difficult to imagine a biography of any early 20th-century political leader more relevant to the early 21st century than this one. ยท

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is writing a book on whether American democracy still works.

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