Reflections on the career of Felix Morley, who died March 13, come as an echo from the past. Felix was a star in the journalistic firmament nearly half a century ago. Of course, his influence in both journalistic and academic circles continued for many years, but it was during the 1930s, when he was editor of The Washington Post, that his impact was most impressive.
Felix was tapped for guidance of The Post's editorial policy because the new publisher, Eugene Meyer (who had bought the paper at auction in 1933), was looking for a "vigorous, unlabeled young man" who could give the editorial page real distinction and thus contribute to Meyer's objective of building the best newspaper in America. Felix was staggered a little by Meyer's challenge. "It would be a big job," he commented as Meyer outlined his hopes in their first interview. "It's always good for a man," Meyer replied, "to take a job bigger than he is."
Spurred by that impressive challenge, Morley began building a competent staff and evolving policies that would truly reflect humanitarian interests and sound community and national objectives. Like Meyer, he saw editorial writing as a public responsibility. Staffers were encouraged to use their legs as well as their heads. Some were told to study Washington from firsthand observation and experience. Others were instructed to dig into national affairs, foreign policy, economic developments, literary and educational interests. Whimsy and humor were not neglected. Morley's editorial interests were as broad as life itself.
In the process he sought to avoid stuffiness and all sorts of biases, whether political, ideological, religious or racial. There was no pretense of infallibility under the Morley regime. On the contrary, members of his staff were required to face their critics in open discussion and to correct mistakes in print.
Morley's own adjectives in describing his editorial pages were "impartial and dynamic." Many of his editorials were sharply critical of the more bizarre aspects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. But others brought warm praise from the White House. In April 1939, FDR told a group at Warm Springs, Ga., that he "would be back in the fall if we don't have a war." Morley wrote an editorial interpreting the remark as a warning to Hitler and Mussolini "that the tremendous force of the United States must be a factor in their current thinking." Roosevelt told his press conference the next morning that he was so delighted when he read the editorial that he almost fell out of bed.
The clash between the New Deal and the rehabilitated Washington Post reached a climax in 1937 when FDR undertook to pack the Supreme Court to stop the invalidation of his recovery measures. Morley and his staff launched a vigorous fight against the court bill, disregarding the general assumption that it would win approval in Congress because of Roosevelt's overwhelming victory at the polls in 1936. Other newspapers and organizations joined in the fight, and legislators finally summoned enough courage to bury the court-packing bill under an avalanche of "no's." Morley's courageous independence in this period won him the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a Post writer.
His worst days came when a breach developed between himself and Meyer over the mounting crisis in Europe that led to World War II. In 1937, they took a European trip together, except that Meyer refused to travel in Nazi Germany. They returned with differing views of what the American response should be to the mounting holocaust. As the argument waxed hot, Meyer said, "Sometimes you argue almost to the point of exasperating me."
"If you wanted a yes-man editor," Morley replied, "you got the wrong person."
Foreseeing an irreconcilable conflict over the great issue then confronting the United States, Morley resigned and became president of Haverford College. It was a costly decision in terms of his future career. While he had many of the qualifications of an educator, his heart was really in journalism. His friends understood that his conscience would not allow him to face the necessity of sacrificing American lives to stop the terrorism that was threatening to engulf the world. Yet his colleagues were saddened by the loss of his talents and persuasive words in the causes of freedom, democracy and progressive civilization.
After the war was over, Morley returned to journalism and also wrote a number of books, including an autobiography, "For the Record." While his contributions to thinking about domestic and international affairs are numerous, his departure from a very promising editorial post seems to have resulted in a regrettable shrinkage of his potential. Friends respect him for his adherence to conscience, yet regret that that course took him out of the mainstream of journalism at a most critical time.
Morley should not be dismissed as an extreme conservative whose views are no longer pertinent. That is a superficial and erroneous view. It is true that he often disappointed liberal friends, but he also infuriated many extreme conservatives. His plea was for a rational and balanced concept of life, for politices that will retain freedom without enthroning chaos, that will extend the benefits of civilization without bankrupting taxpayers and concentrating all power in the federal government.
Those who are interested in his basic concepts will find good reading in his memoirs. One pertinent comment is this:
"We know that it is not easy to escape the temporal trap and that the individual's chance of making any real alteration in circumstances, during his short lifetime, is negligible. Yet in millions of ways, over millennial years, men and women have been striving to lessen the fetters of their mortality. And in so doing they have demonstrably begun to unfetter the race from the clutch of time, thus modifying the work of God himself."