The editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette and the ‘Sage of Emporia,’ William Allen White is known for his quips, quotations, and a sharply crafted view from Main Street expressed in his 1896 essay, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” But for all his carefully cultivated small-town sagacity, White (1868–1944) was a public figure and political operator on a grand scale. Writing the first biography in a half-century to look at this side of White’s character and career, Charles Delgadillo brings to life a leading light of a once-widespread liberal Republican movement that has largely become extinct.
- 1. When did you first have the idea to work on Crusader for Democracy?
I discovered William Allen White while working on my dissertation. White was one of a group of four liberal reformers I was studying who were coming to terms with America’s rise as a great power between the World Wars. I admired White’s vision of America as the leading champion of democracy at home and abroad, and his willingness to act on his views by writing editorials, by privately lobbying policymakers, and by helping to lead the fight for public opinion. It wasn’t just White’s views that hooked me, though. I was impressed by White’s essential humanity. He was a man who never forgot what it’s like to be a human being: the hopes and disappointments, the victories and the defeats, the times when our path is clear and those when we lose our way. White’s name came up time and time again as I did my research, and the archivists at the Library of Congress told me that his collection is one of their most heavily used. I thought it was a tragedy that no one had written a biography of such a remarkable and important man in almost half a century, and it was a pleasure to take the job myself!
2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?
Writing the book was fun! I was able to use about a third of my dissertation to jump-start the writing process, and it helped a lot that I already knew how to make the best use of the William Allen White papers at the Library of Congress. I started writing this book a few months after finishing my PhD in December 2010 and I worked on it fairly regularly through the summer of 2017. My work process was to accumulate as much raw material as possible during my three or four research trips each year. I spent most of the time reading and taking notes on the documents I had gathered, which I would then use to write up the narrative.
3. What was the most challenging aspect of writing about William Allen White?
One of the most challenging aspects about writing about White is that he knew so many people and was involved in so many things. There were many great little stories that had to be left out of the book simply because I couldn’t talk about everything, and there were many times where I had to devote considerable attention to sorting out White’s intricate web of relationships.
4. In Crusader for Democracy, you write “Throughout his life, White felt the greatest threat to American democracy came from uneducated, backward, shortsighted masses who were easily duped by smooth-talking demagogues.” How do you think he would respond to the election of President Trump?
I have no doubt that White would be appalled by the election of President Trump. White was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, so he certainly would have opposed Trump on ideological grounds. However, White always displayed the unusual ability to remain personally friends with people who he ideologically opposed. For example, White established close friendships with conservative presidents such as Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Ideology alone would not have caused White to reject Trump.
The fact is that White believed in institutions of various kinds. He believed in what he called “neighborliness,” by which he meant that all Americans ought to treat each other with the same care and consideration they would give their small-town next-door neighbor. White believed in civility even in politics. Once, he asked his newspaper editor friends to be gracious towards a duplicitous opponent he had defeated in a bare-knuckles political campaign. Most important of all is the fact that White religiously adhered to a lifelong code of political and personal honor that prized honesty, sincerity, sacrifice, civic-mindedness, integrity, intellectual curiosity, and visionary leadership. Even if White had loved Trump’s policies (and he would have hated them), White would have rejected Trump simply because he would not have been able to stomach Trump’s many moral, intellectual, and personal shortcomings.
I cannot imagine that White would or even could have remained a Republican in the age of Trump. The GOP is now Trump’s party, and at the moment there is no room in it for liberal Republicans like White. White would probably not have joined the Democrats, however. Most likely he would be an independent today, like millions of like-minded moderates who have been forced out of the GOP. I have no doubt that he would have used his gift for mass communication to help lead Americans away from Trumpism and towards the liberal Republicanism he advocated.
5. You illustrate how William Allen White was an outspoken progressive Republican. Can you speak to the similarities or differences between today’s GOP and the Republican party to which White belonged?
The Republican Party White knew was demographically comprised of middle-class Midwesterners, the Eastern business elite, and aspirational middle-class businessmen. The party was more ideologically diverse as well, consisting of strong liberal and conservative factions that each enjoyed periods of dominance. It’s also important to note that the Republican Party of White’s day was more centralized and institutional, which meant that a man like White who had worked in the party for a half-century could use his personal connections to exercise considerable sway.
Today’s Republican Party is very different. Demographically, the GOP rank and file is dominated by Southerners, the Rust Belt, and lower to middle class individuals who have suffered under globalization and fear America’s demographic trajectory. The wealthy business elite still controls much of party’s policy agenda, but there is always the danger that the populist fervor that drove the Trump campaign could be trained on them someday. The party’s ideology ranges from very conservative to hard-right, and liberal Republicans exist only in the history books. Today’s Republican Party is driven by charismatic personalities such as Trump, who are able to move the grassroots, and by the ultra-wealthy individuals who fund the GOP.
6. White is most well-known for his “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Considering his ideological shift from the time he wrote that, do you think William Allen White would find something wrong with Kansas in 2018?
Absolutely. White was very proud of the fact that Kansas was a leader in the Progressive movement. During White’s lifetime, the state enacted “direct democracy” reforms, it expanded its support for public higher education, it experimented with reforms designed to ensure that powerful corporations paid their fair share of taxes, it created a state Industrial Court that was arguably pro-worker at a time when other states were crushing workers, it enacted criminal justice reform designed to treat prisoners more humanely, it forced corporations to treat consumers more fairly, and it later embraced the New Deal.
If White were to write “What’s the Matter With Kansas” today, he would have plenty of examples to sustain a fiery critique. To mention only one, White would be appalled at the way that the state government has defunded public education while gutting its own tax base. The state government is presently in the midst of a pitched battle between its judicial branch, which has ruled that the state’s education spending plan has unconstitutionally gutted education, and politicians who reject both the court’s findings and their constitutional duty to provide a quality education. Meanwhile, Kansas was ranked #5 on United Van Lines’ ranking of states that people are fleeing in January 2018. If White were to write his famous editorial today, he would not hesitate to connect the dots between the fight over education and migration patterns, just as he made the connection between populism and Kansas’ stagnation during the 1890s.
7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?
I can think of a lot of people who need to read this book and who should, for the sake of the nation, learn to embrace William Allen White’s worldview, starting with Donald Trump. However, I can’t imagine that he or any other powerful political figure would actually change their ways for any reason, because they are all locked into the current political reality. I would want this book to be read by millions of ordinary folks, who I hope would be inspired by White’s concept of democracy and the way he went about making good on his dreams. I would hope they would see that we can have a democracy where everyone has the right to play the game of life, where everyone who works hard and follows the rules is entitled to a decent living, where every person is treated with the same dignity and respect we expect for ourselves, and where government works for all Americans rather than just the rich and powerful.
Is this a pipe dream? I don’t think so. White grew up in a reality where political machines, the wealthy, and corporations controlled American government at every level, from the lofty heights of Washington, DC to the city governments of America’s smallest towns. White and his progressive colleagues were a band of insurgents against that reality, and they eventually succeeded in making America more democratic after decades of fighting and striving and organizing and winning and sometimes losing. William Allen White had faith in change, but he also advised anyone who wanted reform “to persist; to keep vital; and to have faith that in the color of public sentiment no strong stain is lost.”
Charles Delgadillo is a lecturer in history at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and Norco College, in California.