Contra Conventional Wisdom


A couple of interesting pieces today from Real Clear Politics.

First, David Broder in the Washington Post argues that we may be seeing a political comeback from George W. Bush. Over his long career, Broder has been the first to identify many changes in the political tides. Has he done it again? Read his column, and keep it in mind as events unfold over the next several months.

Second, historian Michael Kazin makes the point that this is not the earliest start of a presidential campaign ever. On the contrary, William Jennings Bryan began his 1900 campaign almost immediately after losing to William McKinley in 1896. Kazin is a left-leaning scholar who recently produced what looks like a very interesting book on Bryan, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan.

I haven't read it but look forward to doing so. I gather that his argument is that Bryan, far from being a backward-looking yokel, was in fact an early advocate of what became American liberalism. Bryan's image has long been shaped by H.L. Mencken's portrayal of Bryan's role in the Scopes trial of 1925 as a fundamentalist religious bigot. But, as I gather Kazin argues, Bryan's religious beliefs were sincere and not extreme, and they provided a basis for his views on public policy. This view coincides with my own understanding of Bryan–and of Mencken. Mencken was an old-fashioned Jeffersonian Democrat who believed in limited government and toleration of regional mores–segregation in the South and the saloon in the North. Mencken was very much a Baltimore man, and the Maryland of the 1920s had laws imposing racial segregation on the Eastern Shore and a policy of tolerating speak-easies in Baltimore. His favorite candidate for president was Maryland's Gov. Albert Ritchie.

Mencken was taken to be a force for social liberalism and toleration in the 1920s. But in the 1930s, he vitriolically opposed Franklin Roosevelt (Roosevelt Minor to him) and the New Deal. Bryan, in contrast, would probably have approved of most of the New Deal.