This isn't news, but a backgrounder. In the midst of the Palin Pile-On, a few commentators have said Sarah Palin quoted a noted racist and antisemite. The story is more complex. I give you Westbrook Pegler, the Rush Limbaugh of his era.
According to Time Magazine the quote from Sarah Palin's acceptance speech is : "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity". Though she was careful not to cite the original author, the subsequent provenance of this phrase is a tale unto itself. Here is a source document.
When Truman came into the Presidency, Pegler welcomed him "We grow good people in our towns, with honesty, sincerity and dignity" he wrote, but earlier, Pegler had told his readers the man from Missouri was someone to watch out for "This Truman", he wrote, when Harry was nominated for Vice President "is thin-lipped, a hater, and not above offering you his hand to yank you off balance and work you over with a chair leg, a pool cue or something out of his pocket."
Well innat sweet? I know a thing or three about small town people and I do not mince words. Small town people don't conform to Norman Rockwell clichés, though in fairness, Rockwell never condescended to his subjects.
People in small towns know each other far too well, an environment which does not lend itself to much honesty or sincerity. As for dignity, appearances are deceiving in small towns. It's much easier to be different in the city, gotta trust me on that one. Westbrook Pegler was from Minneapolis, not from a small town. He never lived in one and probably never saw one except through the window of a train car.
Most people have never heard of Westbrook Pegler, though he won a Pulitzer Prize. David Witwer writes of him in the Journal of American History
In late December 1941, the editors of Time announced, "Reader nominations for Time's Man of the Year are now closed. Latest tabulations showed President Roosevelt in front, Comrade Stalin second and Columnist Westbrook Pegler third." For those who still remember him, such an indication of Pegler's prominence might seem surprising. A self-described "professional dissenter," he built a journalistic career that stretched from the 1920s to the early 1960s by taking iconoclastic stands. In the 1950s and 1960s, as his conservative views became more extreme and his writing increasingly shrill, he earned the tag of "the stuck whistle of journalism." He denounced the civil rights movement, embraced anti-Semitism, and in the early 1960s wrote for the John Birch Society—until he proved too cantankerous for even its members. Those later years make it easy to fall into the mistake of dismissing him, but in 1941, as Time magazine's readers made clear, Pegler's long slide into decline remained in the future.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Pegler commanded respect and wielded great influence, a fact acknowledged by his friends and enemies alike. In an age when Americans were devoted readers, newspaper columnists exercised the kind of influence later reserved for radio shock jocks and television news shows. In a field of influential columnists in the 1930s and 1940s, Pegler stood out. In 1941 he became the first columnist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting. A year earlier the Saturday Evening Post described him as "undoubtedly one of the leading individual editorial forces in the country." A survey of five hundred editors of daily newspapers, conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism in 1942, ranked him the nation's "best adult columnist." In the early 1940s his columns went out six days a week to 174 newspapers that reached an estimated 10 million subscribers.
I give you The Lynching Story Pegler's most famous essay, defending a lynch mob. It containing his signature quote: I am a member of the rabble in good standing.
The whole piece is some of the most bilious cant I've ever read, and I have read (and written!) more than most. Here's a goodly chunk thereof.
Well, the city editor tells the fellow to get about a column of horror and indignation over the lynching, and he goes into the phone booth and comes out about a half-hour later with a mess of copy-paper all scratched up with chicken-track notes. He has nailed the president of the university, the head of the Bar association, a couple of publicity-crazy judges, the governor, the head man of the local crime committee, and several prominent ladies who go in for right-mindedness and good works in a grim way.
Then the editorial page cartoonist, if there is one, draws a picture of a robust female in a loose wrapper with her head bowed and a broken sword in one hand and an apothecary's scale, with the chains all tangled up, in the other. Or, if there isn't a cartoonist in the house, a drawing drops in by mail from the big syndicate. Now the storm of right-mindedness is gathered together in the forms, and a little while later it begins breaking over the community.
But all the time the two men who kidnapped the young fellow and took him out on a bridge, where they knocked him on the head with a concrete block and threw him into the water, are permanently dead. They did it, and they got theirs and however hard the storm of right-mindedness may blow up, one certain thing is that no lawyer is ever going to get them loose on a writ of habeas corpus or a writ of error based on the fact that some stenographer, in typing the indictment, hit a comma instead of a semicolon. Neither is any Len Small, come to the governor's office ten or fifteen years later, going to turn them loose in payment for some service which some hoodlum politician performed for him in the last election or might perform in the next. Not even Ma Ferguson, of Texas, can pardon a corpse.
The fine theory of all expressions of horror and indignation is that punishment is not supposed to be vengeance but a protective business, whereas the rabble, which constitutes by far the greatest element of the population want to make the murderer suffer as the victim or his family did. And, though they would be willing to let the Law do it for them if the Law could be relied upon, they know too well what lawyers will do when they get a chance to invoke a lot of legal technicalities which were written and passed by lawyers to provide lawyers with opportunities to make money.
I claim authority to speak for the rabble because I am a member of the rabble in good standing, and I claim to know how lawyers work because I have worked around the Courts in the newspaper business long enough to observe that there is never a criminal so vile but that his lawyer, under the pretext of obedience to his duty and by virtue of a lawyer's law enacted to help lawyers cheat other laws, will try to get him loose.
It is more likely Scully pulled the quote directly from Pat Buchanan's book "Right From the Beginning". Thus it is that we find the Hockey Mom's squeaky little voice uttering Peglerology in modern times. Or could it be that Matthew Scully was already in possession of a few dusty volumes of Pegler's trenchant and ciceronian columns? I have a few such dusty books myself.
I suspect Scully, at the ripe old age of 49, never read Pegler's philippics in the original. Scully would have been four years old when Pegler was fired from King Features Syndicate after losing a libel suit and biting the hand which fed him. Even the John Birch Society cast Pegler from their ranks for his raucous antisemitism. But William F. Buckley knew him pretty well. In his essay, Rabble Rouser, Buckley sums the man up precisely.
Pegler's brute vernacular was fuelled by a distrust of authority, but also by a lifelong sense of inferiority, probably tracing to a slight formal education. "All those educated men out there . . ." He handled his exclusion by ridicule, though here and there was wistfulness. Pegler knew—one could see—that he had been hasty and irresponsible in applauding, in 1933, the lynching of two (white) men in San Jose, California, accused of a brutal kidnap murder. They had been yanked out of jail by a mob and strung up. But Pegler's dalliance with self-reproach quickly became submerged in his defiant reflections on the intensity of the criticism that had been levelled at him: "All the coffee-room philosophers and shaggy thinkers of the butchers' paper magazines dusted off their big foreign words, and all the flat-heeled intellects of the female auxiliary came storming down the street heaving bricks of indignation and scorn." As usual, he mulcted any hypocrisy in sight: "The high note of their cry was the sanctity of the law, orderly procedure, and the disruptive force of lawless action, although most of them had been drunk often enough on illegal hooch during prohibition."
However soothed by his own rhetorical countercharge, he had clearly been hurt. And however his critics rejoiced at his setbacks, somehow Pegler-down-for-the-count, acknowledging obliquely the chastisement, managed to evoke compassion: "I was a long time combing the mortar and shattered bottle glass out of my hair, and I still wear some of the knobs they raised."
Pegler has been accused of being an antisemite. In the rough and tumble world of Depression-era journalism, Westbrook Pegler stood out. He is still found in the odd dewlaps and unwashed armpits of the Internet. It is therefore a surprising quote source. I can't imagine sitting down to write a generic speech for a modern political convention, rubbing my hands together and reaching into quotes.txt for a Peglerology. Yes, it used be a fairly common word, like Bushism or Dittohead. Pegler was always angry and often contradictory. Though his longsuffering wife was Jewish, an insult from a Jewish lawyer changed him instantly. Buckley writes of his transformation:
The two men met soon after the new President's Inauguration, in 1933. F.D.R. was princely. Cigarette holder aloft, he sought colloquialness with his visitor, and addressed him by a reasonable nickname. But it was one that Pegler had never heard from the lips of anyone else, family, schoolmates, or friends. Gesturing with his cigarette, the President had said, "Now look, West—"
"What was that, Frank?"
But Pegler was not yet a political opponent. Some years after his meeting in the White House, he would write of Eleanor Roosevelt that her column ("My Day") marked "another routine day in the life of one who is [only] stingily described as the 'most remarkable' and 'most energetic' woman of her time." She deserved more than that, Pegler insisted. "I think we can take the wraps off and call her the greatest American woman, because there is no other who works as hard or knows the lowdown truth about her people and the troubles in their hearts as well as she does."
That was 1938. His political leanings now crystallized. His opposition to Roosevelt's domestic policies, to the rise of militant labor unions, and to what he deemed duplicity in foreign policy took him over, and very soon scorn and derision absorbed him completely on the matter of both Roosevelts. Pegler was (understandably) aghast when, soon after Pearl Harbor, Mrs. Roosevelt opined that things would improve "if we were all drafted and told what to do." Only then, she explained, could we get "the maximum service out of our citizens," inasmuch as a higher authority would be there "to tell us where we can be most useful and where our work is needed." He descended on her as "La Boca Grande" (married to "Old Moosejaw"). There are ten boxes at Hoover of Pegleriana devoted to Mrs. Roosevelt and her husband, if they have not gone up in smoke.
Pegler's attacks on the European Fascists had been full-throated. On having news of Hitler's Kristallnacht persecution, he wrote a memorable parable on how the peoples of the world first destroyed all the Jews, and then continued the slaughter, killing off one another until "it ended with just two survivors, a man and an old woman in a tent. He was one-eighth freckled, that is to say, he had a few small freckles. She was of the pure, non-freckled strain. So one night she slugged him with an ax as he slept and fell dead from the poison he had put in her soup that evening. And the horses and the asses romped in the field, never again to be overburdened; deer walked in the open, unafraid of being shot by men; rabbits and birds took courage, cities mouldered and the world was purified of cruelty, dishonesty, truckling and greed."
After the war, in 1949, he spoke of having heard "the reptilian hiss of anti-Semitism," yet five years later, after he was humiliated at the hands of the lawyer Louis Nizer, anti-Semitism set in obsessively. Pegler had charged the journalist Quentin Reynolds with lying, with physical cowardice, and with immorality. Nizer, on behalf of Reynolds, had cross-examined Pegler remorselessly in a famous libel action that was later dramatized on Broadway. After deliberating for thirteen hours, the jury found against Pegler (who was certainly guilty) and hit him with the largest punitive damages ($175,000) in court history. Nizer was Jewish, and Pegler, who became obsessed with the case, interpreted what had happened as the Jewish world vs. Pegler.
But it was ever so: if Liberalism is cursed to discard the wisdom of the past, Conservatism is cursed to cling to to the past's evil and stupidity. Pegler is not a stuffed crocodile: words live on like land mines, waiting to detonate under the feet of the hapless traveler off the trodden path. That old scamp Pat Buchanan knew who he was quoting, and the younger scamp Scully knew better than to cite the original source.
But we must not be surprised, for Pat Buchanan was an able slime peddler, all on his own. Nobody could shovel the merde like Mr. Inside, and Scully obviously admires that tapeworm Buchanan. In time, future little Conservatives will grow up big and strong: nourished on the pithy epithets of Mr. Inside. I give you one such, for your edification, from the same book from whence the Pegler quote was pulled, Pat Buchanan's autobiography, Right from the Beginning.
"There were no politics to polarize us then, to magnify every slight. The 'negroes' of Washington had their public schools, restaurants, bars, movie houses, playgrounds and churches; and we had ours."
Liberals, at first glance, don't have a lock on intellectual or moral superiority. We are people of ideas and abstract justice. Often our causes are embodied in manifestly awful people like Rodney King. That's why Conservatives hate the ACLU so much: they can't see past the criminal to the underlying injustice meted out. Yes, we Liberals have occasionally been seen within arm's length of many sinister ministers in our time, discreetly shying away from their more obnoxious utterances, viz. Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Our saving grace is that in time, what once seemed radical becomes the norm. There are some pretty funny lawyer jokes in my own repertoire, but nobody can tell me, at any point in time, that a nation of laws could tolerate an extrajudicial execution. Matthew Scully is the latest in a long line of rabble rousers. Gustave le Bon wrote of them
As soon as a certain number of living beings are gathered together, whether they be animals or men, they place themselves instinctively under the authority of a chief.
In the case of human crowds the chief is often nothing more than a ringleader or agitator, but as such he plays a considerable part. His will is the nucleus around which the opinions of the crowd are grouped and attain to identity. He constitutes the first element towards the organization of heterogeneous crowds, and paves the way for their organization in sects; in the meantime he directs them. A crowd is a servile flock that is incapable of ever doing without a master.
The leader has most often started as one of the led. He has himself been hypnotised by the idea, whose apostle he has since become. It has taken possession of him to such a degree that everything outside it vanishes, and that every contrary opinion appears to him an error or a superstition. An example in point is Robespierre, hypnotised by the philosophical ideas of Rousseau, and employing the methods of the Inquisition to propagate them.
The leaders we speak of are more frequently men of action than thinkers. They are not gifted with keen foresight, nor could they be, as this quality generally conduces to doubt and inactivity.
They are especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness. However absurd may be the idea they uphold or the goal they pursue, their convictions are so strong that all reasoning is lost upon them. Contempt and persecution do not affect them, or only serve to excite them the more. They sacrifice their personal interest, their family -- everything. The very instinct of self-preservation is entirely obliterated in them, and so much so that often the only recompense they solicit is that of martyrdom. The intensity of their faith gives great power of suggestion to their words. The multitude is always ready to listen to the strong-willed man, who knows how to impose himself upon it. Men gathered in a crowd lose all force of will, and turn instinctively to the person who possesses the quality they lack.
Nations have never lacked leaders, but all of the latter have by no means been animated by those strong convictions proper to apostles. These leaders are often subtle rhetoricians, seeking only their own personal interest, and endeavoring to persuade by flattering base instincts. The influence they can assert in this manner may be very great, but it is always ephemeral. The men of ardent convictions who have stirred the soul of crowds, the Peter the Hermits, the Luthers, the Savonarolas, the men of the French Revolution, have only exercised their fascination after having been themselves fascinated first of all by a creed.
They are then able to call up in the souls of their fellows that formidable force known as faith, which renders a man the absolute slave of his dream.
Buckley writes of Pegler's passing:
That same year, Kempton wrote extensively, in The New Republic, about Pegler's odd integrity, pausing to recall that for young journalists "to have met Westbrook Pegler was to have been surprised at how gentle he was, and how glad to see you."
So it must have been, Kempton went on to reflect, for Tristan, of the Round Table, who "I suppose would have been like that when he met young men in the fit of first love and swearing that they would live no other way." But then they "would go off" and lose the muse that once guided them, "and Tristan would sit there, still held by that old potion, and he would hate them and quite properly too." What Kempton was saying was that a stubborn fidelity for his craft set Pegler apart, and that his art was there, is there, for those he wrote for, or who are still curious.
Kempton added a "postscriptum" to his New Republic essay:
"[As Acton said,] there is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. Just to have learned that much and to have been given a fanatic heart are all you need to get through life. Yet Peg, more than anyone I ever knew, had that knowledge and that heart; and those of us who cherished him, not just as a writer but as a person, are thought to be whimsical when we say so, and the young are warned against going his road. I am sorry. The only argument against Peg's road is its risks, and you affront the young—or ought to—when you advise them against risks."
I [Buckley] came on Kempton at a memorial service for Pegler at an uptown church. The readings from the Gospel were spare, and the worshippers sparer still. The contrast was very sharp with the High Mass funeral for his wife Julie, in 1955, the church crowded with mourners, the organ in full cry as, after the service, Pegler strode, alone, down the aisle to the street with the mien of a Roman senator, deep in grief, proud and resolute in expression.
I drove downtown with Kempton, who drew on his pipe and said, "I knew Peg must have been very sick. I got a seven-page letter from him . . . without a single mention of Ben Gurion!" Pegler would have laughed, as we did. He was long since gone, his burial something of an afterthought, but our grief was real.
Westbrook Pegler was the Slave of the Dream. The dream betrayed him, as dreams betray all whose greatness comes at the expense of others' dreams, such as FDR and Dr. Martin Luther King's dreams. Westbrook Pegler should stand as a curse and a byword for Conservativsm gone amok. In his heyday, Pegler, like many another jackass of his sort, enjoyed a considerable degree of notoriety. But rants of his sort are more akin to world records: the poor athlete must go on breaking them to stay relevant. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and even Keith Olbermann must froth and rant ever the louder, day by day, until at last like old broken opera singers, they squawk their last and are put out to pasture. Westbrook Pegler was publicly and ignominiously fired.
Those who indulge in vitriol must remember the problem of the etcher. Leave the acid on the plate too long and the print goes dark. Pegler came to a very bad end, for his greatness was always at someone else's expense. He was a sordid little scribbler, but his words live on in disgusting little nooks and crannies, handed on from hand to hand, zesty little zingers. Those who are enslaved to the dream cannot be woken. Facts don't take sides. Truth isn't partisan. But words, words live on and on, and Sarah Palin has summoned the wrathful, spiteful ghost of a mighty wordsmith. She has gotten more than she bargained for, the fool. Those who summon the Slave of the Dream become slaves themselves.