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Dwight Macdonald

They, the People

(July 1938)

From New International, Vol. 4 No. 7, July 1938, pp. 209–211.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE CRISIS OF American capitalism has stimulated an extra-ordinary popular interest in politics. Nothing like it has been known since the, decade preceding the Civil War. College undergraduates desert the humanities for economics and sociology. Smoking car discussions veer away from baseball towards the New Deal. But the most striking symptom is the rise of a dozen newspaper columnists to nation-wide influence. There is nothing new about columnists. The “inspirational” column, where Dr. Frank Crane has been succeeded by Dale Carnegie; the gossip column, where O.O. Mclntyre yields to Walter Winchell; the political “inside stuff” column, such as Paul Mallon’s News Behind the News and the Pearson-Allen Washington Merry-Go-Round – these are long familiar types. But there is no precedent for the enormous popularity of the political oracle. Incredible as it may seem, not so long ago Dorothy Thompson was celebrated chiefly as the wife of Sinclair Lewis.

A rough gauge of a columnist’s influence is the number of newspapers to which his stuff is syndicated. At this moment, the ten leading political oracles are [1]:

Walter Lippmann





Dorothy Thompson





Frank R. Kent





Westbrook Pegler





David Lawrence





Hugh Johnson





Mark Sullivan





Raymond Clapper





Jay Franklin





Heywood Broun





Reading from left to right, politically: Broun, Franklin and Clapper are friendly to the New Deal; Johnson, Pegler, Lippmann and Thompson are New Deal baiters with more or less liberal vocabularies; while Sullivan, Kent and Lawrence are rabidly anti-Roosevelt. In the past year, the New Dealers have marked time at the bottom of the list, and the reactionaries have suffered heavy losses – in March, 1937, according to The New Republic, Lawrence had 150 papers, Kent 125, and Sullivan 70. The “centrists”, on the other hand, have flourished amazingly – in March 1937, Thompson appeared in only 75 papers, Pegler in only 86. This month I intend to confine myself to this currently dominant group.

* * *

Why this boom for the centrists? It is true that all four have been drifting rapidly to the right, and that this has by no means lessened their charm for the newspaper publisher. Reading their output today, one finds it hard to believe that in the 1936 presidential campaign, Pegler and Johnson were for Roosevelt, Thompson was neutral, and Lippmann’s belated declaration for Landon came as an unexpected bombshell in the liberal camp. But if reactionary comment was all the publishers wanted, Messrs. Sullivan, Kent and Lawrence could supply it far more effectively. There are subtler calculations in play here. After 1936, even the publishers realized that the New Deal can’t be beaten with a straight reactionary program. Shrewdly, they began to exploit a tradition of American journalism which had been allowed to lapse since the War: the conception of the “free press” as the Tribune of the People. They took the mantle dropped from the crusading editors and muckrakers of earlier generations and draped it about the shoulders of Walter Lippmann. The “people” for whom these tribunes have always spoken is not to be confused with the masses. Godkin and Steffens and Tarbell were the mouthpieces of the vast and heterogenous American middle class. They were as oblivious of the workers as their heirs of today are. But there is, just the same, a difference.

The older generations of tribunes really fought for the interests of the petty bourgeoisie they professed to represent. They seriously tried, with varying success, to limit the economic power of the big bourgeoisie and to contest its political supremacy. The function of the contemporary tribuni plebis is at once more modest and more complicated. Their job is to give the rank and file of the middle class the illusion that it has powerful spokesmen, without, however, actually endangering the status quo. As the crisis sharpens and the balance of class power trembles ever more precariously, this function becomes more essential – and more difficult. Fortunately, most of them have had long experience at greasing the gears of capitalism with democratic ideology. Lippmann’s progress from the New Republic to the World to the Herald Tribune is well known. As a foreign correspondent, Thompson’s liberalism was enough to get her expelled from Nazi Germany. Johnson’s career was made by his “chief”, Bernard Baruch, the good grey liberal of Wall Street and perennial fount of Democratic funds. Only Pegler lacks these advantages: he came straight from the sports page and, politically, is still virgo intacta. But he has played shrewdly on the common American, superstition that ignorance is a guarantee of impartiality.

* * *

Any one who still has any illusions about the Wages-and-Hours Bill should read General Johnson’s column of June 15. Excerpt: “As I read this new bill ... the only trouble is going to be on the question of North-South differentials ... As a matter of fact, the problem under this bill is not nearly so serious as it sounds. Most Southern Negro labor is either in agriculture or in purely local enterprise. Both are exempted from the bill. The starting minimum wage is so low – $11 a week – that it will cause no serious upset even in the South ... The country was clearly committed by overwhelming majorities to Federal wage-hour legislation and, according to recent polls, still heavily favors it ... I don’t know how it could have been a milder and more flexible measure without being just an empty gesture.”

* * *

Indignation is to the columnist as gasoline is to the internal combustion engine. The great majority of the month’s columns ran on this potent fuel. The most popular topic was the iniquity of the Administration’s attempt to defeat in the primaries certain hostile Democratic senators. To the layman, it might seem that the President has a right to oppose his opponents. “Formerly, in ordinary circumstances,” Johnson (June 6) admitted, “there was no moral reason why a President shouldn’t express his preference in a Congressional primary.” But the current campaigns against right-wing Democrats “are impersonal punishments of legislators for voting for their convictions”. In short, it is moral for a President to interfere in primaries to satisfy personal grudges, but immoral to act from political considerations. Various other crimes against humanity also received their meed of protest: the Wagner Act, the surplus profits tax, the anti-monopoly drive. The People’s Tribunes also found space to comment on the proposed diversion of the Yellowstone River (“Stop the “Vandals!” roared Johnson), the humors of amateur male cookery, and President Roosevelt’s vocabulary (which received a D minus). But there was one theme which was passed over in silence.

At the beginning of May, the cities of Ohio ran out of relief funds. In Cleveland alone, the NY Times (May 11) reported, 25,000 families “are facing the danger of starvation”. A week later, Chicago ran out of funds and shut down her relief stations, forcing 91,000 men, women and children to get along for two weeks on a handout of surplus vegetables with a retail value of 54 cents per person. As a final turn of the screw, the victims were the aged, the infirm, and the very young – the “unemployables”. (The employables were all on the iniquitous WPA, which didn’t break down.) Now here, the Man from Mars might say, with that naivete which makes him so useful, was a great opportunity for indignation. Yet none of the Tribunes of the People so much as mentioned the subject. For the benefit of the Man from Mars, there were three excellent reasons for their silence:

  1. relief recipients are not people;
  2. the breakdown was caused by the failure of state legislatures to appropriate sufficient funds (for the Martian’s further enlightenment, it should be explained that the columnists, on the highest moral grounds, think relief should be a local and not a Federal concern);
  3. what scanty rations the unemployables did get, came from the Surplus Commodities Corporation, doubly immoral because it is a New Deal agency and because it interferes with “the law of supply and demand”.

* * *

The apathy with which the columnists view the sufferings of the unemployed vanishes when they see the skillful use the New Deal is making of this misery. A terrible fear is haunting them at present: that the New Deal, through its control of relief funds, may be able to perpetuate itself forever. This fear became panic when Harry Hopkins made his indiscreet gesture in the Iowa primaries. Johnson (May 18) was cynical: “You can’t beat four billion dollars.” Lippmann (May 26) was philosophical: “Thus we are being instructed as to how, by control of the Treasury and of the national credit, a political machine perpetuates itself.” Thompson (May 27) contrived to be at once hysterical and didactic:

“Underlying all good democratic government are certain silent assumptions ... It is assumed that no party in power will so exploit its position as to make it almost impossible for any other party ever to come to power. For if these assumptions are violated, then it is theoretically possible for any political party to keep itself in office forever. And that condition means the end of democratic government.”

Pegler (May 31) speaks with unwonted seriousness:

“No man ever should have been given such vote-buying power, and the power should never be placed in any man’s hands again. That. money can never buy the people anything one-half so precious as what they are asked to sell.”

When Chicago’s relief funds gave out, each of its 91,000 unemployables was given the following weekly ration: ½ lb. rice, ½ lb. butter, ¼ lb. dried beans, 4 lbs. oranges, ½ lb. prunes, 1½ lbs. cabbage, and 1 stalk of celery. It would be interesting to see how precious Mr. Pegler would consider his vote after a week on this diet. Would he take a lamb chop for it – or would he hold out for a steak?

* * *

At the end of May, the NY Herald-Tribune’s two star columnists went away on vacations. Their valedictories were more revealing than was perhaps intended. Lippmann’s was mildly playful? It boiled down to:

  1. “The great fact of our time” is that “large portions of mankind are under the spell of men who seem to go to bed with their boots on” (i.e., dictators);
  2. this collective mania can’t be treated; it must be allowed to run its course;
  3. “The great issues which now embroil mankind ... are in the deepest sense insoluble in that they arise out of passionate differences about human values.”

From this infantile diagnosis of our social ills, Lippmann quite logically concludes that the disease is beyond any of his medicines. “It is exhausting,” he sighs, “to live perpetually on the grand scale of world history.” Dorothy Thompson’s leave-taking, in her most elaborately whimsical manner, was cast in the form of a breakfast table conversation with her celebrated husband (archly referred to as “The Grouse”). At great length, The Grouse explains to his wife (and to her 7,500,000 readers) the differences between socialism, communism, fascism and the New Deal in the “Let-us-suppose-you-have-two-cows” vein. (“The New Deal tells you that you should shoot one of the cows and pour the milk down the sink.”) After a good deal of such playfulness, The Grouse, perspiring and somewhat blown, arrives at The Point: “That’s why I say there isn’t any solution.” The similarity with Lippmann’s conclusion is striking and hardly accidental.

* * *

Pegler’s political line is simple: whatever organized society does is intolerable. (He has a corresponding distaste for organized thought – i.e., “theory”.) He can stomach savagery and corruption – as his well-known defense of lynching and his elegy on Al Capone as a victim of governmental persecution – but he is quick to protest any taint of legality. So long as Hague confined himself to beating up Reds and union men, Pegler was on his side. He devoted three full columns to arguing that Hague was just an overgrown boy, no worse than any political boss. But on June 8, Pegler announced with a considerable flourish:

“This is the day I eat a platter of crow. Frank Hague ... is as ruthless and dangerous as Huey Long at his worst.”

It seems that in arranging his “Americanism” parade, Hague had included 700 National Guardsmen in the line of march. This display of armed authority changed Pegler’s attitude overnight. The distinction between Hague’s police and Hague’s Guardsmen may seem academic. But Pegler is allergic to the National Guard – except, of course, in strikes.

* * *

Wishful thinking is an occupational disease of columnists which especially afflicts General Johnson. Thus on May 28 be reported, on the basis of a speech he had just made before the American Iron & Steel Institute, that in the steel industry, and in big business in general, “there is very little spirit of resistance to recent trends of government ... Gone also is much of the recent hate-Roosevelt fixation”. Someone should tell the General that the vice-president of the Steel Institute is named E.T. Weir, that the president is named Tom Girdler, and that at the same session at which the General spoke, President Girdler delivered an impassioned Philippic against the New Deal.

Even more remarkable is Johnson’s column of June 13, which abuses the Federal Trade Commission for reporting that the farm implement business is monopolistically controlled. “Although I left the industry twelve years ago,” writes Johnson, “I know it. I was a small manufacturer without a ‘full line’, but we found a way to compete most successfully ...” He neglects to mention that his company, the Moline Plow Co., competed so successfully that it went into bankruptcy, and that the Johnson crowd was widely known in Wall Street as “the Moline Wrecking Crew”.

* * *

Occasionally a Tribune of the People takes his role too seriously, and the publisher must exercize his legal right to kill that day’s column. (He buys the right to suppress as well as the right to print.) The Herald-Tribune pundits have never been guilty of such a lapse, but the Scripps-Howard oracles, politically and psychologically more unstable, sometimes require disciplining. When, in April, Johnson eulogized John L. Lewis, and when, in May, Pegler blasted Franco and the Catholic hierarchy, many Scripps-Howard papers omitted both columns. Here would seem to be matter for high indignation. Here were Regimentation and Dictatorship at their rankest! The reaction of both victims was, to their less sophisticated readers, incomprehensible. Less than a week after the outrage, Johnson wrote, in a column which was not suppressed:

“In the freedom of the American press which still prevails, and the liberalism of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, of which I am an exponent, I am permitted to say whatever I please.”

Pegler, the caustic enfant terrible of journalism, was even more abject. He devoted his columns of June 10 and 11 to proving that the American press is “the best in the world”. Admitting that perhaps the publishers don’t see eye to eye with their readers on the New Deal, Pegler suggests that it is “the task of the ... free press to criticize the party in power”. Everyone remembers the great newspaper campaigns against the Coolidge administration.

* * *

The columnists are ever vigilant to defend the interests of their middle-class readers against the politicians and dictators. But a strange lethargy overcomes them when the threat comes from big business. Not one of them last month had anything to say about such developments – directly touching the class interests of their supposed constituents – as

  1. the sensational looting of Continental Securities, in which some of the most respectable Wall Street firms were involved;
  2. the denunciation by a Federal Judge of Bethlehem Steel’s profits on wartime government contracts as “sinful” and “a racket”;
  3. the news that fourteen of the twenty-two big oil companies now waiting trial on Sherman Act charges have decided to pay maximum fines and costs rather than contest the suit.

* * *

Of the tribunate under the Roman Republic, the Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say: “From being an opposition weapon, it became an important wheel in the regular machine of state.” The Encyclopaedia further notes, of the founder of the Empire:

“Augustus showed the highest statesmanship in founding his power upon a metamorphosed tribunate rather than upon a metamorphosed dictatorship, upon traditions which were democratic rather than upon traditions which were patrician ...”


Editor’s Note



1. Table (except for Franklin) from article by Margaret Marshall in The Nation, Feb. 26, 1938.

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