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Paradise Shot to Hell: The Westbrook Pegler Story

What kind of times do we live in when syndicated radio host G. Gordon Liddy can “neutrally” remind listeners to shoot for the head when targeting federal agents? Times pretty similar to the heyday of Westbook Pegler, the It Boy of attack journalists, now a tragic and largely forgotten figure. “The angry man of the press,” as he was known in his midcentury prime, Pegler was one of the most widely read newspaper columnists in the country. From the Depression through the Cold War, he tilted at suspects familiar to Rush Limbaugh’s fans: foreign subversives, swindling politicians, the First Lady, corrupt union bosses, the elite, the effete, and, of course, homosexuals. For guys like Pegler and Liddy, These Days are always understood to be After the Fall: This used to be a damn good country until “they” made a hash of it.

Pegler wielded his well-sharpened prose like a knife in a street fight. He was the kind of writer who could cheer on a lynch mob (as he actually did in 1936; he sincerely believed the victims had it coming) or exhort solid citizens to join strikebreakers “in the praiseworthy pastime of batting the brains out of pickets.” In his lighter moods, Pegler refined his homophobic invective on minor targets such as the literary critic Clifton Fadiman – “the bull butterfly of the literary teas” – and then, more encouraged by the wounds such words inflicted than any particular dislike for homosexuality, he turned his anti-gay guns on bigger game, “outing” Woodrow Wilson and Frank Sinatra. (When Sinatra sought out Pegler to give him a beating, the singer brought Orson Welles as a witness. Pegler made a getaway, but he retaliated in print by praising Welles as a “Dear, roguish boy [whose] whole nature seems to chitter and cheep in the language of the elves.”)

He understood his job as a kind of combat.

Light moods were uncharacteristic of Pegler, though; more often he aimed to maim, even to kill. He channeled hatred so pure that more than one colleague blamed the death of Heywood Broun, his liberal contemporary and ex-friend, on a column in which Pegler named Broun a liar. And Broun got off easy. In 1965, Pegler wished of Robert Kennedy that “some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.” By the time he called the hit on RFK, Pegler had declined in unhinged dotage, bitter and banished from respectable journalism by his own cussedness, and quickly alienating even his friends on the far right with his unabashed anti-Semitism.

So what would prompt an old lefty like Murray Kempton to write, upon Pegler’s departure from the mainstream press in 1962, that “he goes with honor as he has lived with honor,” and that “he was true to us at the end, truer than we are to ourselves”?

Perhaps Kempton was feeling nostalgic for what was even then a dying breed of journalist: the tradesman, the uneducated skeptic, the worker whose product was prose. In his prime, Pegler was that and more: He understood his job as a kind of combat, and he recognized his enemies as power and authority. Unlike Limbaugh, a self-styled entertainer who wouldn’t dream of biting the hand that feeds him, Pegler not only bayed at the amorphous, alien forces of moral disorder, but often enough turned on his masters themselves. That’s why Pegler is worth recalling even now – not for the substance of his anger, but for its quality, the rage that drove him to swing again and again at anyone he thought had it in for the common man.

Pegler’s common man was the beleaguered man in the middle, getting it from both sides. His columns plied a deluded nostalgia for a golden age of small-r republicanism he believed had passed in America, a time when every many made his own way, when “government” meant the military, and pampered rich men were a European disgrace. So Pegler bellowed to throw out the crooked union bosses, and the unions too; throw out the politicians and the tax men and the luxuries their collections paid for; throw out the immigrants; throw out the New Deal and bring back the Old, and the golden age would be ours again. In 1938 Pegler elaborated this notion on the front page of the New York World-Telegram, where his column occupied the space usually reserved for breaking news stories. In a rant titled “Those Were the Days” (curiously presaging the theme song of Norman Lear’s All in the Family) Pegler demanded, “Next time Mr. Roosevelt or Honest Hal Ickes, the House Dick of the New Deal …or any of those honorary proletarians who swing towels in that corner of the ring sound off in disrespect of the Old Deal I would appreciate it if somebody would refresh my memory on just what was wrong with it.” In Pegler’s world, the years before the Crash had been good not just for the rich, but for regular folks too:

Wasn’t that the time when they were sticking up tall buildings in all the big towns? And building swell new suburbs and kicking out new cars by the millions, including some which retailed for around $6,000 and, what’s more, selling them? Wasn’t everybody working who could or would work?….[W]eren’t ordinary, forgotten men able to fish up the price of $25 seats [for the fights] a couple of times a year?…

Yes, I know, the bankers and speculators and hustlers shoved us a lot of wallpaper stocks and bonds, and everybody was knocked in the creek when the wagon threw a wheel. But you wait and see what happens to Morgenthau’s Mavourneens one of these days and then tell me whether and if so why, it’s any more fun to be rooked by a political party and a lot of wabble-wits stuck away in offices in Washington than by a banker . . . .

I just don’t know, neighbor. For a long time when I would hear them say Old Deal in that curl-of-the-lip way I went along, too, feeling that, yes, it certainly was terrible, but let me ask you this: How were you doing back in those terrible days, and if this New Deal is going to be so swell when are those boys going to get through that long windup and let us see what they have got on the ball?

That’s Westbrook Pegler in top form: sitting in the populist bully pulpit, trumpeting that cause of the corporate elite on behalf of the commoners. Not that he thought of it that way. Long before most Americans, rich and poor, began to fancy themselves members of the middle class, Pegler was the real deal; he embodied its contradictions and felt its bruised vanity. Pegler truly believed in his lost republic. Caught in the disorder of the Depression, he lashed out to vindicate the dispossessed man in the middle, the guy who resented the freeloaders and always feared getting played for a chump by his betters.

Pegler was born to hate. His father, a liar, a brawler, and a drunk to whom Pegler remained devoted throughout his life, loathed the rich just as Westbrook would – even as both eventually prospered as well-paid laborers for William Randolph Hearst. Arthur Pegler was credited by some as the originator of the “Hearst style,” a populist tongue of blood and cliché, expressive of the sentiments of working people but emptied of any real political content. A British immigrant, the elder Pegler came of age as a member of the Boomers, a hard drinking, wandering generation of journalists known for their inventive writing and their hatred of their own bosses and managers. In later years, Arthur Pegler turned against even Hearst himself, writing (still in Hearst style) that Hearst papers most resembled a “screaming whore running down the street with her throat cut.”

Such spectacles appealed to readers unsatisfied with the self-righteous new “objective” style of upper-middle-class papers like the New York Times, which, with its claim to depersonalized reality, presented itself as omniscient and unquestionable. Hearst, on the other hand, offered spicy treats, news to consume, stories that offered visceral sensation in place of critical perspective. Both approaches operated like machines built to produce particular political results, but at least yellow journalism served up some sauce along with its propaganda.

Pegler père spent much of his career in Chicago, home to one of America’s finest political machines, and he worked hard to keep its gears well oiled. Westbrook loved his dad, and from an early age, he dreamed of taking up the same trade. He got his chance at the 1912 Republican convention in Chicago, where his career was born in a burst of disillusionment. That was the place and time, he later remarked, that America “began to go to smash.”

The nineteen-year-old Pegler saw the convention as a gallery of the grotesque. Incumbent William Howard Taft’s three-hundred-plus pounds symbolized to him the gluttony of a Republican Party gone rotten, and Teddy Roosevelt, whom Pegler had long admired for the way he stood up to Wall Street, revoked his promise not to run again for no other reason Pegler could discern than vanity and feverish hunger for power.

“Run that copy downstairs, or I will kill you.”

“We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” TR roared, and the crowd, exhilarated by TR’s “New Nationalism,” screamed back in what Pegler deemed blind ecstasy. Meanwhile, Taft’s “Regular” faction greased their man’s path to victory. In response TR stormed out to stage his own convention just down the street. In the months that followed, TR was shot (he survived and resumed campaigning that very day with the bullet still lodged in his chest); he decided that big business wasn’t so bad after all when faced with the loss of financing from J.P. Morgan; and Taft, paralyzed by the Republican split, stayed silent. As a result Democrat Woodrow Wilson claimed the White House on a platform Pegler thought combined the worst elements of both his opponents’ business appeasement and popular grandstanding.

To top it all off, the 1912 convention afforded Pegler an introduction to the Hearst empire’s ace hack – an episode Pegler never forgot. He was standing around on the convention floor, he late recalled, when

A big man with a brow like the belly of a medicine ball ripped off a few sheets of copy and, without looking up, handed them to me saying, “Boy, copy.” I was a boy, but no longer a copy-boy. I was a leg man, and I tossed it back at him, saying, “Run it down yourself, I am a reporter.” The Hearst super nearly died, and said, “Run that copy downstairs, or I will kill you.” That is Brisbane.

As in Arthur Brisbane, the jingoistic crook whose one-sentence paragraphs Hearst himself quoted when he wanted to say something he thought was profound. If Arthur Pegler invented the Hearst style, Brisbane was its master exploiter, using his front-page column to promote real estate schemes – just the kind of greed that Pegler could neither stomach nor ever stay altogether clear of.

If that was the moment that the United States went to smash, you might say Pegler tumbled right after. He was disposed to cheer for TR despite his misgivings, until his father explained to him that politics – and journalism – wasn’t about who should win, but who would win. And when Pegler moved from politics to police court later that year, he remembered the lesson. Surveying the petty thieves, prostitutes, and down-and-outers who made up the court’s clientele, Pegler saw people without power who, to his way of thinking, didn’t help themselves any by breaking the law. When it came to role models, Pegler looked to “the hamhanded sergeant of the Harrison Street station,” a cop who set things right with his fists. As Pegler’s biographer Oliver Pilat wrote, 1912 was when Pegler recognized that “there were two layers of people in the world, the weak and the strong; he sympathized with the weak, but he lined up with the strong.”

Pegler spent the next several years bouncing from one newspaper job to another, in Des Moines, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver, and New York. He traveled to Europe to cover the First World War. But with his awkward social graces, he managed to offend every officer and editor necessary to get him booted out of the press corps. War wasn’t really a good topic for him anyway; his nationalism blunted his cynicism, without which he wrote like a blind man. Back in the States, though, he found a natural – and lucrative – journalistic niche at the ball park and beside the boxing ring.

Pegler had never been an athlete himself, aside from a few clumsy attempts at boxing, so perhaps it was his distance from the experience that allowed him to approach it with his eye on the cash register instead of the ball. He wrote that he wanted to deglamorize sports, “in rebuke to grubby box-office mercenaries.” And he began turning out original stories, written for fans who felt they were getting ripped off. Readers looked to his byline as much for his skepticism as for the scores. His editors took notice, and put him on a steady schedule of raises. Pegler was getting rich.

As he joined the class he’d spent his youth loathing, Pegler continued to sharpen his knives. By 1929, Pegler was making $25,000 a year. In 1932, Hearst himself came courting, but Pegler was sitting so pretty he could afford to turn down an invitation to San Simeon to discuss contracts with the Old Man. Instead, he made a bigger move, from the sports section to the front page of the flagship Scripps-Howard paper, the New York World-Telegram. For $75,000, Pegler was to share Page One with Heywood Broun, each allowed to comment however he pleased on the passing scene. Broun’s “It Seems to Me” was a space for liberal (and soon to be socialist) manifestos. Pegler’s “Fair Enough,” though, was a mystery. Pegler didn’t seem to have any politics; all he had was rage.

In his second column, Pegler declared that “my hates always occupied my mind much more actively than my friendship…[and] the wish to favor a friend is not so active as the instinct to annoy some person or institution I detest.” Mob bosses were a sort he particularly hated, especially when such men also happened to head up unions. Although Pegler eventually came to see all unions as octopi strangling his common men with dues that went directly into their leader’s bank accounts, he did pause a few times in his decades-long union-bashing rant to expose real corruption in his column. At least two well-deserved jail terms can be attributed to “Fair Enough.”

Pegler carried on his campaigns in the name of one particular “little guy” known as George Spelvin, American. “Spelvin” was the state name an actuator used at the time when, in addition to his main role, he doubled in a small part. The Spelvins of the world were servants, butlers, messengers, clerks, men-on-the-street, and passersby. Pegler’s Spelvin, though, was an early Archie Bunker. Union men, uppity women, swells, bubbleheads, and eventually foreigners, blacks, and Jews all gave Spelvin a stomachache.

In 1942, Spelvin went looking for a job because “Mrs. R.” (Roosevelt) had “said she thought everyone should be ordered what to do by the government” and her orders were to fit into the war effort anywhere you can. Turns out, though, there were no more jobs in America that didn’t require a union card, and “Bigod nobody is going to make him join anything whether it is the Elks or the Moose or the Mice or the Muskrats or whatever. It is the principle of the thing with George, and moreover, being a native American and a veteran of the last war, he has a rather narrow prejudice against being ordered around by guys who talk like they just got off the boat.”

The next day Pegler was banished from mainstream journalism forever.

Pegler’s problem was that it was always the principle of the thing. He adored making stands where it was one man against the mob or the masses, and bigod, he’d go down swinging. And so he did, again and again, picking losing fights at every turn. His audience loved him for it. But Pegler failed to grasp that his readers appreciated his rants because they offered a momentary respite from the trials of their daily lives. They may have liked to hear him rail against Roosevelt’s riches, but they never abandoned FDR. Pegler voiced their doubts and, in his inability to grasp the complexities of the world that shifted around him, also dissipated them. “By his own standards, he was incorruptible, honorable, and sincere,” commented his biographer Pilat. “But sincerity is only an effort to gauge reality and conform to it, and his tools for that effort were inadequate.” Pegler could evoke phantasms and fantasies similar to the ones that captivate countless talk radio buffs today, but when the stories were over, his readers went back to Roosevelt, unions, taxes, and the modern world – what looked to most like the only deal around.

Pegler’s hatred was pure, but it wasn’t enough to save him. In the end, the contradictions of what he believed was a classless society buried him even as they made him a wealthy man. Class was Pegler’s bogeyman: even as it determined his world he refused to believe in it or to name it, calling it instead “the bosses,” then “the unions,” and finally “the Communists” he seemed to see everywhere in his old age.

By then he’d gone over to Hearst and beyond. In 1943, the National Maritime Union had put a thousand pickets around the World-Telegram to protest a column he’d written about what he considered the royal wages of union seamen. The paper’s publisher, Roy Howard, decided Pegler had to go. Pegler agreed; he’d recently received another offer from Hearst, and despite his longstanding personal affection for Howard, he relished the jump in pay and readers. Newsweek estimated that the new job would give him access to ten million loyalists; Hearst salesmen quadrupled the figure.

But Pegler remained, in Murray Kempton’s words, “the man who hated publishers,” and in the end he couldn’t spare Hearst his scorn. After two decades of selling Citizen Kane’s papers with a column that increasingly resembled a blast furnace; after turning against the Newspaper Guild, the one union to which he’d held a little bit of loyalty; after abandoning the religious tolerance of his youth in favor or ever more obvious and loathsome anti-Semitism (international bankers and “prophets” came to be staple fare); after staking Joe McCarthy to a run with relentless good press and watching him tire on the rail, Pegler cam around at last to the original enemy, the boss.

When Pegler was a younger man, the boss of bosses had been Hearst Senior himself – in Pegler’s words at the time, “the leading American Fascist.” By 1962, almost two decades into the Cold War, Pegler allowed himself to praise Old Man Hearst as a “great founding genius.” The problem now was his son, W.R. Hearst Jr. Before the thirty-five hundred members of the Anti-Communist Christian Crusade in Tulsa, in a speech warning of a new “coercion” that ruled the press, Pegler excoriated the younger Hearst for lacking “character, ability, loyalty and principle.”

No doubt Hearst did. But he shared his father’s intolerance of dissent, and the next day Pegler was banished from mainstream journalism forever. By then, he may not have cared, for he had observed throughout the Fifties the degeneration of the newspaper columnist’s craft into assembly-line production of “packaged goods” designed by the publisher. Pegler had discovered that newspapers were becoming indistinguishable from other branches of the entertainment industry. His own employer, King Features, was, as he described it to the audience in Tulsa, “a subdivision of the Hearst empire dealing in comic books, comic strip books, sweet powders to make soda pop, toys, and a very ingenious variety of dingbats for the immature.”

Pegler liked to say again and again that he was no egghead (he barely finished high school), but at times there’s a strange subtlety to his beliefs that almost resembles the ideas of the German-Jewish leftist philosopher Theodor Adorno. A refugee from the Third Reich, Adorno understood better than most that a million fans can be wrong. In “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” an essay co-written with Max Horkheimer and published in 1944, Adorno observed that “culture now impresses the same stamp on everything….Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system….Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of the artificial framework begin to show through.”

Pegler could have written that passage, though he would have done so in the purple prose of alliteration and anger. Unlike the demagogues of today’s backlash, who rail against cultural elites even as they lend aid and comfort to Republican revolutionists, Pegler was his own man. He understood that the politics of corruption and power lust, practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike, dulled people to independent thinking, made them susceptible to slogans and contented with “color-press pictures of pretty models in glove-tight swimming suits in the ads.” For Pegler’s part, that was reason enough to hate the bosses, whoever they were.

By the time he was blacklisted, Pegler had already exiled himself, setting up a private retreat in the desert outside Tucson. From there he cultivated a revolving roster of rich men with far-right views who adopted Pegler for various dubious journalistic endeavors. But not even crackpot rags like the John Birch Society’s American Opinion could contain Pegler’s obsession: Its editor finally ended the relationship, complaining of the “monotony of Pegler’s articles” about the twin demons, Eleanor and Earl (Roosevelt and Warren). His next employer, a conservative business monthly called the Toledo Monitor, begged him to lay off “1) New Deal & Roosevelts; 2) Kennedys; 3) Jews.” Not long after he lost one of his last jobs, his beloved wife died. Although Pegler married twice again, from there on out he was alone, and his loneliness made him even meaner. He fought his distant desert neighbors over the howling of their dogs. He brawled in the street of Tucson. Much of what he wrote was no longer publishable, but he sat in his empty, pure, American landscape pounding out more and more of it, trying to get at the monster he couldn’t name.

In 1966, when the New York Herald Tribune, World –Telegram, and Journal American all died, Pegler wrote to Kempton, one of his last friends: “If you have a spare half hour, please write what happened to our world. Peg.”

Three years later, Pegler died, too, without ever realizing what had happened to the once-dazzling cosmos of journalism in which his uncompromising columns had shone. The masters he willingly served (even as he thought he fought them) had killed it. He had helped.

Pegler went to his death a true believer in his own virtue, broken and uncomprehending. His life epitomized the conservative backlash of the Cold War – a tragedy made in no small part by by real adversity and fear. That grim episode has passed, but the spirit of Pegler has returned as a faux-populist puppet show, with the “common people” reduced to one of Rush’s props. When Pegler was busy raging against fat cats and fascists, and holding forth on the unbearable arrogance of power, he hit some nice notes. Those columns still offer an insight for both readers and reporters: the civic virtues of well-tuned fury.