A Mention of Pegler!
A cartoon from the 1940s pictures a formal dance party torn about by tuxedoed men yelling at each other, with a woman sitting in the center of the image saying, “All I did was mention Pegler!” She was referring to Westbrook Pegler, a syndicated newspaper columnist whose career stretched from 1934 until his retirement in 1962.
Controversial, even notorious, in his day, he had slipped into obscurity in the decades following his death in 1969. So much so that in 2004 William F. Buckley wrote a piece about him in the New Yorker hoping future generations would rediscover Pegler’s writing and appreciate his role as an iconoclast commentator with a firmly populist perspective. Buckley quoted approvingly an assessment offered by the liberal columnist Murray Kempton, who described Pegler as “the common man with a grievance . . . one of the American workingmen who have heroically and stubbornly struggled to remain class conscious.” The son of a journalist whose meager wages had barely been enough to provide for his family, Pegler achieved great financial and professional success in his career as a journalist. But, as Buckley pointed out, his columns featured a populist message closely tied to the years of struggle Pegler had known. “I claim authority to speak for the rabble because I am a member of the rabble in good standing” was Pegler’s own distillation of this point.
But, appropriately enough, Buckley’s article marked the beginning of a new postmortem chapter in the history of Pegler’s controversial career. Diane McWhorter fired back a response to the New Yorker article, calling it a “furry postmodern rehabilitation” that “floats a defense of Pegler while burying the charges against him.” In contrast to Buckley, McWhorter described Pegler in the 1930s and 1940s as a “leading popularizer of one of the most concerted antidemocratic crusades in this country’s history: the vicious backlash against the New Deal and the labor movement to which it gave legal protection.” Four years later, when Sarah Palin used an unattributed quote from Pegler in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, commentators invoked an even stronger term to denounce the columnist. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. referred to the “fascist writer Westbrook Pegler, an avowed racist.”
While all of this was going on, I was finishing a book on Pegler’s role in exposing a major union corruption scandal in 1939 and 1940. I had spent years patiently explaining who he was to people who asked about my work and who had never heard of him. I would assure them that in his day he played a prominent role, one similar to the current best known radio or cable TV commentators. Most people looked unconvinced; they assumed this was just another case of scholarly obscurantism. Then, suddenly, he was back in the news again, occupying contentious space as in his heyday in the late 1930s and early 1940s.