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March 15-21, 2006

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Book

A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
At the turn of the last century, American politicians wrote their own speeches and delivered them, unamplified, at great length to enthralled crowds. None did it better than William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), Democrat, populist and three-time presidential candidate. Bryan made his oratorical bones at the 1896 Democratic convention when he excoriated the rich with his famous "Cross of Gold" speech and earned himself a run at the White House. Historian Michael Kazin makes a strong case for why Bryan's blend of piety and progressive politics laid the groundwork for the New Deal and remains appealing in an era where Joe Lieberman passes for a liberal. Certainly, some of Bryan's quotes resonate today: "There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them." So much for trickle-down economics. Equally compelling: "The question is not what we an do, but what we ought to do. This nation can do whatever it desires to do, but it must accept responsibility for what it does." And yet Bryan is now virtually forgotten. What happened? Most of all, Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken and, later, Inherit the Wind mocked him for his role in the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, in which he helped prosecute a school teacher who gave a lesson on evolution. Kazin points out that Bryan's enemy wasn't science but the ruthless application of social Darwinism to public policy. But the damage was done; he came out of the trial a laughingstock crucified on his own cross of biblical literalism. Even worse for his many worthy causes—including support for women's suffrage and opposition to American imperialism—was Bryan's inability to reach across the color line to embrace African Americans; Bryan wasn't a Ku Klux Klanner, but he endorsed the idea of white supremacy. Kazin stints on the economic issues (especially the free-silver vs. gold-standard controversy that gripped the country in the late 1800s), but he humanizes a significant American type: a true religious believer with a genuine core of moral values obscured by some glaring blind spots. (By Michael Kazin; Knopf; 374 pages; $30 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant


Book

Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career Of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler
William Jennings Bryan is practically Lincolnesque in the nation's memory compared to Nicholas Murray Butler, who was born in 1862 (two years after Bryan) and ran New York's Columbia University like a personal fiefdom for 44 years. And yet Murray, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, was once a world-famous, feted public intellectual who pontificated from the highest editorial platforms. In our time, when university presidents like Larry Summers of Harvard are driven from office by restive faculty and Robert Dynes of the UC system is called on the legislative carpet, it is hard to imagine how firm Butler's grasp was on Columbia and the higher-education establishment in the first half of the 20th century. Columbia professor Michael Rosenthal tries to soften Murray's flinty edges, but the reader's sympathy goes out to Murray's victims, including several distinguished professors who dared speak their minds and were summarily dismissed. Even students who satirized the president in print found themselves expelled. Murray, a quintessential plutocrat, believed that the corporation "represented all that was best in the American economic system," which made him the polar opposite of Bryan. Unfortunately, Butler was as much an anti-Semite as Bryan was a racist. The only tick on the ledger for Butler was his steadfast opposition to Prohibition, which Bryan championed. Otherwise, one enjoys a bit of guilty pleasure from learning that this public bully was himself bullied by his second wife, who wouldn't even allow his daughter from his first marriage to visit him at his house. (By Michael Rosenthal; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 528 pages; $35)
—Michael S. Gant



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