By David Witwer
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.
In his popular newspaper columns, Pegler managed to combine an unsurpassed gift for invective, a populist crusading zeal, and occasionally a willingness to look at issues from a fresh and honest perspective. He was then still very much a working journalist who proudly did his own legwork and zealously followed up the tips he received. In 1939, these characteristics helped him uncover the mob ties of two officials high in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, one of the most important unions in Hollywood. It would later come out in federal court that the Chicago mob had used the two officials, William Bioff and George Browne, to siphon millions of dollars from its membership. Before the mob had installed Bioff in his union position, he had done various kinds of strong-arm work, including managing a brothel. Pegler discovered that although he had been convicted of pandering back in 1922, Bioff had never actually served out his sentence. A few months later, Pegler unmasked George Scalise, the president of the Building Service Employees’ International Union, revealing the man’s previous conviction on a white slavery charge and then exposing his links to the New York mafia. Both Scalise and Bioff were nothing more than pimps, Pegler claimed. “They got their training for the post of bargaining agent [in unions] by serving as such for prostitutes,” he wrote.
He made the most of these stories, arguing that they revealed a larger problem with corruption in the labor movement. Overlooking the role of the employers who had actively promoted the careers of Scalise, Bioff, and Browne, the columnist focused his criticism on the leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), charging its president, William Green, with being complacent in the face of growing corruption in the affiliated labor organizations. Pegler’s column on January 19, 1940, took the form of an open letter to President Green. Asserting that the cases of Scalise, Bioff, and Browne were no more than the tip of the iceberg, Pegler charged, “The roster of officials” in the AFL “contained the nucleus for a good, major league rogue’s gallery.” Addressing Green directly, Pegler continued, ”I can’t see how you can fail to know what he [Scalise] is or, if you do know what he is, why you haven’t had him thrown out of the American Federation of Labor. Do you think it is doing the American Federation of Labor any good to permit such a man to be president of one of your big international unions or doing the rank and file working stiffs any good to subject them to the rule of a vicious mobster?”
Pegler used his columns to emphasize the plight of the working stiffs enrolled in such unions, but unable to protect their own interests. He juxtaposed the luxurious lifestyle of Scalise with the janitors and cleaning women who made up the bulk of the membership of the Building Service Employees’ International Union. Scalise’s salary of $20,000 a year, his unlimited expense account, and the fact that he had never labored in the trade his union represented were contrasted with the working lives of the membership. “Greetings,” Pegler opened one column, addressing those union members directly. “Your honored international president, George Scalise, who learned the trade of bargaining agent in the same school that was patronized by Willie Bioff, the dictator of the amusement craft unions, which is to say as bargaining agent for prostitutes, has recently bought a country mansion far from the crowded slums in which most of you live.” “Many of you,” he continued, “—that is the chambermaids among you—are caring for upward of 20 rooms every day in hotels ranging in character from mediocre to bad, for wages of $14 a week, and $20 a week is considered to be good pay for the most prosperous of you. Out of this you pay your initiation fees and dues, plus occasional fines for such offenses as speaking disrespectfully of your union officers.”
American Federation of Labor President Green and other union leaders responded defensively. They cited the AFL’s constitution, which made unions, such as the Building Service Employees’ International, autonomous bodies and limited the ability of federation leaders to interfere. It was up to the union members to exercise their democratic rights, Green explained, and oust those officials who had betrayed their trust.
Pegler derided this response as disingenuous and indicative of the AFL leadership’s unwillingness to address the problem of union corruption. “I may be naïve,” Pegler wrote, “but if I were president of the A.F. of L. I would find somewhere in the [AFL] Constitution legal authority to disown and throw out of the movement not only Willie Bioff and George Scalise, the convicted vice-mongers who never were workers and always have been racketeers. . . . I would not wait for reporters or public prosecutors to delouse my organization, but, out of devotion to the A.F. of L. and its good name in the interests of the rank and file, I would raise pluperfect hell until all criminals and grafters were driven out.” Because he made this his goal, Pegler claimed to be not an enemy of organized labor, or of the AFL, but a better friend to it than President Green. “I am not hostile to the A.F. of L. or any of its component unions, and I am much more sympathetic with the underpaid and oppressed rank and file than many of the union officials are.”
In fact, he was hostile toward unions. This had not always been the case. He had been one of the early members of the Newspaper Guild, the union of journalists that had formed in 1933. A year later, Pegler had written a column mocking claims by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce that workers had no need of any new legislation to protect their right to join unions. Employers could be counted on to provide fair treatment to their workers without any governmental oversight, these groups claimed. Pegler’s tongue-in-cheek response was that workers somehow had misinterpreted this so-called fair treatment in the past. “Always in the past the workman’s best friend was the employer, although some of the working people, being ignorant and easily misled by self-seeking agitators, sometimes allowed themselves to doubt this and to try to befriend themselves. Some there were who hadn’t the breadth of mind or the intelligence to understand that when the employer cut a workman’s wages or laid him off or put him out of his cabin and ran him down the road at the point of a bayonet it hurt the employer worse than it hurt him.”
By 1937, Pegler had become disenchanted with the Newspaper Guild and with the labor movement in general. He became a strident critic of the Wagner Act, a pivotal New Deal reform that provided legal protections for workers to organize and set the stage for a period of dramatic union growth. Pegler depicted himself as the guardian of the rights of the individual workers, often overlooked, he claimed, in the pro-union environment of the day. He adopted their cause as his own. In the midst of a wave of sit-down strikes, Pegler asserted, “American labor is a big term. It includes millions of unorganized working people and millions of others who belong to unions but aren’t orators or parliamentarians and have little or nothing to say about the actions of the smart professionals who run their affairs.” His theme, one he went back to frequently in the years that followed, was that unions did not always represent the will of their members and that nonunion employees were workers too, whose rights should be considered. Two years later, he depicted himself as an advocate for “those who refuse to join unions, or [who] do join them under silent protest, [and] have lacked a means of presenting their case.” They were, he explained, the forgotten men of the new labor relations system. “The employer and the labor faker can make themselves heard, but the persecuted individual in the middle receives no hearing from the public and no respect from a government board [National Labor Relations Board] which was established with the frank purpose of assisting organized labor.”
Almost single-handedly, Pegler’s columns raised the issue of union corruption and placed it on the nation’s political agenda. He received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1941. Time magazine acknowledged his prominence, announcing that “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.” A year later, a survey of five hundred editors of daily newspapers, conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism, ranked him the nation’s “best adult columnist.” His columns went out six days a week to 174 newspapers that reached some ten million subscribers. The Saturday Evening Post touted him as “undoubtedly one of the leading individual editorial forces in the country.”
He used this editorial influence to promote new limits on union power and a host of other conservative causes, including opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The columnist had come to believe that the New Deal’s expansion of federal authority and its support for organized labor represented a threat to individual freedom. He denounced the various government relief programs as political opportunism or, as he put it, “the exploitation of the great national emergency of poverty and idleness for personal profit and political power and the use of public money to put the poor in a grateful mood at election time.” Presaging a later generation of criticism directed at Washington insiders, he caricatured the administrators staffing these New Deal agencies as impractical elites cut off from the realities facing ordinary Americans. They were, he wrote, “a lot of wabble-wits stuck away in offices in Washington.” He attacked the president and his wife with a level of invective that even now, in today’s era of heightened partisan rancor, seems shocking. In February 1942, for instance, his column included the following jibe: “For all the gentle sweetness of my nature and my prose I have been accused of rudeness to Mrs. Roosevelt when I only said she was impudent, presumptuous and conspiratorial, and that her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a fine public service.”
Nor was his treatment of Congress any less sharp. A classic example of his style appeared in November 1941, when he wrote to urge Congress to pass new restrictions on unions in the face of opposition from the Roosevelt administration. “What a miserable, fumbling, timid aggregation of political trimmers and panhandlers our Congress is these days when it is openly said and never denied because it is wretchedly true, that the lawmaking body of the greatest republic on earth is afraid to pass any law that would place decent restraints on an organized mob of racketeers and dictators because the president won’t give the high-sign.” Pegler maintained that same tone throughout the column. He asserted, for instance, that congressmen “whimper like a kennel of curs because the President won’t give them his gracious permission to do their obvious duty.” “What the United States Congress lacks is guts,” the columnist concluded. He suggested that, “when the flag of the New Order is unfurled it should contain a broad yellow streak in memory of the men who sold their country out for a few lousy jobs.”
This writing style, as much as the opinions he expressed, was part of his appeal. He foreshadowed the tough-guy stance adopted by later radio and TV commentators, describing his columns as “these right-thinking, spade-calling, straight from the shoulder dispatches.” And readers responded to that style, even if many of them disagreed with the opinions expressed. As one of his biographers recalled, during the columnist’s best years, “it was possible for many millions of Americans, not all of them dunderheads, reactionaries and bigots by any means, to open their newspapers with a little quickening of the pulse, wondering whom Westbrook Pegler would clobber that day.” The columnist’s strident tone seemed to serve a useful purpose. The Los Angeles Times in 1941 referred to him as the “nation’s master prodder” in an editorial titled “Mr. Pegler Leads the Way Again!”
Even his political opponents could at times acknowledge Pegler’s appeal. Commenting on his influence in the upcoming 1942 Congressional elections, the liberal journalist George West wrote in the New Republic that “what we are up against is the Westbrook Pegler mind.” West accused Pegler of “giving greater aid and comfort to our domestic fascists than any other one man in the United States.” At the same time, however, West noted that “in spite of the exasperation and disgust that his column often inspires when he either shows a perverse failure to see straight or hits below the belt in true guttersnipe fashion,” he still considered Pegler “my favorite reactionary.” He intended this as more than just faint praise. “Pegler is an artist, a man of great courage, a hater of tyranny,” West explained, “and he calls the shots as he sees them.”
But Pegler’s reputation steadily faded in the years that followed. He developed a tendency to harp unrelentingly on the same set of issues and the occasional moments of humor and open-mindedness became increasingly rare, leaving more and more space for unmeasured invective. His publisher, Roy W. Howard, tried to warn him about this tendency. Using a boxing metaphor, Howard wrote, “You are losing a lot of points because of low swinging, heeling your glove and employing a few of the tactics of a journalistic Elbows McFadden.” A “more or less brutal bar-room fighter quality,” Howard asserted, was overtaking Pegler’s columns. “I think it is bad because it gives people the impression that you’re in a grouch with yourself and the world and that, consequently, anything you say can be discounted on the grounds that your effort does not spring from a sincere desire to redress a wrong, but rather from a grouch’s desire to kick a cat.” Pegler refused to heed the advice, and he quit working for Howard in 1944. He moved his column over to the Hearst Syndicate, and the trend Howard had warned him against continued unabated.
As a result, he lost the audience he most wanted to have. Many of the workers whose cause Pegler had always claimed to champion now viewed him with distaste. As one newspaper editor explained, “Labor—rank and filers as well as leaders—dislike and distrust him. They feel he is prejudiced and unfair.” As his columns degenerated into intemperate screeds in the years that followed, critics would tag Pegler as the “stuck whistle of journalism.” His conservatism drifted into extremism, and by 1962 he became too strident for the Hearst Syndicate, which canceled his column. After that, Pegler wrote briefly for the John Birch Society, but by that time he had become too cantankerous even for them to accept.