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What’s the Matter With America?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

To impeach or not to impeach.  A lot of decent voters don’t know what to think.  Kansas is no exception, but Kansas has a number of exceptional role models for our troubled times, leaders who demonstrated that it’s okay to change one’s mind in politics.  In fact, it’s a mark of true character.

Changing Sides: Emporia’s Improbable Progressive 

When Donald Trump entered the White House three years ago, the nation entered unknown territory.  Think of it as a real-life  Land of Oz where the surreal characters are not figments of a writer’s imagination but rather decision-makers in control of a  military-industrial complex on a scale unparalleled in world history.

To be sure, the Trump Era is not the first time America has faced a crisis of its own making.  The Civil War was the mother of all meltdowns in U.S. history, but there are other times when disunity and dissension threatened to upend the system.

The country was deeply divided in the 1890s, for example.  It was a time when populism was on the rise and politics was perilously partisan.  The presidential election in 1896 pitted Republican William McKinley against a prairie-state populist named William Jennings Bryan.

Conservatives feared the worst.  Would the nation be plunged into a new Dark Age?  Was the iron link between progress and profits about to be broken?

Nobody posed such questions more combatively  than William Allen White, a self-styled “child of the governing classes.”  As the nondescript editor of a nondescript newspaper, White had angered readers some of whom confronted him as he was walking to work one morning.

They were “leering, nagging me” he later wrote.  Incensed, he   “broke through the cordon and stalked” to his office where in high dudgeon he wrote an editorial and entitled it “What’s the Matter with Kansas?  In his own words,  “it came out pure vitriol.”

The target of White’s vitriol was none other than “our noble” William Jennings Bryan (a.k.a., “The Boy Orator of the Platte”).

Bryan was a populist’s wet dream, a podium-pounding public speaker from the Midwestern heartland who advocated free silver and railed against robber barons, east coast elites, and money-grubbing bankers.  Nominated at the Chicago convention in July 9, 1896, he thundered “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” to roars of approval from the delegates.

White ridiculed the Kansas delegation for endorsing “Bryan’s ‘wild-eyed’ rhetoric that pitted the rich against the poor and was sure to . . . extinguish the possibility of progress.” White’s   riposte in the Emporia Gazette was hardly less wild-eyed.

“That’s the stuff!,” he fumed.  “Give the prosperous man the dickens!  Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffing out of the creditors . . . . put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can’t pay his debts, on the altar, and bow down and worship him .”

White’s anti-populist screed against the populist riffraff who  want “something for nothing” was republished in newspapers across the country.   The 1896 election landed McKinley in the White House, and White in Manhattan.  Not the one in Kansas; the one in New York.  White’s newfound fame brought him to the attention of S. S. McClure.  And the rest is history.

William Allen White would go on to become a leading voice for progressive reforms.  As a regular contributor to McClure’s Magazine, he would be part of an elite circle of writers that included Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker, as well as other famous muckrakers of the Progressive Era.

White had the courage and character to change his mind in response to new ideas and new information.  He put principle above party or personality.   In 1932, he campaigned for Herbert Hoover against Franklyn Delano Roosevelt.

History Got It Wrong:  Alf Landon Was Not A Loser 

William Allen White is but one example of what was—and still is—not wrong with Kansas.   Alf Landon is another.

Landon was the Governor of Kansas from 1933-1937.  As the Republican candidate for president in 1936 he lost to FDR in a landslide and never again ran for a public office.   He bowed out with grace and dignity.  A moderate who embraced much of the New Deal, backed the Marshall Plan, and later supported LBJ’s Great Society, Landon died in Topeka in 1987 at the age of 100.

He was a principled Republican and a poignant reminder that there was a time when that was not an oxymoron.

Liberal Kansas 

Given the power of farmers, religious fundamentalists, and anti-abortion Roman Catholics, one might suppose that any hope for moderates and liberals to win public office in Kansas is a thing of the past.  Not so.

In 2018, a Native American lesbian lawyer named Sharice Davids (D) ran for Congress against incumbent Kevin Yoder (R)—and won.  Only one other Native American woman has ever been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.   That same year, Laura Kelly, defeated Republican Kris Kobach (R) for governor.

In the Wizard of Oz, the Tinman wanted a heart, the Scarecrow wanted a brain and the Cowardly Lion wanted courage.  The GOP once gave the nation leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Alf Landon and a writer like William Allen White who had all three.

Like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, White never forgot where he came from.  He made many trips to New York before his death in 1944, but he always returned to Kansas.  He changed his mind about which party’s nominee to back in presidential races, but remained true to his principles.  In short, he had a moral compass.

Dorothy in the story and White in real life were both from a small towns in Kansas.  Dorothy’s hometown is a real place, by the way.  You can find it on any map of Kansas.  It’s called Liberal.

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