- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

A GODLY HERO: THE LIFE OF WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN

By Michael Kazin

Knopf, $30, 374 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAUDE R. MARX

Given the current political climate, it is hard to imagine that anyone could be a hero to both evangelicals and to political liberals. Also, in light of the Democratic Party’s long stint in electoral exile, one is tempted to think that the party is destined to stay there indefinitely.

A study of the life of William Jennings Bryan would dispel both of these notions.

The renowned political orator and activist and three-time presidential nominee is largely forgotten these days as are the many lessons he taught. Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin has written a balanced, though generally favorable, biography that could get Bryan back on people’s radar screens.

“A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan” traces Bryan’s life from his small town middle-class beginnings in Salem, Ill. to the heights of political power. He was a fascinatingly sad figure whose liberal idealism helped transform the Democratic Party into a proponent of activist government and an advocate for the interests of the middle class.

Before Bryan, the party was conservative and often took the side of the powerful over the powerless.

Mr. Kazin eloquently tells the story of how a man with an average intellect, from modest beginnings — albeit one blessed with first-rate speaking skills — came to become one of the most influential figures of his era.

While Bryan is often best remembered as a lawyer who prosecuted an evolution-teaching science teacher in the Scopes trial, Mr. Kazin tries to make him an inspiration to modern liberals.

“Pious, if often intemperate, voices still denounce the corrosive impact of modern society and look to a spiritual awakening to cleanse the body politic. But we lack politicians, filled with conviction and blessed with charisma, who are willing to lead a charge against secular forces whose power is both mightier and more subtly deployed than a century ago,’ Mr. Kazin writes.

As contemporary Democrats try to figure out how to balance secular and sectarian appeals as well as develop an economic message, they confront many of the same challenges as did their counterparts in Bryan’s lifetime.

The party was shut out of the White House for all but eight years between 1861 and 1913 and had only sporadic control of Congress during that era. When Woodrow Wilson became president that year, Bryan was named secretary of state but lasted only a little more than two years and was considered an ineffective diplomat who disagreed often with others in the administration.

Bryan tried to return his party to power by calling for an activist government heavily inspired by Christian principles. Though not a minister, Bryan’s speeches often had a sermon-like quality to them that helped him connect with a strongly religious citizenry.

His best known speech, which he delivered at the 1896 Democratic convention days before he was nominated for president for the first time (he was also the party’s standard bearer in 1900 and 1908), was a strong condemnation of the gold standard.

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold,’ he told the cheering throngs gathered in the Chicago Coliseum.

Mr. Kazin, while admiring his subject’s rhetorical prowess, also points out how the speech won few converts to the cause and symbolized the problem with Bryan’s message. Bryan “lavished his words of praise entirely on rural and small-town Americans,’ Mr. Kazin writes.

And Bryan’s failure to mention the concerns of the growing urban industrial centers “highlighted, unintentionally, a major weakness of the insurgents’ cause,’ the author adds. During all of Bryan’s campaigns, he had trouble getting his message to resonate with northern industrial workers and this prevented him from capturing the ultimate political prize.

Like most of his contemporaries, Bryan’s support for greater rights and opportunities for average Americans did not extend to blacks. And Mr. Kazin is critical of Bryan’s shortcomings in this area.

Mr. Kazin tells Bryan’s story well, though like many academics he occasionally gets bogged down in historical minutia. Some of the retelling of the intraparty squabbles is too detailed even for political junkies. The writing style is solid, though not gripping. One wonders how much more enjoyable a gifted storyteller like David McCullough could have made the subject.

On balance, however, “A Godly Hero” does an effective job of both revisiting the life of an important American and placing him in a modern context.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He wrote a chapter on Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy in the recently-published book: “Divided States of America: The Splash and Burn Politics of the 2004 presidential election.’

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