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A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
Michael Kazin
Anchor, 2007
432 pp., $16.95

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Eugene MCCarraher


The Great Loser

The ambiguous legacy of William Jennings Bryan.

Before they were the party of Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi, the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton, before they were the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the Democrats were the party of William Jennings Bryan, whose apparent erasure from the pantheon of Democratic heroes recalls the clumsy removal of Trotsky from Bolshevik photographs. Not that Democrats don't have excellent reasons to forget the Great Commoner. A three-time loser in the race to the White House, Bryan also failed to turn his oratorical gifts against racism and segregation, and he ended his life with a public and imperishable display of scientific ignorance. But even as they are gloating over their resounding triumph in the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats would be well-advised to remember Bryan.

A good place to start is the famous but little-read "Cross of Gold" speech, Bryan's address to the Democratic convention in 1896. Unlike today's gerrymandered speeches—with the lexicon and syntax of demographics inscribed on every neutered paragraph—Bryan's oration was a lavish political sermon, an un-triangulated exposition of the ways of God to Wall Street. Clad only in "the armor of a righteous cause"—that of "the producing masses of this nation and the world"—Bryan preached against that leviathan his descendants are too timid and feckless to name: "the encroachments of organized wealth," the unelected government of money and property, the devotees of Mammon who consider democracy a franchise of corporate capital. This isn't the twaddle of "values," or the high-priced pabulum of consultants, speechwriters, and other peddlers of the latest fashions in euphemism and sophistry. It's the clarion of populist insurgency, leavened and propelled by the spirit of the prophets, the battle-cry of the meek and lowly who've been promised the earth as their estate.

Michael Kazin considers Bryan a prophet whose challenge to the first Gilded Age might inspire resistance to ours, ...

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