The hero that time forgot

A new biography of William Jennings Bryan seeks to restore lost luster to his image.

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Our image of William Jennings Bryan captures one moment in time: the summer of 1925, when he prosecuted a Dayton, Tenn., football coach named John Scopes for teaching evolution.

In photographs taken that summer, Bryan looks paunchy and sweaty, exhausted by his battle against the forces of modernity; his death followed just days after the trial's end.

Combine that with the snide disdain of journalist H.L. Mencken (who called Bryan "a peasant come home to the barnyard") and Frederic March's overacted depiction in "Inherit the Wind" (1960), and Bryan devolves from "the Great Commoner" into a hysterical buffoon. One wonders how anyone ever thought he could be president.

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Michael Kazin seeks to undo that vision in A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. "I wrote this book to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people," writes Kazin.

Byran's "people" were the commoners of his time: men and women who tilled the soil, read both Jefferson and Jesus, and loved their country. It was on their behalf that Bryan challenged the status quo with his populist crusade as a 36-year-old presidential candidate in 1896.

He spoke out against imperialism in the Philippines and fought to keep the United States out of World War I. At the same time he mobilized millions of Americans with oratory that drew from biblical traditions but spoke to their concerns about the modern world of corporate power.

Bryan placed his faith in the people: "when reform comes in this country," he exclaimed, "it starts with the masses" and not "the brains of scholars."

But Byran's career was not an entirely glorious one. "A Godly Hero" is largely a chronicle of failure: bills vetoed, planks ripped out of party platforms, elections lost, and lost - and lost. (Three times Bryan sought the White House and three times he came up short.)

Somehow, however, all this failure added up to success. By putting people first, Bryan tore apart the Democratic Party of the 19th century - a hidebound fossil of corrupt Boss Tweed machines and Southern white supremacists - and convinced Americans suspicious of big government that the state could solve the nation's common problems. All this while FDR was still sipping sherry at Harvard.

Readers of "A Godly Hero" will also get a fresh perspective on the Scopes Trial. Bryan, who paid scant attention to theological controversies, was "not a fundamentalist." He "burned only and always to see religion heal the world."

There was much to fix: Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age had turned the naturalist's ideas about "the survival of the fittest" into a tool of class hierarchy. By the 1920s, eugenicists were hoping to harness evolution and purify the race by sterilizing the weak.

Kazin persuasively shows that Bryan's real crusade in Tennessee was not against free inquiry (he never opposed altogether the teaching of evolution), but against the enormous condescension of scientists who knew what was best for ordinary people - the same battle, in other words, that Bryan fought throughout his life.

Kazin is not the first biographer to tackle the Great Commoner, but he is definitely the best writer among them. "A Godly Hero" is a richly textured narrative with an excellent pace, coming in at just over 300 pages of text - modest in our age of megabiography.

In his telling of Byran's story, Kazin deftly encapsulates aspects of past politics that might otherwise numb modern readers. THis gives a context to Bryan's first great speech in Congress - a long discourse about twine - that really allows the famed orator's words to sing.

Kazin has also spent plenty of time reading ordinary people's letters to Bryan, and quotes them incessantly. Reading Bryan's fan mail, though, is a bit like talking to the guy in your office who loves comic books: the praise sounds empty if you don't share the enthusiasm.

Kazin enthuses, and more. It seems that somewhere along the road to restoring Bryan's "respect," Kazin fell in love with him.

As a result, "A Godly Hero" is Kazin's love letter to Bryan. Hoping to recover a hero for liberal Christianity, Kazin lets Bryan get away with a lot.

Not only with racism (Bryan was, for white men of his era, probably about average), but Kazin also papers over Bryan's vanity and his ambition. Whether in his interactions with populists, anti-imperialists, or evangelicals, Bryan repeatedly hijacked the leadership of grass-roots movements, not always to their benefit. Kazin excuses this by appealing to Bryan's sincerity and consistency, which indeed Bryan had. But still...

In an age of Enron and empire, at a time when profound matters of religious faith are debased by political controversies over Sponge Bob Square Pants, Kazin's longing for a prophetic voice is understandable. But in Bryan's case, that voice too often crossed the line from prophecy to melodrama.

One of the more painful examples of his excess came in the moments after he finished his "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic convention.

Bryan stepped back from the podium and, in a breathtaking display of showmanship and chutzpah, stood for some time with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. American politics might want for much these days, but not for more of that.

Christopher Capozzola teaches American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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