From the December 1997 issue of Chronicles.
The man who loves other countries as much as his own stands on a level
with the man who loves other women as much as he loves his own wife."
Hailed by the New York Times for showing that Colonel Robert McCormick, the legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune, was "anti- just about everything, a man defined far more deeply by his loathings than by his loves," Richard Norton Smith's book is a massive attempt to smear, insult, ridicule, and ultimately vilify a man who, more than any other single figure, represents the Old Right in American politics. The Times' reviewer cites Smith's comment that "McCormick needed enemies, it seemed, the way most men need friends." But what does writing a 600-page book about a man he so obviously despises say about Smith's own need for hate? The author remarks in his prologue that "during McCormick's lifetime, profiles of him generally fell into two categories: rancorous and condescending." His own book manages to combine the two.
The paucity of biographical material on McCormick is perhaps due to the previous unavailability of his personal papers, which are in the possession of the Robert R. McCormick-Tribune Foundation, which inherited the bulk of the Colonel's estate. Until Smith's volume, there had been only two book-length biographies of this towering figure who—even his enemies admit—was a giant of a man. Imagine an attempt to marry the literary technique of Finnegan's Wake to the requirements of biography, and you have Frank Waldrop's McCormick of Chicago: An Unconventional Portrait of a Controversial Figure (1966), where any attempt to extract real information from the murk is problematic, at best. On an entirely different level, The Colonel of Chicago by Joseph Gies (1979) is a treasure-trove of information written in a clear, objective style; while not always agreeing with the Colonel's politics, Gies fairly presents the facts. The result is a book chock-full of the Colonel's own words, and generous quotes from Tribune editorials.
Smith denies us this pleasure: his book inundates us with authorial opinions, interpretations, and outrageous psychologizing. For all the author's pretensions to evenhandedness, the result is not a portrait, but a caricature. The Colonel, Smith tells us, was "regarded by millions of admirers as an ardent patriot and a fearless, if lonely, dissenter from the collectivist anthill. Slack jawed detractors viewed him with equal fervor as a prototypical reactionary whose defamatory skills endangered the very freedom of expression to which he devoted his life. Both camps were right yet neither grasped the complexities of this life-long maverick cum pillar of the establishment, whose Tribune reflected America as in a funhouse mirror."
How could both camps be right? Either McCormick was a fearless patriot or a danger to the Republic. Which is it? Furthermore, the charge of "endangering" freedom of expression confuses the victim of repression with its perpetrators: the Colonel's numerous enemies—FDR and the hardline New Dealers in his Cabinet, notably Harold Ickes—did everything they could to close down the Tribune, short of "sending in the Marines to occupy Tribune Tower," as Smith reports a few hundred pages later. He drops his Potemkin facade early on, describing the Colonel's life as "a one man Age of Anxiety . . . [whose] phobias included, in no particular order, the New Deal; the Fair Deal; Prohibition; Wall Street; the United Nations . . . Huey Long . . . Henry Luce; Herbert Hoover ('the greatest state socialist in history'—before FDR); NATO; and cringing 'he-debutantes' in his country's foreign service who were more eager to curry favor with an exhausted British empire than to uphold the muscular nationalism of the Mississippi Valley."
Fashion in the art of biography is currently set by armchair psychologists, a development that obviates the need for any real understanding of, or feeling for, the subject on the part of his biographer. Smith's tome is suffused with quasi- Freudian psychobabble, uttered in the magisterial tone of the author-therapist. For example, he claims that the Colonel's "blustery self-regard hid a fearsome struggle between the classic narcissist's egocentricity and crippling feelings of inadequacy that dated to his earliest years as an unwanted substitute for his mother's lost baby girl." "Both qualities," he continues, "spilled over into the pages of the Tribune, which came to mirror not only the exaggerated pride felt by Chicagoans but also their inferiority complex as inhabitants of an overgrown prairie village, culturally and politically dwarfed by the hated, envied East. Thus a second son exemplified a second city. The Colonel wasn't Don Quixote but the Wizard of Oz."
The book is shot full of similarly pretentious prose, all calculated to characterize McCormick as a neurotic emotional cripple who had erased the line between pathology and politics. Smith demonizes McCormick's mother, the colorful Kate, attributing the Colonel's inability to love the U.N. to the unlovability of this acerbic woman, who supposedly preferred his older brother, Medill. In an effort to make her seem even worse than she probably was, Smith resorts to the kind of deception he might have attributed to Kate, by quoting from a letter from her, dated July 30, 1916 (the Colonel's birthday, which he spent in the trenches somewhere in France, weak and ill from dengue fever). "Poor Bertie," she writes, "Poor baby boy 36 with an old tart of 48 on his back. I suppose he is bored to death! Soldiering is not his profession." Smith gives the reader the impression that this letter was written to McCormick. The suspicious reader has to trudge through a poorly organized note section, placed inconveniently at the back of the book, before he discovers that a cruel mother is not writing to young Bertie, being shot at by Germans on his birthday, but rather mocking him, in a letter to Medill, for having had a scandalous affair with an older married woman— a fact that gives the quotation a different emotional coloring.
Smith conducts his vendetta against Kate at least partially on ideological grounds. He quotes a letter from her to the Colonel in which she excoriates him for not coming out strongly enough against the League of Nations: "Wobbling on the fence was not the way your grandfather made the Trib the great western voice for good that it was, but he was a man of stern morality and immovable convictions, and you and Joe are neither and the reading public knows it." Good old Kate! She rates a biography in her own right.
Even as a smear job and despite Smith's unprecedented access to the Colonel's papers, the book is a clumsy effort, rife with contradictions. For instance, after declaring that the Colonel had strong "authoritarian tendencies," Smith immediately launches into a long description of his career with the First Division, in which "his first and longest running battle was with a military establishment that was disdainful of citizen soldiers." In battling against the establishment, not only in the army but back on the home front, the Colonel was obviously acting on the militant antiauthoritarianism central to his temperament and his politics.
A third of the way through The Colonel, the unrelenting sniping and condescending tone become practically unbearable. A physical description of the Colonel becomes a catalog of grotesquerie: the Colonel's "unnatural height," his "spaniel eyes" and "clipped, world-weary manner," all are grist for Smith's mill. The sheer stupidity of Smith's unending malice is enough to set the intelligent reader's teeth on edge. On McCormick's opposition to Prohibition, Smith avers that the Colonel's "reverence for the American Constitution never prevented him from cheerfully violating its Eighteenth Amendment." But surely, as an alleged "expert" on McCormick, Smith realizes that the Colonel considered the Prohibition amendment to be an unnatural and subversive encrustation on the original body of the Constitution —a view that, far from being a personal eccentricity, was widespread enough that the Prohibition amendment was soon repealed. More thickheaded still is Smith's inability to understand the Colonel's lifelong devotion to the memory of the First Division and his staunchly noninterventionist foreign policy stance. "Yet before he went to his grave, dressed in his faded World War I uniform, to the triumphant strains of 'Onward, Christian Soldiers,' McCormick had become the leading advocate of American diplomatic isolation and military retrenchment." This, to Smith, is paradoxical: a moment's thought might lead anyone else to conclude that, having seen the horror of war firsthand, the Colonel was not eager that others should have to endure it. As Joseph Gies points out in The Colonel of Chicago, while McCormick referred to his service in the First Division as "a priceless experience,"
at the same time there was the disillusion, the sense of the futility of the slaughter, which he shared with the rest of the country. . . . [A]n antiwar, anti-European cynicism competed with a hangover romantic militarism . . . [and] slowly the first sentiment won ascendancy, with a universal agreement among all parties, old war hawks, old neutralists, and the new generation, that whatever the merits of the crusade to save the world for democracy, it had been a failure and should never, never be repeated.
Smith's obtuseness blinds him to the obvious. "[M]any readers [of the Tribune]," he writes, "found it understandably difficult to reconcile the Colonel's restraint toward foreign dictators with his constant harping on domestic tyranny," But there is nothing to reconcile. On the front page of the Tribune for September 21,1943, one of McCormick's best political cartoonists, Carey Orr, vividly illustrated the Colonel's critique of the rising welfare-warfare state: "Dictators on the Home Front" depicts a glum-looking Uncle Sam locked in a stockade, representing the "regimentation of the American people"; standing beside him is a New Deal bureaucrat in spectacles, brandishing a set of keys and declaring, "Well, I've accomplished my main war objective!" This point was made in print—before, during, and after World War II—in countless Tribune editorials. Could Smith, the McCormick expert, possibly have missed it?
While duly reciting the facts. Smith fails adequately to describe the emotional and political atmosphere of the immediate prewar era, when the interventionist campaign to bring in the United States and save the British Empire reached fever pitch. He mentions, for example, that the Tribune "found space to print the isolationist creed of Lillian Gish as delivered to a Chicago rally in March 1941," and quotes a line from the Colonel's letter to the famed actress: "Few professional people dare antagonize the organized forces of the Colonials." He neglects to tell us that Miss Gish was soon forced to recant her creed, refrain from speaking at antiwar rallies, and resign her seat on the national committee of America First without making public the reason—namely, her inability to find work as a result of her antiwar activities, and a $60,000 contract offered on the condition that she disassociate herself from America First and cease her public speaking. He mentions the concerted effort by government agencies, in cooperation with British intelligence, to discredit leaders of the America First Committee, but does not go into any detail. While he recites the bare facts of FDR's continuing campaign to silence, censor, and ultimately put the Tribune on trial for "espionage," he fails to report the widespread support for such efforts among the opinion-making elites. When the Tribune revealed FDR's secret "Victory Plan," hatched long before Pearl Harbor, for a million-plus American "expeditionary force" to Europe, Smith tells us that the President's initial reaction was "to send Marines to occupy Tribune Tower," but fails to note that this act would have evoked cheers from the journalistic chorus. Reporting on a meeting of the Overseas Writers Association attended by several prominent government officials. New York Daily News columnist John O'Donnell quoted the advice of the assembled writers to their friends in high places: "Get him on his income tax, or the Mann Act. Hang him, shoot him or lock him up in a concentration camp" (New York Daily News, March 30, 1942). In late March 1942, a delegation of journalists (including George Seldes and William Shirer) met with Attorney General Francis Biddle and urged him to take action against the "copperhead" McCormick. Walter Winchell yapped that the Tribune was actively helping the Axis powers. The Chicago Sun ran an ad accusing McCormick of treason, and the Chicago chapter of Americans for Democratic Action put out a pamphlet echoing the charge, while adding a few of its own and calling for "all justified legal steps" to be taken against the Tribune. In failing to sketch the context of the Roosevelt administration's war against the Colonel, Smith abdicates his role as an historian. The result is that much of the urgency and drama of the duel between McCormick and the President is lost, and the text—just when it ought to become exciting—takes on a perfunctory air.
Smith is far too busy psychoanalyzing his subject to take the Colonel's ideas seriously: "His hatreds made him whole," writes Smith, in a typical passage. "They helped ward off depression, excuse his isolation, and keep him in the spotlight." In Smith's view, McCormick did not have any ideas worth examining at length, only "hatreds" whose expression explained the Tribune's editorial line. Living before the invention of Prozac, the Colonel gave vent to a primitive substratum of thought that, for Smith and his liberal confreres, is beyond the pale.
Of course, the medicalization of rightwing politics is a classic smear technique first developed in Theodor Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality (1950), a massive collaborative work that tried to demonstrate the psychopathological roots of "conservative-authoritarian" thought. Adorno and his associates diagnosed opponents of Franklin Roosevelt as afflicted by a "usurpation complex" and a deep unconscious fear that their parents were not their real family. Shorn of its Reichian-Marxist jargon, Adorno's work was taken up by the postwar defenders of the corporate liberal status quo, and applied to the "radical right" of the 1950's and early 60's. Sociologist Daniel Bell, in his 1962 essay "The Dispossessed," described the hard right as "outside the political pale, insofar as it refuses to accept the American consensus." Bell's essay later appeared in an anthology, The New American Right (1963). The unifying theme of the anthology was an examination of "the neglected socio-psychological elements in pseudo-conservatism," as Richard Hofstadter—inventor of the phrase "the paranoid style in American politics"—put it. Following Hofstadter's example. Smith employs "paranoid" to describe McCormick's opposition to the U.N., to the New Deal, and to British banking and other interests whose military and financial rescue was accomplished when America entered the war.
It may indicate a touch of right-wing "paranoia" on my part to note that Smith's sustained assault on the memory and legacy of Colonel McCormick was commissioned by officials of the Robert R. McCormick-Tribune Foundation, but it is worth mentioning just the same, if only as an ironic commentary on the tragic degeneration of a newspaper dynasty and the regional political culture it once championed. As the official biographer given full access not only to the Colonel's papers but to those of his family and to the corporate records of the Tribune, Smith was apparently intended to debunk, denounce, and delegitimize his subject beyond all redemption. In this he did not succeed: McCormick's vivid personality, and the natural appeal of his distinctively American brand of politics, shine through the murk of even Professor Smith's prose. One can only hope that some enterprising scholar will one day write the kind of biography the Colonel deserves, paying proper tribute to his bravery in the face of repression and his continuing influence on the course of American politics. In the files of the old Tribune, and in the life of its publisher, practically the whole story of the Old Right is contained: its plainspoken populism, its distrust of the Old World, and its libertarian ferocity combined in the uncompromising fight against overwhelming odds. This is a story worth knowing and telling: one day it will be told.
[The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1880-1955 by Richard Norton Smith (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.) 597 pp., $35.00]