The Bombast and Glory of William Jennings Bryan

For three decades, William Jennings Bryan streaked across the sky of American politics, his brightness never fading despite countless failures.  Renowned for his zealous Christian faith, he appropriately expired immediately after his final and most glorious defeat, at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

In A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, author and Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin argues that Bryan, despite his three failed presidential campaigns, successfully and permanently transformed the Democratic Party into a progressive one.  Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt may have won elections that Bryan had spectacularly lost.  But their electoral success, and their liberal policies, would have been impossible, according to Kazin, absent Bryan’s exertions.

Kazin laments that liberals and good Democrats never credit Bryan for his achievements, much less claim him as their ideological icon.  The first 30 years of Bryan’s political career are rarely remembered, except for his masterful “Cross of Gold” speech to the 1896 Democratic Convention.  (The oratorical debut of The Great Commoner drove delegates to tears and spasmodic dancing in the aisles.)  Instead, Bryan is largely recalled as a buffoonish fundamentalist who bumbled his way through the Scopes Trial, unsuccessfully defending the Bible against evolutionism and pitting his supposedly...

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