A Giant Named Elmer
The Smithsonian forgot him. But Elmer Davis, with a flat voice and first amendment guts, once reigned as the great American commentator.
By Bernard Roshco
Bernard Roshco is the author of "Newsmaking"(University of Chicago Press) and is a past editor of Public Opinion Quarterly.
Last year, the Smithsonian presented a grand 300-year retrospective, "The American Journalist," which included news bites from radio's golden years in the 1930s and 1940s. There was the breathless excitement of Floyd Gibbons, the histrionics of Lowell Thomas, the staccato of Walter Winchell ("Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press!"). Dorothy Thompson, NBC's "woman commentator," delivered Olympian observations in carefully measured phrases; the grandiloquent H.V. Kaltenborn was introduced as the "dean of American news commentators"; Edward R. Murrow sonorously enunciated his famous dateline, "This...is London."
But one memorable voice was missing from the exhibit – the flat, calm, twangy, Midwestern voice of Elmer Davis.
A half-century ago, Davis was the most respected, and the highest paid, commentator in radio news. He earned more than $50,000 a year, unheard of in the days before television and the equivalent of almost a half-million dollars now. In a whirlwind of hyperbole, the New York Times once called him "the Mount Everest of commentators, towering in serenity and grandeur over the foothill Cassandras of his time."
That Davis's work is now largely forgotten demonstrates television's hegemony over our collective memory. The public recollection of the past century is largely fed and refreshed by archived video and film bites. Since radio essays can't be televised, the words give way to pictures. And while Murrow's televised dissection of Sen. Joseph McCarthy is remembered as a high-water mark for journalistic courage, Davis's long personal crusade against McCarthyism and other enemies of free expression has been relegated to footnotes.
This year's events in the Soviet Union make Davis's journalistic legacy even more worth recalling. He was a clear-eyed anti-communist, but he was equally clear about his opposition to any system that imposed its version of political correctness. As the New York Times noted in its 1958 front-page obituary on Davis, "When the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin was most active, Mr. Davis insisted that the greatest internal menace to the United States was not communism but the steady encroachment on freedom of thought."
Elmer Davis was almost 50 years old before he first sat behind a microphone to deliver a radio script. Long before he came to broadcasting, however, he was a renowned newspaper political reporter and commentator.
In August 1939, a CBS radio executive named Ed Klauber prevailed on Davis to fill in for H.V. Kaltenborn, who was in Europe covering the imminent beginning of World War II. Davis had left the New York Times to write popular novels and short stories and had already turned down several invitations to jump to radio. This time Davis agreed to Klauber's offer but compared the situation to pinch-hitting for Joe DiMaggio.
Davis was not welcomed at CBS, where most of the top brass thought he lacked the proper voice and style. But he
sounded all right to listeners. Within five months, his five-minute newscasts at 8:55 p.m. had become the centerpiece of CBS Radio
news. By January 1940 a sponsor had even hired Davis to do "15-minute chats" on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at 6:30 p.m. on the news of the day.
Davis was unlike the other stars at CBS. Kaltenborn and Murrow had distinctive voices and deliveries that often made what they said less memorable than how they said it. Kaltenborn sounded like an elocution teacher, Murrow like the product of a fine drama coach. Davis's style lay in his lack of mannerisms. As Time described it, there was "no huffing and puffing, no pedantics, just tell it straight, like any well-informed guy reassuringly named Elmer." His down-home delivery, which today would make Garrison Keillor sound like a brittle sophisticate, was laced with an undertone of irony reminiscent of Mark Twain.
Davis's horn-rimmed glasses and signature black bow tie gave him the perennial appearance of the small-town boy from Aurora, Indiana, where he was born in 1890. His first newspaper job was as a teen-age printer's devil on the Aurora Bulletin; within 10 years, he was a cub reporter at the New York Times. In between, he went to Indiana's Franklin College, taught high school and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. There he became interested in foreign affairs and traveled in Europe. He joined the Times in 1914. By his 34th birthday he'd been a sportswriter, foreign correspondent and editorial writer, and had emerged as a star of newsprint.
One of his premier assignments was writing the official "History of The New York Times," published in 1921. Two years later, while still at the Times, he published his first novel.
His penchant for fiction seeped into his newspaper work when he chronicled the political observations of an alter ego he dubbed Congressman Godfrey G. Gloom, "an old-fashioned Jeffersonian Democrat from Amity, Indiana." The "congressman" was born at the Democratic convention of 1920 and would serve for 16 years before his untimely demise.
Even after Davis left the Times staff in 1924 to write fiction and essays, he continued to cover politics as a freelancer. At the 1936 Republican convention, where Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas was nominated to challenge Franklin Roosevelt's bid for a second term, Davis "reported" Gloom's assessment of the proceedings: "It looks as if this will be the sort of convention to which even Herbert Hoover can add a touch of color."
James "Scotty" Reston, who shared with Davis the distinction of being an ex-sportswriter who preferred the national sport of politics, would write years later: "Mr. Davis could pass on his skeptical and wry comments through Congressman Gloom, who became such a well-known character that, when Elmer finally killed him at the 1936 [Democratic] convention in Philadelphia, the Times ran the story on the front page and [Times Washington columnist] Arthur Krock produced an appropriate obituary."
Gloom's departure was announced under a two-column head: "Last Jeffersonian Expires With Convention; Godfrey Gloom a Victim of Modern Devices." (Davis reported that the congressman, while crossing the street, had been run over by a newspaper photographer on a motorcycle.) His dying words presaged a complaint heard today about television election coverage:
"As for the radio, its demoralizing effect on convention oratory is well-known. If it had taken the roaring out of oratory it could well be commended, but it has merely taken out the spontaneity and left all the roars in, with the sole qualification that the roarer has to take the proper stance so that he can roar into the microphone."
Perhaps because of the emotional rhetoric he heard constantly at political conventions, Davis never raised his voice on the air, no matter how momentous the event. "Even on the day of national disaster, December 7, 1941, Mr. Davis was able to keep tension out of his voice," the Times recalled in his obituary. "Telling the country of war, calmly, deliberately...he gave to millions that day a sense of reassurance and strength."
Davis was widely known as the "master of understatement." But asked if he'd overcome his initial mike fright, he once replied, "I haven't yet lost the fear that some day I will go insane at the mike and begin spouting treason, blasphemy and – worse – libel."
A t a time when Davis, more than any other newscaster in the country, had the nation's ear, he quit his $53,000 job at CBS in 1942 to work for Uncle Sam. Rejected by the Navy, he accepted Franklin Roosevelt's offer to become director of the Office of War Information. The OWI – which consisted of four separate agencies under one administrative umbrella – had 3,000 employees, responsibility for the entire federal output of news and propaganda, and no clear directives regarding its powers and prerogatives.
That arrangement generated continuous conflict with other agencies. Many bureaucrats chose to practice what, decades later, became known as "spin control"; Davis, conversely, released as much uncensored war information as possible. His position was that "Americans are entitled to know everything that the enemy knows," and he stuck to a principle that had governed his news analyses: provide unvarnished, germane facts that help Americans "understand what the news is about."
Davis made no effort to muzzle government officials. "We cannot forbid, and do not want to forbid, any federal official to talk to reporters," he said. "If some official disagrees with a policy that has been agreed on and adopted, there is nothing to prevent him from expressing such disagreement to reporters – nothing except his judgment and sense of propriety."
He did not consider his job to be a booster for Uncle Sam: "A good many people seem to think that we are specifically charged with the maintenance of national morale. We are not; and in my opinion there is no need for such an agency...We intend to see that the American people get just as much [information] as genuine considerations of military security will permit."
And Davis backed up his promises. When eight Nazi saboteurs who had slipped ashore in the United States from a submarine were captured, the military commission that tried them refused to release details. Davis took the issue to the White House, and the commission backed down.
Davis's switch from newscaster to government agency head was a path later followed by Ed Murrow and John Chancellor. Although Davis wielded more authority than those who came later, his terse review of his experience was that "sometimes it seems that the chief emolument of government service is a one-way ticket to the doghouse."
His stint with government ended when the war did. In the fall of 1945, Davis returned to radio, taking a microphone in Washington, D.C., for ABC. At press conferences he was instantly recognizable because of not only his well-worn Indiana twang but also his shock of white hair and heavy black brows. He still wore horn-rimmed glasses and black bow ties. And after he had questioned some bureaucrat, his follow-up to any evasive or ill-considered answer inevitably began, "Well..."
I n the last decade of his life, Davis became as much a political philosopher as a commentator. He opposed not only Joseph McCarthy but also such lesser red-baiters as Sen. William E. Jenner of Indiana and Rep. Harold H. Velde of Illinois. Jenner's most infamous achievement was a speech in which he described Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff in World War II, as a "living lie." Velde, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, once introduced a bill that would have required the Library of Congress to mark all "subversive" passages in its millions of volumes.
Davis was outraged by such actions and said so. He derided those who waged "anti-freedom crusades" in the name of fighting communism as "people whose dominant surface emotion is hatred; but underlying that, besides an appalling ignorance, is fear. They are afraid to think because it is hard work, afraid to let other people think because it might turn out that what they themselves have always thought is wrong. It hurts more to have a belief pulled than to have a tooth pulled, and no intellectual Novocain is available."
Hearing such outbursts, some friends thought he had grown shrill, that he had abandoned the balance and distance required of an objective journalist. His enemies thought him unpatriotic at best, at worst a traitor. Westbrook Pegler, a columnist not known for temperance, wrote that Davis's Office of War Information had been a "hideout for privileged intellectual New Deal cowards and communists."
But Davis was too well-reputed to be suppressed and too indignant to back down. In the early 1950s, while he continued to broadcast, Davis spent much of his time traveling the country to preach about defending "freedom of the mind." Contemptuous of ex-communists who converted their sullied pasts into self-styled expertise on the "menace," Davis wrote that theirs was "the smug self-assurance of certain people who think that because they were completely wrong 20 years ago, they must be completely right now that they entertain diametrically opposite opinions. It has apparently not occurred to them that they could be completely wrong both times."
Davis was firmly opposed to the "moral nihilism and intellectual sterility of the Soviet system." He insisted on distinguishing between the alleged danger of internal communism and the actual danger of external communism: "We face a very powerful and dangerous foreign enemy – two enemies, indeed, Russia and China – whose rulers are animated by a creed that makes truly peaceful coexistence impossible so long as they take that creed seriously...The right to think is the real ultimate victory in the cold war – or in a hot war, if that should break out."
In the fall of 1953, high blood pressure forced Davis to give up nightly radio broadcasts. The following year, his collected sermons on free speech, "But We Were Born Free," was a surprise bestseller. The same year, he began to do weekly commentaries on television. In May 1958, after months of failing health, he died of pneumonia following a stroke. In an essay he had written five years earlier, "Grandeur and the Miseries of Old Age," Davis showed he could be as clear-eyed about growing old as he was about politics. It ended:
"We have got to defeat this attack on the freedom of the mind...But it takes courage for a young man with a family to stand up to it; all the more obligation on those of us who have nothing left to lose. At any age it is better to be a dead lion than a living dog – though better still, of course, to be a living and victorious lion – but it is easier to run the risk of being killed (or fired) in action if before long you are going to be dead anyway. This freedom seems to me the chief consolation of old age." l