The Lessons of Defeat

A Godly Hero

The Life of William Jennings Bryan

Michael Kazin

Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 374 pp.

 

It is perhaps some measure of the current desperation of American liberals that an obviously talented historian would recommend for their attention the career of William Jennings Bryan-a three-time political loser, vigorous advocate of Prohibition, and equally vigorous opponent of the theory of evolution. When Bryan, a reform Democrat who was defeated in presidential races in 1896, 1900, and 1908, died in 1925 a short time after his Pyrrhic victory as an anti-Darwinian prosecuting attorney in the celebrated trial of Tennessee science teacher John Scopes, he was for sophisticated urban liberals of his day a figure of pathos and ridicule. “A poor clod,” H. L. Mencken savagely wrote. “Deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things.” But such a recommendation is precisely what Michael Kazin has on offer in his well-crafted biography of the “Great Commoner,” who as much as anyone other than Franklin Roosevelt was responsible for the making of the modern Democratic Party. He writes: “In some ways, Bryan’s time is not unlike our own. Large corporations still dominate our economy, bankroll our politicians, and frame our mass culture. Pious, if often intemperate, voices still denounce the corrosive impact of modern society and look to a spiritual awakening to cleanse the body politic. But we lack politicians, filled with...

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About the Author

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<p class="spip" dir="ltr">Robert Westbrook is the author, most recently, of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Cornell).</p>