Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor

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On the equally vital issue of individual liberty versus a strong central government, the paper veered, like conservatives today, toward liberty. Pulitzer had no use for states’ rights arguments, but he wanted the federal government to be guided by Congress and the courts rather than by a strong executive branch. His sympathies lay with the underdog and hence generally with the Democrats, yet he was too independent to go down the line with them. He deplored the party’s addiction to William Jennings Bryan, whom he thought crazy on the silver issue and lacking in executive ability. The dark horse he and Cobb favored, with increasing ardor from 1906 on, was Woodrow Wilson. In New York politics, the World fought Tammany in season and out. Twice it helped elect that doughty Republican Charles Evans Hughes to the governorship, having pushed him into prominence in the first place as an investigatoi of the life-insurance company scandals it exposed in 1905. Toward the Republican Roosevelt, the paper was at times cordial, even enthusiastic. It hailed his trust busting, and was perhaps the first to nominate him for the Nobel peace prize for helping settle the Russo-Japanese War. Later, however, Pulitzer’s conservative view of the Presidency was offended by what he considered T. R.’s jingoism, immodesty, and intemperate speech; J. P. flayed Roosevelt, in one of his many rapid-fire (and equally intemperate) talks with Cobb, as “a flamboyant, roughriderish, bullyboyish, cowhiding swashbuckler.”

On most political issues, Cobb and Pulitzer saw eye to eye, but that left plenty of other subjects for combat. On April 10, 1907, his sixtieth birthday, Pulitzer resigned as president of his two publishing companies, in St. Louis and New York, in favor of his eldest son, Ralph. From his retreat on the Riviera he cabled a farewell message which, while designed to be read at employees’ dinners in the two cities, embodied a stirring statement of his philosophy of journalism and was clearly addressed to the world at large. He had polished it for days. In St. Louis, the Post-Dispatch printed it—and indeed continues to print it in capital letters under its masthead on the editorial page. In New York, other papers published the message, but not the World . Cobb would have none of it. J. P. had already resigned as editor of the World in another ringing statement back in 1890, early in his invalidism. One resignation was enough. Besides, Cobb knew better than anyone that Joseph Pulitzer could not for the life of him resign in any meaningful sense as long as he breathed. Why pretend? The blind man fairly howled with rage, but the deed was done. Cobb would run the message in his own way, and in his own good time.

Mr. Roosevelt is mistaken. He cannot muzzle The World.… We repeat what we have already said- that the Congress of the United States should make a thorough investigation of the whole Panama transaction, that the full truth may be known to the American people.… This is the first time a President ever … proposed, in the absence of specific legislation, the criminal prosecution by the Government of citizens who criticised the conduct of the Government.… If The World has libelled anybody we hope it will be punished, but we do not intend to be intimidated by Mr. Roosevelt’s threats, or by Mr. Roosevelt’s denunciation, or by Mr. Roosevelt’s power. December 16, 1908

Notwithstanding this episode, the climate abruptly improved. The following month J. P. sent word from Carlsbad that he had actually enjoyed the editorial page of late, “and particularly enjoyed your brisk, vigorous letters.” What in the world had come over him? The answer was delightfully simple. In writing Pulitzer the letters he demanded, Cobb had at last struck a tone that made his anguished employer laugh. One Cobb letter that month ran this way:

… Am devoting most of my energy to helping [Governor Charles Evans] Hughes, and nobody needs help more than he does. He is improving in many things, however. Coming down from Albany the other day he said to [Louis] Seibold [chief of the World ’s Albany bureau]: “God damn that man Hearst.” Then he repeated it three times. That’s doing very well for a hard shell Baptist who has been superintendent of a Sunday School.

It is only less meritorious in its way than Roosevelt’s remark to Tim Woodruff [a G.O.P. wheel-horse in New York] about Oswald Villard [publisher of the Evening Post ]. Something was said about Villard and the Evening Post , and Woodruff asked Roosevelt if he knew Villard. T. R. snapped his jaws together and gurgled: “You will excuse my French, Woodruff, but he’s a s-n-of-a-b-tch.”

I believe this is all the village gossip there is this week.