Calls Party Policy a “Chastened, Weary, and Disillusioned Liberalism”
By the demise of the Bull Moose, White was presented with a fairly clear-cut choice among three possibilities. He might declare himself politically independent, shift major emphasis from active politics to his literary career, and, as author and journalist, commit himself wholly to truth, justice, and beauty as he saw and felt them. He might join the Democracy of Woodrow Wilson who, after all, had adopted in 1916 much of the New Nationalism that T.R. was abandoning and who, like White, was “eager to see the rising power of industrialism checked, controlled and channelled to the common good.” Last, he might follow T.R.’s “leadership” back into the Republican party, which he had repudiated on grounds of principle in 1912, and whose organization, because of Bull Moose defections, was now more firmly in the hands of predatory big-business interests than it had been then.
Either of the first two choices would have jibed with White’s continuing progressivism. But the choice he made was the third.
Probably it was less a rational choice than a compulsive act, determined by basic character drives. Certainly a factor in it was his personal love for Roosevelt, his personal dislike of Wilson. Certainly, too, his attraction toward power and prestige, though he now recognized its moral dangers, remained as great as it had been a decade before. His close friends and associates were all of the “governing classes” (a favorite phrase of his) in his hometown, in Kansas, in the nation; by 1918 they were all again Republicans; and in his eagerness to please he could not bear to displease them—at least not to the point of possible enmity.
And so, hat in hand and rueful, he returned to the GOP. His misgivings were profound, his illusions few, as his autobiography indicates. He recognized that bribes subtle and tangible were offered ex-Bull Moosers for their return to the fold. “Harmony” became the watchword of Republican leadership.
Token concessions were made to progressive sentiments yet abroad in the land. (America was now at war: the reform movement was halted, even reversed, for the duration.) A goodly number of the Roosevelt men of 1912 and 1914 were permitted Republican nomination in 1918, and most of them, with full party-organization support, won election. But the main thrust of party policy and program remained unchanged by (as White wrote) a “chastened, weary, and disillusioned liberalism” whose “rise” in the Republican party failed to “curb greatly the activities of the greedy, egoistic forces in that party which controlled the organization. They treated us liberals … to liberal helpings of veal from the fatted calf; but, like the elder brother, they kept right on running the farm.”
But having returned to Republicanism, and perhaps because he returned so dubiously, White became at once addicted, as he had been a decade before, to strict party regularity at election time. It was as if he sought to overcome inner doubt through an unbroken outward assertion of belief. The effect, alas, was to widen his schism of the soul while (to the extent of his public persuasiveness) retarding or preventing developments which he as a progressive, as a liberal, personally favored.
He had approved the domestic policies of Wilson’s first administration. He approved Wilson’s conduct of the war. He strongly favored the League of Nations. He was appalled by the cynical “smoke-filled-room” convention in which Harding received the 1920 presidential nomination. Yet he editorially supported Harding’s candidacy in the Gazette , and far less lukewarmly than he afterward liked to remember; he repeatedly insisted publicly that the League was not an issue in that campaign (“The League is safe, whatever happens …”), though Democratic candidate Cox supported it strongly while Harding was deliberately vague; and subsequently—after Harding in the White House had scuttled once and for all U.S. participation in the League and had abundantly demonstrated what “normalcy” meant in practicehe found it possible to declare in a Collier’s article in 1922 that Harding had gathered around him “the best minds” in America and was “doing a better than fair job” as President.
Never afterward, with a single exception, did White fail to support the straight Republican ticket—local, state, national—in election years, despite his more than tacit admission in nonelection years that the Democratic party far more accurately expressed his domestic and foreign-policy views. The single exception was in 1924 when White himself ran for governor of Kansas as an independent. He knew when he filed that he had not the slightest chance of election, and his filing, along with the campaign he subsequently waged, was of a piece with the one strand of consistency that ran straight and true through all his public life, namely, his commitment to civil liberties in general and to the First Amendment in particular.