Thursday, July 21, 2011

Running for President - Over and Over Again

William Jennings Bryan ran as a candidate for the U.S. Presidency several times, and never won. Despite this, he is an influential figure in history. Northwestern University's Collin Hansen writes:

Williams Jennings Bryan trusted a God who sided with common folk. Bryan made a name for himself in the Progressive Era by fighting the economic elites of his own Democratic Party. His oratorical skills catapulted him all the way to the party's nomination for President in 1896 when he famously harangued the gold standard. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns," Bryan thundered, stretching out his arms. "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Jennings is difficult to categorize: by today's standards, he is neither a liberal nor a conservative. We are no longer debating about the exact relationship between the dollar and an ounce of gold, but in Bryan's era, the gold standard of currency was a divisive question. What is common to both eras is Bryan's sense of the common man. He reacted against any sense of aristocracy or elitism. Although he lost the 1896 election for the presidency, that did not stop him from running again:

Three times Bryan ran for President; three times he failed. Nevertheless, besides Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Bryan dominated the era of reforms that ran from the 1890s to the 1920s. He championed four constitutional amendments enacted during this period—prohibition, direct election of senators, the income tax, and woman suffrage. Known as the "Great Commoner," Bryan opposed the business interests that he believed had undercut America's working classes. "There can be no good monopoly in private hands until the Almighty sends us angels to preside over the monopoly," he argued.

Bryan's support for these four amendments defines his political stance, and some of the issues of that time period. Although some of his views may be naive - Prohibition was a failure and income tax has caused misery for millions - his intent is unmistakable, and these measures may have even made sense in their time, if not in ours. Aside from his political views, he was also known for his speaking skills, which allowed him to communicate those views to millions:

Traits that won Bryan the masses made him controversial and unpopular among others. A great speaker during an age of oratory, Bryan came across as a loud demagogue to many business and political leaders. He stuck to his principles and resigned his position as secretary of state in Woodrow Wilson's cabinet as America prepared to enter World War I. But Bryan had appeared inept in his efforts to mediate the conflict, and his simple piety did not impress opponents. Yet according to biographer Michael Kazin, "admirers embraced him because he so publicly campaigned in the name of Christian principles and was never known to have transgressed them."

After three runs for the presidency, a term as Secretary of State, and four years as a congressman, Bryan left governmental politics, but stayed involved in social and communal causes. He was bitterly attacked by H.L. Menken and Clarence Darrow, especially when he dared to voice skepticism about Charles Darwin.

But Bryan did not entertain any retreat from culture. "Sometimes the Christian has sought to prepare himself for immortality by withdrawing from the world's temptations and from the world's activities," Bryan said. "Now he is beginning to see that he can only follow in the footsteps of the Nazarene when he goes about doing good and renders 'unto the least of these,' his brethren, the service that the Master was anxious to render unto all."

Bryan's political method was to learn what was on people's minds - which questions occupied the ordinary citizen - and then address them. He was a

politician with principles. William Jennings Bryan's towering personality cast a long and controversial shadow over American politics. Biographer Michael Kazin says Bryan "burned only and always to see religion heal the world."

Despite the anger and hatred directed toward him, he remained peaceful and calm. He didn't use his speeches to stir up rage against those who were attacking him; instead, he simply worked to find ways to improve the lot of the ordinary citizen.