Crusading Editor

LIBERALISM has become an impostor term which throws its live-and-let-live mantle over all kinds of social workers, planners, meliorists, regimenters, and crusaders, as well as the followers of John Stuart Mill. Oswald Garrison Villard, in his Fighting Years: Memoirs of a Liberal Editor (Harcourt, Brace, $3.75), describes himself as a liberal. He has a better title to the term, I think, than most of his ‘liberal’ contemporaries. Still I shouldn’t call him primarily a liberal. He is really a crusader— a crusader, moreover, who is happier when he is ‘agin’ something, even a windmill, than for something. Oh, that mine enemy could become a President ora Prime Minister! he cries. His forty fighting years as an outstanding American editor are packed with his journalistic exploits, and they are mainly tilts.
Not that crusading is a non-liberal occupation. It all depends upon the matter of the crusade. The keeping alive of true liberalism based upon freedom owes much, indeed, to the critsaders. And Mr.
Villard was steeped in this kind of liberalism. His mother was the daughter of William Lloyd Garrison, who crusaded for the freedom of the human spirit, irrespective of the color of the skin that clothed it. Henry Villard was his father, a tycoon of his day, but a man who brought over from Germany the spirit of the liberal '40s. Of the two, the Villard strain was the true liberal. Garrison’s liberalism was fortuitous, for he was intolerant to a degree, and threw himself into the prohibition struggle with just the same zest that distinguished his antislavery campaign. Villard, on the contrary, was one of a noble group who sought consistently but una vailingly to found modern Germany upon the sweet reasonableness of parliamentary argument and self-control.
The psychologist might perceive in the life of the author of Fighting Years a Garrison-Villard dichotomy which has never been fused, a kind of intellectual schizophrenia. Edwin L. Godkin came to the aid of the Villard patrimony as our author’s journalistic mentor. In time the Villard scion sat in the same editorial chairs at the New York Evening Post and the Nation. Godkin was a great liberal, a sort of journalistic Cordell Hull, whose liberalism had a logical base in a diffusion of freedom to economic as well as religious and intellectual activity. Villard subscribed to the Godkin credo. But always the Garrison in him pulled him into one cause after another, seemingly for the sake of the struggle rather than for that of the end. He was always bubbling over with what Herbert. Spencer said that Americans lacked — namely, righteous indignation. The New Deal made the dichotomy clear, and Mr. Villard’s journalistic path difficult. He has been borne along with President Roosevelt’s passion for social justice even when that passion has been wrapped in illiberal economic controls.
What I miss in 529 these pages is a rationale of the Villard, or any other, liberalism. The omission is quite glaring, and isn’t even repaired by an evaluation of events and persons in terms of an informed liberalism. For instance, no journalist in America has devoted himself so generously to the cause of international peace. Yet his record has to do with peace treaties, disarmament conferences, and the like. Little is said about the illiberal economic practices which made peace impossible and the search for it by physical disarmament a fool’s errand. Only one reference can I find to the world’s real peacemaker, Cordell Hull, who still keeps flying the flag of a true league of nations — namely, an organization of nations tied together on a common recognition of the principle of equality of commercial treatment. One would perhaps not have dwelt upon this aspect of Mr. Yillard’s memoirs but for the Villard title. Read as the reminiscences of a journalist who has been behind the scenes for the last forty years, the book is fascinating. In the author’s pages the reader will meet the great and the near-great, and find their feet made ‘part of iron and part of clay,’ as the prophet Daniel put it. Mr. Villard has had a full life, and his chronicle of it is written in a sinewy style, a style which has given his pen so much power in the last. three or four decades.