88th YEAR OF CONTINUOUS PUBLICATION
by DIXON WECTER
THE news commentator is a creation of recent history with its wars and rumors of wars. The public craves both a digest of today’s news and a preview of tomorrow’s. This the commentator undertakes to supply. He is introduced as “the noted analyst,”“the military expert,”“the distinguished authority on the Far East,” “the dean of radio correspondents,” or “the commentator who sees all, knows all, tells all.” About this awesome personage the average listener knows nothing. What are his credentials and personal history, his prejudices and vanities, his veracity or proneness to exaggerate?
The commentators on the air today are a mixed lot, with varied backgrounds. Globe-trotters, foreign correspondents, and sports writers lead the field. The Lindbergh legend, in its heyday, helped to lift three lucky journalists into permanent fame as national commentators: the late Boake Carter, a Philadelphia rewrite man who did an on-the-scene broadcast from Hopewell about the kidnaping; Gabriel Heatter, a sporting-goods trade writer who covered the trial and electrocution of Hauptmann; and Fulton Lewis, Jr., Washington columnist who persuaded Lindbergh to go on the air in September, 1939, to tell Americans what to think about the war.
The typical evolution of a commentator runs as follows. An announcer gets the job of reading fifteen minutes of press association bulletins, and does so in a pleasant, crisp, authoritative voice. A local restaurateur happens to tune in, and thinks it might be a good idea to advertise his dollar dinner through a late afternoon news broadcast. So the newscaster finds a sponsor and a regular spot on the schedule. As time passes, the war and peace about which he talks become intimately a part of his daily life. He begins to read books on military strategy or global geography, to brush up on pronunciation of foreign names, to inject his opinions or forecasts into the news, and to grow acutely aware of his listeners and the power he wields. Isn’t he telling them what to think, persuading or converting?
Our ambitious newscaster is discovered by a talent scout, who promises to build him up into regional, perhaps national, stature. Soon a full-fledged commentator, he finds himself commenting upon everything, traveling over the country, lecturing to women’s clubs, writing for magazines, and entering the portal of success, which in the higher circles of radio resembles the world of the theater — with its dazzling salaries, fan mail, dramatic flair, logrolling, and personal éclat — rather than the world of pressrooms. The infinite amplification of his natural voice by the microphone creates an illusion that is somehow transmitted to his psyche. He grows steadily more oracular, boasting of his access to “inside dope,” “leaks,” “pipelines” in high places, hinting at conspiracies he is exposing, or wearing the dark flower of a martyr complex because somebody wants him taken off the air — all the while self-hypnotized by the thought of millions hanging upon his words.
Copyright 1945, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
One well-known commentator and his loyal wife hope and expect that some day he will be President of the United States, and innocently make no bones about it among friends. It is conceivable that some day a commentator with extraordinary gifts as a demagogue might draw a following so large, so fanatic, as to lift him beyond any sponsor’s control. The careers of that very great flour salesman, Huey Long, and that lesser one, Pappy O’Daniel, illustrate the interchangeable talents of selling goods and selling ideas. And of course the technique of making converts by radio — whether to a religion or to a socio-economic program — is similar, as the careers of Alberta’s Aberharts and our own Coughlins and Gerald L. K. Smiths show. Where they failed, a new Huey Long might succeed. For if America ever gets a dictator, whatever his other talents he will almost certainly be a great radio artist.
THE trouble is that, with many commentators, a sense of power fails to beget an equally keen sense of responsibility. They discover that audiences have short memories, that flimsy rumors and bad guesses today are forgotten next week, or that the stratagem “Attack, attack, always attack!” is a stimulant for listener apathy. One San Francisco commentator explained to the station manager that his policy on every program was to single out some individual in the news — no great matter who it was — and belabor him lustily. It sounds so plausible to air some passing grievance, especially now that the easing of military necessity means, to the shortsighted, that we need no longer pull together.
An instance of such irresponsibility is the career of a man who never was, Phillip Keyne-Gordon, heard from Station WJW over a Mutual chain between August, 1942, and January, 1944. Five Ohio radio men were secretly involved in the creation of KeyneGordon’s opinions, personality, and voice. When inquiry showed that no such man existed, the death of the show quickly followed.
Through the year and a half of his earthly life, Keyne-Gordon blithely ridiculed both the New Deal and Wendell Willkie; announced in August, 1943, that “fathers will not be drafted,” and proclaimed that “we ought to get some things out of this war for us”; in September remarked that “the average American doesn’t want the duty of keeping peace among the neighbors’ brats”; in November blasted the food subsidy program as “the spore from which Communism can develop” and hailed the supposed impotence of the War Production Board as “the failure of efforts to regiment a free country.” The epitaph of Phillip Keyne-Gordon was uttered by one of his creators, Mr. J. R. Reed: “It was a lot of fun while it lasted, but the party is over.”
On the darker side, it may be stated that a commentator whose voice is now silent once had sources of information so curiously coördinated with the Axis line and espionage activities that he attracted the thoughtful attention both of the FBI and of military intelligence. A few other commentators, far less sinister, have occasionally stepped to the borders of military security, and certainly well over the limits of good taste, for the sake of a good story, conjecture, or prediction.
The weighty inference drawn from any given piece of news depends, often predictably, upon the analyst who speaks. Let us take an item from last year’s news, old enough to be seen in proper perspective — namely, Pravda’s story in January, 1944, that British and German agents were rumored to be talking negotiated peace, published against a background of Anglo-Soviet tension over Poland.
Commentators uttered both wise and foolish things about this story of the day. Boake Carter suspected that Russia was about to make a separate peace herself; hence she accused Britain first. Upton Close deduced that the internationalism professed at Teheran was only window dressing, that Britain and Russia were both packed with guile, and that it was up to us to bring the boys home as soon as possible and look out for America first. Rupert Hughes took the incident as a warning against any rosy dreams of world brotherhood. Quincy Howe judged it a rebuke to Britain for having encouraged the Polish government-in-exile in London.
Lowell Thomas found the Pravda story queer, but was heartened by the publicity Stalin gave to the British denial. Kaltenborn warned the Soviet Union that such behavior was prone to estrange the friendship of her allies. Gabriel Heatter exhorted us to foster a greater Russian faith in our sincerity. Sam Balter guessed that German propaganda had found its mark in some naïve Russian journalist. Joe Harsch termed the incident “an indication of the problem of getting acquainted across the barrier of a generation of strangeness.”
Fulton Lewis, Jr., reflected that Russia was merely turning the tables, after many yarns about a separate Soviet peace; he added that the story which had just broken was old stuff to him, since he had seen it in an American publication some two weeks earlier. When a scholarly CBS analyst in the West, Wallace Sterling, wrote asking for chapter and verse, Mr. Lewis genially replied: “Sorry I can’t help you out, but I read so many papers I just can’t recall.”
LET US glance at the equipment and methods of some of the best-known commentators.
At the top of his profession stands Raymond Swing. A Congregationalist minister’s son educated at Oberlin, Swing has twenty-one years’ experience as a foreign correspondent in England, France, and Germany, a ripe knowledge of languages, history, world politics, and modern diplomacy. He is a man of almost fanatic integrity. A middle-of-the-road liberal, Swing has the temperament of neither firebrand nor evangelist; in his editorial days he worked successively for the WallStreet Journal and the Nation. After a period of service with the BBC, in 1934 Swing began to make occasional broadcasts on foreign affairs for CBS, and in 1936 found a weekly spot with Mutual, his program later becoming a daily feature.
At Prague at the time of Czech mobilization, he reported the crisis of Munich less dramatically but more thoughtfully than did Kaltenborn. The first year of the war gave him a sponsor and national fame; in the desperate summer of 1940, millions listened nightly to his gentle, dry voice of authority, which clarified the news without overplaying it or sounding like radio oratory. “ The simple truth of my success,” said Swing in those days, “ is that the war has scared Americans to death.” Roosevelt, King George VI, Churchill, General Marshall, Nicholas Murray Butler, and a Parliamentary group in London called “the Swing Club” were reported to be his faithful auditors.
After Pearl Harbor, Swing volunteered as a dollar-ayear man to the State Department, but was told to stick to his guns. Since September, 1943, he has been at the top of the Blue Network — now the American Broadcasting Company — string of commentators. The OWI recognizes him as a strong morale-builder because of his calm and fair analyses, and has regularly sent his voice by short wave to an estimated twenty million listeners abroad. Here at home, his Hooper rating is not so high as formerly — considerably below that of Lowell Thomas, Walter Winchell, or Gabriel Heatter, for example. The growing sunrise of victory has made him seem less indispensable to many listeners than when he was a reassuring voice in the dark, although he is really at his best, and perhaps most useful, in analyzing the non-military problems that loom so large just now. Some think him high-brow, prosy, too solemn. One recalls Irwin Edman’s playful jingle: —
But only God can talk like Swing.
In prestige, however, Swing stands unimpaired. His winning of the Peabody Award for news commentary, in 1945, is the most recent of many honors.
Radio listeners can be grateful to Swing for fitting the news into the structure of history. His research pieces, which form the coda to the day’s spot news, are often masterpieces of fact assemblage and lucid common sense — sometimes reaching levels of highly controlled emotion, as in his famous 1943 broadcast on the anniversary of the Nazi burning of the books, or his words in 1945 on the day of President Roosevelt’s death. Because of their excellence, his scripts are sought for permanent deposit in the Library of Congress.
Since early in the war Mr. Swing has denied his access to “inside stuff” from abroad, remarking that censorship and the time-lag make such mysterious sources almost useless. But quantities of data he does receive, from the Foreign Policy Association, the Council on Foreign Relations, and excellent contacts in the State Department and Whitehall. Unlike the majority in his guild, Swing has a solid foundation of economics, political philosophy, and international law upon which to build.
Swing has made some mildly bad guesses, of course — such as his prediction in November, 1943, that Franco was too discredited to last more than a few months longer; and now and then, in his enthusiasm for a new book, like Harrison Forman’s Report from Red China, he may be a shade reckless in pronouncing one witness’s report “incontrovertible facts.” But the assay of his scripts is remarkably high. While other voices, to draw the crowd, assail this or that Federal agency, political group, or individual, — and devote more space to a mastiff shipped by air than to global war, — Swing keeps his sense of values, of first things first, of democratic essences. With calmness he will even analyze this spirit of factionalism which is prone to grow larger as victory looms. “National unity,” he will say, “is not a condition in which everybody thinks the same thing at the same time. It is a condition in which men and women know the value and contribution of disagreement, but are mature enough to know the point beyond which disagreement cannot be carried in safety.”
Both in judiciousness and in subtlety, Swing is often unlike his fellow analysts. In April, 1945, for instance, on the eve of the San Francisco Conference, after the New York Herald Tribune forced the revelation that Roosevelt and Stalin had made tentative and secret agreements about multiple voting in the Assembly, some commentators dismissed the matter of Assembly votes as unimportant in view of the powerful Security Council. Others interpreted the disclosure as proof of the President’s guile, still others of his pliancy before Stalin. The majority echoed Kaltenborn, that the instant exposure of the deal was a good thing.
But Swing reflected that it is not the business of newspapers “to conduct our foreign policy” and embarrass our relations with other countries by publishing every trial scheme of which they can get wind. Apart from the right or wrong of this proposal, airing it was a needless embarrassment, until discussions at the conference table could explore possibilities and give the whole subject of representation true perspective. Purely domestic relations, said Swing, always benefit from frank talk and debate; but international blueprints, like military affairs, may suffer from premature publicity because they involve external relationships, and in their trial states are subject to adjustment, compromise, improvisation. Those who criticize our diplomacy as naïve and gullible are often the first to cry “Machiavellian! ” when that diplomacy tries to keep the world from seeing all the cards in hand. This analysis is characteristic of Swing. It may also suggest why his sharpest critics accuse him of being an unofficial voice of the State Department.
Able understudy of Swing, and his recent successor as American reporter on the BBC, is Joseph C. Harsch, forty-year-old Ohioan, graduate of Williams College and Corpus Christi, Cambridge. Since 1932, Harsch has covered Washington, Rome, and Berlin for the Christian Science Monitor. He began radio work for CBS in Berlin, was transferred to Washington in 1942, and was overseas this spring. Harsch has an excellent voice, a clear, terse vocabulary; and like a good newspaperman, he works whenever possible from the direct source. When they are both in Washington, Harsch and Swing compare notes by telephone on the day’s news. Harsch is a shade less objective than Swing, more obviously the crusader for the little man, and a friend of open covenants in world politics.
THE dean of commentators, Hans von Kaltenborn from Milwaukee, a sergeant in the Spanish-American War, Harvard graduate, traveling salesman in France, tutor to Vincent Astor, long-time editorial writer for the Brooklyn Eagle, made his first broadcast on April 21, 1921, when he addressed the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce from Newark, New Jersey. A year later he became the pioneer American news analyst, with his head held in a photographer’s vise to keep him from straying from the primitive microphone. One fancies that a certain rigidity entered into his radio manner which has never been lost.
The perfect type of German schoolmaster, stubborn, dignified, humorless, and pompous, Kaltenborn nevertheless has made history. He reported the London Economic Conference of 1933, the Pan-American Peace Conference in 1936, and in the same year first transmitted the sound of gunfire in broadcasting from the battlefields of Spain. His handling of the Munich crisis, when for days he took the premier place on American air waves, translating speeches as they were made in German, French, and Italian, and giving his analyses hour by hour, played an unforgettable part in rousing Americans to the gravity of the things to come.
It also established Kaltenborn as the favorite commentator of millions, a position he still holds, with a daily rating nip-and-tuck with that of Lowell Thomas. A veteran analyst, long entrenched in public confidence through bad times and good, he enjoys over newcomers a more durable advantage than do other radio artists. The news itself is his variety.
Although he has been right oftener than wrong, and is patently honest, Kaltenborn is fallible, headstrong, sometimes hasty. After a tour of Europe in August, 1939, he clung firmly to his hunch that there would be no war, but only another Munich, up to the very hour that Hitler’s panzers surged into Poland. In January, 1940, in an article in Scribner’s Commentator, — a magazine soon to turn isolationist and revile Kaltenborn as “a Go-to-War jingo” and pro-Soviet because he once broadcast from Moscow, — Kaltenborn ventured typically rash guesses. “Hitler chose Stalin’s Russia as his ally and chose wrong. For by that choice he alienated Italy, Hungary, Spain, Japan, as well as all the true neutrals. . . . Mussolini is too intelligent a realist to help Hitler lose his war.”
Of the Duce, Kaltenborn naïvely said, “Shortly before invading Ethiopia, he took the trouble to explain to me his repeated efforts to come to an understanding with the Emperor of Ethiopia,” and with equally innocent vanity, “Lord Halifax himself assured me that the British Foreign Office is entirely reconciled to German economic domination of the Danube valley.” This is recognizably the same Kaltenborn who, upon returning from France early in 1945, began his report with the phrase, “When I had the benefit of an hour’s talk with General Eisenhower” — alluding to a press conference attended by more than a hundred correspondents.
A glorified newscaster, rather than analyst, is Lowell Thomas. The record of his busy, extrovert, successful life speaks for itself: young reporter in the Rocky Mountains, teacher of oratory in a Chicago law college, instructor at Princeton, photographer and historian of World War I in Europe and the Near East, explorer and lecturer, writer of adventure books about Lawrence of Arabia and Luckner the Sea Devil and of inspirational essays on keeping mentally fit, popular radio veteran, and more recently television commentator. Competent news digests, simple language, stress upon human interest, a warm, likable voice, and a kindly, hopeful outlook placed him at the top of a Fortune poll in 1940 and in the lead in a popularity vote taken early this year by Radio Daily, among a thousand newspaper and magazine professionals.
Coming on the air earlier than other major evening commentators, Thomas is a great favorite with the farmers, who like his plain, conservative talk. “Lowell Thomas to me means a good newspaper in the house” was a typical listener reaction in a study made by the Office of Radio Research.
Neighbor and reputedly voice-tutor of Governor Dewey, Thomas is not prone to espouse daring or reckless points of view. He is no deep thinker, but well balanced. Yet, as an instance of the hard row that even this mildest of commentators must hoe, Thomas was roundly upbraided by a listener of Polish descent for failure to mention in his comment on that day’s World Series game the home-run hit by “Whitey" Kurowski — which omission, wrote the listener, was an insult to Poland and an act of “discrimination and intellectual dishonesty.”
Thomas is almost unique among commentators in his reliance upon a staff of ghost-writers, the chief being a former newsman of the New York World, Prosper Buranelli. Indeed, Lowell Thomas is not only a man of flesh and blood, but a collective entity, a factory producing great quantities of copy— made articulate in a crisp voice going out over the air waves, and echoing from the sound-track of cinema news in conjunction with a friendly, clean-cut face.
THE military expert, writing and speaking to laymen has been one of the notable home-front development in this war. On the radio, this clan is best represented by Major George Fielding Eliot. No station would ever hire him as announcer; his harsh and dogged voice, plodding like a regiment at the end of a long hike, offers no blandishments. But he has a considerable fund of knowledge, from his four years with the Anzacs in the last war, his night school studies of strategy as an R.O.T.C. enthusiast in a world between wars, and the summer weeks in army camp that brightened humdrum years as a Kansas City accountant and writer of battle stories for the pulps.
At the outbreak of this war, Major Eliot was one of the few professional writers who knew an echelon from a cadre, and has probably the best collection of maps in the country outside the Pentagon. Men with stars on their shoulders have respectfully consulted him, but the average serviceman probably has little respect for any armchair strategy and omniscience. Major Eliot has taught Americans useful lessons in military vocabulary and the essentials of strategy.
But in foreseeing the future, Major Eliot has been as wrong as the next man. Even his sound book advocating preparedness, The Ramparts We Watch, observed that the United States Navy needed little expansion. In 1938 he judged that “Germany is by no means ready for war and that the combined power of the Franco-British alliance is comfortably superior to that of the Rome-Berlin axis,” and in the early summer of 1939 he found the Germans “far less ready for war than they were in 1914.” From London on September 2, 1939, he reported that “the Polish Army will not be easily destroyed nor quickly overwhelmed.” A few months later he pondered America’s future: “This is one time when we’re strong enough to stay out of war. It’s nonsense to worry about our getting in.” In June, 1941, he “doubted” that Hitler would invade Russia, but when the blow fell he promptly foretold “an early German success.”
Less than a month before Pearl Harbor he announced at Town Hall: “Japan is in no case to fight a war with a group of major opponents. Her army is sadly out of date . . . Japanese air power ... is almost non-existent.”Up to the end, he took a bright view of the defensibility of Hong Kong and Singapore. Nevertheless, under the bludgeonings of chance, the Major began to build secondary defenses, which have steadily grown more impregnable. As early as April, 1940, regarding the battle for Norway, he said: “Before this arrival of German reinforcements takes place, the British may begin to arrive. Or they may not.” Since that time, over many a situation, he has warned listeners and readers “to keep a balanced viewpoint,” “to reserve judgment,” and to remember that “nothing is certain about war except its uncertainty.” This is the ripe conclusion of an expert.
One group of radio analysts might be termed the kinetic school. Strenuous, emotional, dramatic, they aim to electrify or inspire. The deepest thinker and most eloquent is Dorothy Thompson, formerly of the Blue and more recently with Mutual. Her sponsors, makers of men’s clothing, obviously believe that her careerist femininity appeals to business or professional men more than to the average members of her own sex. Yet Miss Thompson’s first crusade, in her college years, was on behalf of woman suffrage. Through her later career as free-lance journalist and overseas news editor, she remained a passionate idealist. Between her expulsion from Germany in 1934 and her withdrawal under police guard from a 1939 Bund meeting in Madison Square Garden, which she had heckled with “strident laughs,” Miss Thompson won the international honor of being a thorn in Hitler’s flesh — a more vigorous and intellectual valkyrie than Geneviève Tabouis.
At times, in the latter thirties, her sponsor, General Electric, was reported to worry over Miss Thompson’s private war with the dictators, waged every week in a crisp, metallic voice rich with scorn and irony. But events have surely vindicated her, as they did her astute forecast of a Russo-Nazi pact in 1939. Yet even Miss Thompson has prophesied rashly — for example, when she predicted just before Munich that England and France would fight for the Czechs, or foretold six years ago a peace between China and Japan, or scouted the idea of a third term, for which presently she made campaign speeches, or inveighed against a pre-war America which (she was convinced) had turned “soft.” In a specimen broadcast, as of January 28, 1945, she anticipated that the Russians would roll straight into Berlin and the European war would end in three weeks —adding that “the Oder River is a barrier that exists only in the minds of military commentators.” Perhaps her most dubious guess has been the steady assumption that a great renascent democracy lies ready to sprout through the crust of Nazi dominion. “Listen, Hans! ” she cried three years ago, exhorting to revolt the little man, the frustrated democrat, in Hitler’s Reich.
MOST daring of forecasters—“The Commentator Who Knows All, Sees All, Tells All,” in a breathless staccato is Drew Pearson. He covers Washington much as his crony Winchell covers Manhattan. Each achieves a Sunday quarter-hour of emotional patriotism, flash news, undercover stuff, and sheer adrenalin. They have converged upon the same center from different directions.
Winchell is a boy from the sidewalks of New York who rose from vaudeville turns and a leaflet of stagedoor chatter, to the tabloids and a morbid fascination with gangsters (“the baddies”) soon supplanted by his hero-worship of G-men, thence to a dawning awareness of world crisis and the biggest gangster of all, Hitler, and finally to a warm appreciation of America and its ideals — “the land that stands for Freedom, Tolerance, and the Dignity of Man.” But Pearson has been steadily living down his staid, high-brow origins: his father the college professor and Chautauqua lecturer, his own schooling at Phillips Exeter and Swarthmore, his Balkan relief work with fellow Quakers in 1919, his instructorship in industrial geography at the University of Pennsylvania and later Columbia, until globe-trotting inducted him into the world of journalism.
The turning point of Pearson’s life came in 1931, with the anonymous Washington Merry-Go-Round, which he and his collaborator, Robert S. Allen, began to syndicate. Puncturing stuffed shirts and clambering over the hedges of official reticence entertained the nation in that winter of our discontent. Pearson has had every commercial incentive to continue to do so. He is today notably persona non grata with his former employers, the Patterson press. Pearson’s broadcast of March 12, 1944, in which he read a cable sent in strict confidence by the Chicago Tribune, ordering from its London correspondent a story on the Army’s Stars and Stripes, “an out-and-out Communist New Deal paper,” left one more mystery for the McCormick-Patterson staff to ponder.
Pearson’s pipelines have caused endless speculation and some insomnia in the national capital. President Roosevelt in September, 1943, referred pointedly to Pearson as “a chronic liar,” after the latter charged Secretary Hull and associates with a desire “to see Russia bled white.” (This was the second international embarrassment of the season to draw upon radio analysts the President’s ire; only a few weeks earlier the OWI had rebroadcast to Europe Sam Grafton’s remarks about “Italy’s moronic little king.”)
The following November, Pearson gained even greater notice by breaking over the radio his story of General Patton’s slapping the soldier. But the commentator’s assured forecast, that Patton would never be used in combat again, fell wide of the mark. In recent times the General’s press has been excellent, a fact for which some credit is due Pearson’s partner, Colonel Allen, who is now Patton’s public relations officer.
The announcer occasionally points with pride to some development which has vindicated Pearson’s feature billed as “Predictions of Things to Come.” To his credit, Pearson scooped the world on the destroyersbases exchange; he foretold Hitler’s invasion of Russia three months before it happened, our war with Japan two months in advance, and numerous domestic matters ranging from the Navy’s Elk Hills oil deal to dozens of Federal resignations and appointments.
On the debit side, in November, 1942, he announced that a true second front would open before the winter’s end, but as late as March, 1944, he declared that Churchill would resign if Roosevelt joined Stalin in demanding an early opening of the second front. Pearson disclosed in December, 1943, that General Marshall would lead the invasion of Europe, but shortly before D Day he divulged that President Roosevelt would go to a place “close to the scene of action to help direct operations.” Last July he asserted that “war in Europe will be over in a few weeks. Germany will make a peace bid before Labor Day.” On March 11, 1945, he stated that the British had kidnaped the Fascist criminal Roatta in the midst of his trial to prevent his revealing some of Churchill’s shady dealings with Mussolini, and he conjured up a delectable image by predicting that “Hitler will flee to the mountains of Austria, probably disguised as a bearded Jewish rabbi.”
In the world of Drew Pearson — a maze of hairtrigger intrigue, gossip, conjecture, semi-official secrets, Capitol Hill grudges, and tattletales, with alleged tapped telephone wires and planted dictagraphs — there is never a dull moment, but neither are they all lucid. This Merry-Go-Round often bears scant resemblance to the real world: its hue is bright and glittering, the excitement adolescent, and the sense of getting somewhere dizzily deceptive.
WINCHELL, another gossip, has grown more responsible with the years. Since his induction to radio fourteen years ago, with five minutes of chatter on the Lucky Strike dance program, and his early ventures into foreign affairs with Jergen’s (March 29, 1937: “Adolf and Benito have phffft! The break will be officially announced soon enough”), Winchell has learned a good deal. He still retains a touch of that egotism which inspired him, on September 2, 1939, to dispatch a cable to Prime Minister Chamberlain advising him to declare war, not upon the German people, but upon their Nazi leaders, and then to credit himself with Chamberlain’s adoption of the idea.
The hysteria of clacking telegraph keys is no milieu in which to mold thoughtful opinion among the biggest audience enjoyed by any American commentator on the air. But, armed with such formidable popularity, he has long been able to by-pass employers — whether his advertising agent and the Blue Network, or the editors of Hearst — in the expression of views often at picturesque variance with theirs. Winchell was a strong and early interventionist, a friend of England, and a tireless exposer of “international rogues” and the fifth column at home. Running battles with the late Senator Lundeen, Hamilton Fish, Clare Hoffman, and Martin Dies probably won him more popularity than they lost. And Winchell’s services to the Navy, whether by local recruiting or good-will tours in South America, where a little flamboyance is not amiss, counterbalanced the trouble he caused the Navy by drawing fire from Congressional snipers.
Winchell’s language is no more reticent than the man himself. He once called the opponents of food subsidies “thieves, crooks, and chiselers.” In the late winter of 1943 he assailed not only those pre-Pearl Harbor isolationists in Congress but “all those damn fools who re-elected them.” Many citizens flooded the FCC with protests against his “profanity on the Sabbath day,” and Winchell retracted the epithet.
Those same files, however, reveal that the commentator’s most persistent attackers are anti-Semites, whom to offend is an honor. “Winchell (the jew) is disrespectful of the old stock Americans who has built up this nation” runs a specimen, in semi-illiterate vein Some complain he is always boasting about Jews, like Irving Berlin and Eddie Cantor, or noting that “ a Jew was the first man of the Soviet forces to cross East Prussia" ; but another plaintiff, hinting that Hebrews are mainly engaged in draft-dodging and the black market, asks, “How is it that no mention is ever made on Winched s programs regarding Jews?”
In reply to such critics, Winchell might have quoted one of his little morale-builders, on his broadcast of last September 24: “The American doctrine of tolerance for the world will be judged by the tolerance Americans have for each other. That means that this country can no longer afford to be tolerant of the intolerant. Tonight there are some Americans sharing the same grave who in the United States could not have shared the same hotel.”
THE last of the vibrant commentators, with a national following estimated at ten or eleven million, is Gabriel Heatter. Samplings show that he appeals most to the moderate, white-collar class, whose frozen salaries under inflated living costs he often mentions with keen sympathy. Heatter’s throbbing resonance and solemnity suggest the camp-meeting exhorter, ringing changes upon the same refrain, calling errant nation^ to repent as he contemplates the darkest hour of the Axis: “Lord, make it dark, and make it bright for all mankind.”Again to quote from Irwin Edman: —
Than gleeful, gloating Gabriel Heatter.
A lover of shadow-boxing with the enemy — “Heatter hounded the Duce like a dog,” he will recall — and inventor of long imaginary conversations between Hitler and his generals or followers, this commentator has personalized the war to a high degree.
He constantly thinks of himself as an institution Lately he wrote to Mr. Philip Hamburger, author of an adroit New Yorker profile called “The Crier,” thanking him for the pen picture and saying, “Now, at last, Heatter can look at Heatter.” In these times of military success he likes publicly to recall gloomy days “when a man had to pray as he went to his microphone,”and a man named Heatter like a voice crying in the wilderness” promised that all would turn out right. In truth, his staunch optimism, even when uttered with doleful inflection, is almost proverbial. Some will remember a George Price cartoon in the summer of 1940, which showed a motorist with caved-in radiator being towed by a wrecking truck, and to his rescuer gravely explaining, “Gabriel Heatter sounded an ominous note as I rounded a curve ”
Heatter’s peculiar style is due to two things. In the first place, he is the latest of commentators with big evening audiences, and inherits headlines already somewhat stale. So with the fact he tends to give a maximum of interpretation and rhetoric. “Tonight” is his key word-"We are driving on the road to vicTORY TONIGHT.”LONG ago he knew that Mussolini and Hitler would crumble, and now he believes that Soviet Russia can be fully trusted. He sends the old folks to bed secure in the knowledge that the world is safe for another night. This is the core of his popular appeal.
Heatter’s idiom — somehow recalling an undertaker’s manner —is explained by still another thing, his early career. As a boy orator in Brooklyn, writer of human-interest stories for Hearst, and composer of inspirational editorials for Field and Stream and the Sporting Goods Salesman, he taught himself to look for the sunny, wholesome, uplifting aspects of life. His friendship for the birds is perennial: in winter broadcasts he still pauses amid the wreck of empires respectfully to suggest that crumbs be put out for the robin redbreast. He used to broadcast five minutes of heartthrob or inspiration for Johns-Manville: boy saves dog, or dog saves boy, or the tale of an impoverished mother who offered her services to an aerial circus in order to provide costly music lessons for her talented daughter —"lessons mde possible by a mother jumping in a parachute!”
Heatter is said to weep easily. His coverage of the Hauptmann case by radio was a masterpiece of sentiment, drama, and resourceful ad-libbing. These gifts still remain. Only recently, after a long analysis of what the Byrnes curfew order might or might not mean, Heatter ended disarmingly, “Why, I suppose a man could go on speculating like this all night long, and get nowhere.” And at this point he turned smoothly to Kreml, “an unrationed pleasure . . . you’ll discover a new enjoyment in your hair.”
On other weekdays he addresses “the great war against gingivitis — gingivitis, that creeps in like a saboteur.”No sponsor could ask for greater ardor than Heatter can bring to a middle commercial, ambushed in the thicket of the news. By and large, Heatter is really an exhorter, not an analyst. Spot news is merely the bible from which he culls a text for tonight. His influence is good, because his heart is in the right place, even though it is a considerably enlarged organ.
(To be continued)