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Moats: Autumn Of Discontent

When my grandfather retired from the Forest Service in the 1940s, his colleagues gave him a book - Audubon’s “Birds of America” - which is now on my shelf.

Looking through it the other day, I found an old newspaper clipping my grandfather had tucked away by the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler.

Today, we’re unhappy with the nasty tone of politics, the attacks, the hatefulness. But listen to this.

Pegler wrote that Truman was a man with “an adjustable conscience” because of the booze and brothels that were the business of Truman’s patron, Kansas City crime boss Tom Pendergast.

In dealing with Stalin, Pegler thought Truman was a “pathetic rube.” He called Truman “a phony, like Roosevelt,” “thin-lipped, a hater, a bad man in any fight. Malicious and unforgiving and not above offering you his hand to yank you off balance and work you over with a chair leg, pool cue or something out of his pocket.”

During Truman’s day politics were partly about the unions, and Pegler clearly hated the unions. Fair enough.

What struck me was the way Pegler was working Truman over with a verbal chair leg. Pegler remarked on the absence from Truman’s inauguration of his Republican opponent, Tom Dewey. Just as well, Pegler said. “Truman would have spat in his eye.”

My grandfather was a Republican, and a conservative, but he wasn’t an angry or ideological man. He wasn’t so different from Truman himself. He was a decent, small-town fellow who had lived in the country and worked hard. Still he liked this Pegler column enough to cut it out and keep it.

What strikes me is the gulf between the decent citizen with his own opinion and the nastiness of the opinion-maker. You can almost see the steam rising from the ink of that 65-year-old clipping, and you can sense Pegler’s anger straining for words.

These days that anger is all around, and I think it’s time to give it a rest. Certainly, there are plenty of liars and scoundrels and crooks around these days who deserve our scornful language. But what of the decent, ordinary people, like my long-departed grandfather, who was probably happier studying the warblers, vireos and owls in his bird book than imbibing Pegler’s toxic brew. I’m sure he chuckled at some of Pegler’s more colorful language, but he didn’t want to live in a world dominated by vitriol and hate.

In fact, I’ve been thinking lately that Presidents Truman and Obama have quite a lot in common, watching their popularity wane as they preside through tough times. Obama these days gets blamed for every misfortune to beset our sorry world, but as it has happened with Truman, despite the seething words of Westbrook Pegler, I think history is going to shine more favorably on Obama than we might expect during this autumn of discontent.

David Moats is an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
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