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The Voice of Elmer Davis

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

In the winter and spring of 1953,” Elmer Davis says in the Author’s Note that introduces But We Were Born Free (1954), “I was going around the country, preaching sermons on the need of defending the freedom of the mind.” The substance of those speeches, reworked and pieced out with new material, became the long opening essay, “Through the Perilous Night,” that is the heart of But We Were Born Free. Packaged with several essays from the same period, which began as articles or as lectures that in turn became articles, the contents formed Davis’s first book since Not to Mention the War (1940). Except for his history of The New York Times (1921), where he worked from 1914 to 1924, and his novels, about which the less said the better, his books were collections of his magazine work. He begins the introductory essay in Show Window (1927)—”To You, Whoever You Are”—with a joke about the book’s lack of unity and then goes on to discuss the contents in a way that indicates, as if by accident, that Davis himself is the unifying force in a gathering that ranges from an appreciation of Catullus (he took Greats at Oxford) to a caustic consideration of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, where he was born in 1890. There is no pretense of disunity in But We Were Born Free. Of “Grandeurs and Miseries of Old Age,” he says, “This may seem to have no connection with the theme of the book; but you will find that it has.” Even when Davis seems to go roundabout, his collection is clearly designed to insist that we are not yet through the perilous night and that we had better, as Americans with freedoms to defend, face up to the fake patriots—self-serving congressmen and professional anti-Communists,

“who play the circuit of Congressional committees, as horse players go from one track to another.”

But We Were Born Free may seem to have been a little late getting into the field. Congressional investigations of presumed subversion had been underway since the late 1940’s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee uncovered—if that is the word—the Hollywood Ten; and Senator Joseph McCarthy—”a master of the obscene innuendo,” as Davis calls him—had made his debut as a self-advertised rat-catcher in his infamous Wheeling speech in 1950. Washington Witch Hunt by New York Herald Tribune reporter Bert Andrews had appeared way back in 1948. Not that Davis offers himself as a lonely fighter for freedom. The book is sprinkled with appreciative quotations from those who obeyed what Davis calls “the first and great commandment”: “Don’t let them scare you.” This group includes not only fellow journalists but men like Judge Learned Hand, James B. Conant, and Harry S. Truman. Davis himself had been speaking out for years, as Roger Burlingame indicates in his biography of Davis (1961), which he calls—not surprisingly— Don’t Let Them Scare You. As Davis says in a throwaway line in the essay on aging, “My fan mail includes a good many gleeful predictions that I am going to be lynched.” Why then this new impetus in 1953, this urgency to preach from lecture platforms and through bookstores? It was the year in which Senator McCarthy was riding highest and was riding roughshod over opposition in and out of government. Davis gives their due to the HUAC and the Senate Internal Security Committee, but it is McCarthy who fuels But We Were Born Free.

Who was Elmer Davis that he might be presumed capable of reaching and persuading an audience? That is a question I never expected to have to answer when I first considered a new look at But We Were Born Free, but younger colleagues and librarians to whom I mentioned the project simply did not know who Elmer Davis was. Celebrity passes quickly. Legendary figures aside, best-selling authors, politicians, movie stars, and certainly radio commentators fade quickly from public memory. My head is full of voices that once had a tremendous impact on the American public. I can still do a passable imitation of H. V. Kaltenborn, but where is the audience for it?

The Elmer Davis who took to the podium in 1953 was not The New York Times writer, for he would have been largely forgotten by then; nor was he the author of light fiction even though Heywood Broun (I know: who’s Heywood Broun?) once plugged Davis’s amiable yawn, Times Have Changed (1923), as “The most amusing book we have read recently.” He was not even the Davis who headed the Office of War Information during World War II. He was the radio voice, the one that, as E. B. White said in his enthusiastic review of But We Were Born Free (The New Yorker, Feb. 20, 1954), “in 1940 used to steady us at five minutes to nine, quieting our goose pimples.” Davis got into radio almost by accident, substituting for Kaltenborn at the end of 1939 and then filling his own five-minute spot on CRS until he went to Washington in 1942; after the war he moved to ARC, where, according to Burlingame, he was given greater freedom to speak his own mind in his fifteen-minute “Elmer Davis Presents the News.” That was the man who went after McCarthy in 1953, a crusade that is generally believed to have led to the first of the strokes that finally killed him in 1958.

How effective was Davis’s book as a weapon against McCarthy and his followers? Its critical reception was largely favorable, and the public response was strong. It sold almost a hundred thousand copies. Yet Davis had his doubts about the efficacy of his mission. At the end of the Author’s Note, he writes, “I am afraid, however, that I was preaching mostly to just men and women who need no repentance.” Ironically, it was another radio man, turned television personality (Davis’s own brief foray into television came later), who greased the skids for Senator McCarthy’s noisy slide from power. Shortly after the publication of But We Were Born Free in February, 1954, Edward R. Murrow in “See It Now” (March 9) presented the famous McCarthy segment in which carefully selected film clips were used to let the Senator damn himself. On April 22 the Army-McCarthy hearings began, and in December of that year the U.S. Senate censured McCarthy. Congressional investigations did not stop, and the set of mind that they represent has certainly not disappeared. Yet 1954 did represent a turnaround of sorts, and But We Were Born Free played an important part in that changing ideational climate. The book may have preached to the converted, but Davis did much to strengthen the convictions of those who had already found their way to the mourners’ bench.

Now, more than 40 years after its publication, what kind of life does But We Were Born Free have? That other anti-witch hunt document from 1953, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, has grown in popularity, now rivaling Death of a Salesman as the playwright’s most frequently performed play, but it has done so by becoming divorced from the context that elicited it. Its historical setting allows it to speak of false accusation at any time and place. That is less easy for a book like But We Were Born Free. Partly as a result of his work in radio, where the day’s news dictated the shape of his commentary, and partly out of his perception of the immediate danger to democracy, Davis works with specific cases—horror stories—of Congressional overreaching. To many readers the text may be allusive, full of names and events that once evoked predictable responses, but which are now lost in the shadows of the past, best recoverable in detailed histories for which books like Davis’s are representative artifacts. To someone my age, for whom this period is not ancient history, the villains and victims are familiar; and I found myself frighteningly at home as I reread the book. Old angers, old exasperations were reawakened, but McCarthy has been dead for 38 years. That train has long since passed, and it is far too late to untie the innocent heroine from the railroad track.

Yet there is nothing retrograde about the basic impulse of Davis’s book. There may be something quaint about the idea of a domestic Communist conspiracy, and the impropriety hunters may now be after different quarry, but, behind whatever mask, the rectitude boys remain convinced that they speak for God, the country, and universal values. “This is a hard-hitting and exhilarating book …” wrote Charles J. Rolo in The Atlantic (April 1954), “full of quietly murderous thrusts at the heresy-sniffers, the doublethinkers, the would-be thought-controllers, the cowardly conformists, and at absolutists of various stripes.” That is a cast of characters that no one should have difficulty recognizing today. Davis brought to his attack the strength of his refusal to be part of group-think from the left or the right. He saw the Communists in Russia and China as dangerous insofar as they stuck to their declared doctrine and pointed out that domestic anti-Communists were benignly uninterested in any threat from abroad. Even within the administration, he says, there were those who “if asked to name the two most important and dangerous Communists of recent years, would give you not Stalin and Malenkov, but Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White.” He recognized that some of those investigated were indeed Communists without accepting that it needed indiscriminate accusations from congressmen and old Comrades (born-again patriots) to finger a few men and women who were in any case no danger to the country. In a parenthetic aside, he says, “Congressional committees seem to be the only people in the country who believe what they read in the Daily Worker.”

Two prevailing ideas, evident all through Davis’s work, are central to But We Were Born Free—his distrust of true believers who insist that everyone else must be made to stand in their particular light and his conviction, perhaps an inheritance of 19th-century optimism, that people have the power to rectify wrongs, correct errors, rout intruders. These can be seen as early as his first novel, The Princess Cecilia (1915), at once an imitation and a parody of the kind of romantic fiction that Richard Harding Davis wrote—a book that the author later tried to forget. There is a peripheral character in the novel who has come to the fictional Ambok to study the conservative Moslem party for his History of Militant Puritanism from Chrysostom to Comstock (see Davis’s “The Comstock Load: Reflections on Censorship,” reprinted in Show Window), and there is a more important one, the president of the “Society in Favor of the Prevention of Things.” The hero, an amiable Indiana boy fresh from Harvard, prefers to stand outside events, to look on with amusement, but the love of the titular princess brings him into the action on the presumed right side. Attitudes that are jokes or plot necessities in this happily forgotten novel become increasingly real for Davis. “Fear of intelligence, fear of thinking, fear to trust your own opinions” are the chief targets in But We Were Born Free. “But we can all do something to resist this general drive against the freedom of the mind,” to stand up to “the kind of people who want to make other people think their way, or else to stop thinking at all.” In the final piece in the book, “Are We Worth Saving? And If So, Why?,” the mindless supporters of McCarthyism are generalized into a perennial presence, “a sediment, a sludge, at the bottom of American society” (“some of them white-collar and even top-hat primitives”) who are “actuated only by hatred and fear and envy” of “their own neighbors who try to think.” The point of the essay—of the book as a whole—is that although this sediment may be always with us, courage and a willingness to act, to speak out can prevent it from dominating our society. Today’s newspapers are full of sedimental proclamations. Despite the minutiae of its period, But We Were Born Free speaks strongly to the present.

“He was always more interested in content than in form and manner,” wrote Robert Lloyd Davis, the author’s son, in his introduction to By Elmer Davis (1964). That is probably true, but there is more than content to lure readers to But We Were Born Free. There is the voice of Elmer Davis, the one that E. B. White described and that August Heckscher celebrated in his New York Herald Tribune review (Feb. 14, 1954). In the Museum of Television and Radio in New York there are a few samples of Davis’s radio voice. In three of his five-minute broadcasts from 1940 (May 30, May 31, June 1) he reports the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk. He speaks without the hysterical note that too many television reporters bring even to minor events. There is something calming about his voice, quieting the “goose pimples,” as White said; but the disastrous events are never covered over with soothing syrup. So it is with But We Were Born Free. Davis is not a stump speaker; despite his conversion metaphor, his sermons would be out of place in an evangelist’s tent. There is never any doubt about the urgency of his message, but he gives it in a deliberate, intelligent, unhurried, and unharried voice, one marked—as his work always is—with wit and irony.

At one point Davis cites a Ford Foundation grant “whose function was frankly stated as the restoring of respectability to the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution” and the response of Congressmen R. Carroll Reece—a call for still another investigation of tax-free foundations. On the day that Reece introduced his resolution, a Congressional committee approved a bill to erect a monument to those freedoms. “The monument was to be erected right outside Arlington Cemetery,” Davis says in a quiet finish to the passage. “If Mr. Reece and those like him have their way, it had better be put up inside the cemetery, along with the monuments to all the other distinguished dead.” Sometimes Davis leans too heavily on a good line. At the end of a paragraph on the presumed advantages of getting old, including tax breaks, he says, “and if I have the additional felicity to become blind, I can deduct some more.” He does not really need to begin the next paragraph with “I have no ambition to go blind at any age, despite the allurement.” Most of the time, however, the acid asides and the summary final lines that complete ugly examples stand on their own. This is a familiar comic device, one that Davis used often in his magazine writing. For instance, in “Remarks on the Perfect State,” a deceptive appreciation of Sparta, reprinted in Show Window, he ends a paragraph with a joke (“a helot had no more rights in Sparta than a conservative in Russia or a pedestrian in the United States”) which should—but somehow does not—soften the point he is making. Certainly the wit that sprinkles the pages of But We Were Born Free never masks Davis’s anger at injustice and his contempt for willful ignorance. “And convictions are absolutely incompatible with a sense of humor,” says the hero of The Princess Cecilia, but that is before he finds those of his own. Convictions go hand-in-hand with a sense of humor, as But We Were Born Free shows, particularly when one is ranged against the humorless overconvinced thought-police.

Elmer Davis’s was a comforting voice in 1954, even as it argued that the perilous night would not end until we insisted on the return of the dawn’s early light. It offers the same comfort and the same warning today.


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