American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell

By Edward S. Mihalkanin | Go to book overview
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WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN (1860-1925)

Served 1913-1915

Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson

Democrat

William Jennings Bryan looked as little like a secretary of state as anyone who has ever occupied the office. His baggy, countrified clothes were always rumpled, his hair a long untidy fringe around his bald dome. His pockets were stuffed with official dispatches, letters, and memoranda scribbled on the backs of old envelopes and with radishes, his favorite snack. Informal and gregarious, he preferred farmers to foreign dignitaries. Each summer he left Washington to deliver inspirational speeches before rural audiences, who gathered by thousands to hear his rolling baritone voice. To urban critics, his appearances on those Chautauqua stages, along with magicians, comedians, and ventriloquists, were proof that he was unfit to be secretary of state. When he refused to serve wine at official functions, many people derided his “grape juice diplomacy.”

That Woodrow Wilson chose such a seemingly inappropriate person to be secretary of state was, of course, a result of time-honored tradition. Bryan was appointed because he was the most prominent figure in the Democratic Party, and Wilson asked him to serve to have him “in Washington and in harmony with the administration rather than outside and possibly in a critical attitude.”

Bryan's influence on Wilson administration policy resulted from his personal relationship with the president. Although Wilson had earlier opposed Bryan politically, the two had hardly met before 1912. Bryan's support for Wilson's presiden-tial candidacy and their agreement that Christian principles ought to guide policy gave them common ground on which to stand while they discovered that they liked each other. “My father …, Bryan recalled, “saw no necessary conflict—and I have never been able to see any—between the principles of our government and the principles of Christian faith.” Wilson might well have said the same thing. Moreover, Wilson's adherence to reforms that Bryan had long championed and Bryan's loyal support of the president's domestic policy drew them together. Had they not disagreed over the proper response to German submarine warfare, Bryan might well have served eight years in the cabinet rather than a little more than two.

-74-

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