Academic journal article Journalism History

Westbrook Pegler, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the FBI

Academic journal article Journalism History

Westbrook Pegler, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the FBI

Article excerpt

A History of Infamous Enmities and Unlikely Collaborations

The conservative newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler was notorious for his enmity towards Eleanor Roosevelt, but according to previous scholarship she dismissed his criticism as insignificant. Scholars have depicted Roosevelt as a staunch champion of free speech rights and a strident critic of the FBI's intrusion into domestic politics. In late 1942, however, she asked the FBI to launch a wartime sedition investigation that aimed to link Pegler to the fascist enemy. This was six months after she had contemplated proposing a joint conference with him to consider the problem of union abuses. These overlooked episodes contradict the standard depiction of Roosevelt's response to Pegler and are a reminder of the news media's central role during World War II in efforts to support or attack the growing power of organized labor.

Westbrook Pegler's enmity towards Eleanor Roosevelt was legendary. It may be the most well known fact about the conservative newspaper columnist, whose career peaked in the 1940s and who prefigured the role of later controversial, news commentators such as Rush Limbaugh. He was, in the words of one biographer, Roosevelt's "most inveterate critic," whose "vitriolic attacks" seemed to border on irrational hatred.1 As a 1993 article in American Heritage put it, "her [Eleanor Roosevelt's] mere existence drove conservatives like Westbrook Pegler into spasms of rage."2

All accounts agree that her response to these attacks was to take the high road, maintaining "a ladylike reserve" as one book puts it. She did use her newspaper column, "My Day, to chide him once in 1942, sarcastically referring to the "virtuous Westbrook Peglers" who opposed beneficial New Deal measures such "as boondoggling." But as Maurine Beasley wrote in her 1 987 book, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media: A Public Quest for Self-Fulfillment, "This marked one of the few times that Mrs. Roosevelt directly attacked Pegler, whom she usually ignored, following her husband's advice not to get into a 'bad smells' contest."3 Othet accounts of their feud have emphasized the same theme. The prolific Roosevelt biographer, Joseph P. Lash, described in 1972 how "Westbrook Pegler made a career of attacks upon her." She "rarely answered Pegler," he explained, accepting his attacks as the inevitable result of her decision "to stand up for the underdog."4

Allida Black, in her 1996 book, Casting Her Own Shadow: Ekanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism, cited Eleanor Roosevelt's response to Pegler as evidence of her dedication to the liberal ideal of free speech. "Just as she refused to believe that the emergencies of war justified postponing domestic reform, ER also refused to believe the war warranted total suspension of political criticism." Black asserted that during World War II Eleanor Roosevelt "worked to restrain the zeal with which the administration reprimanded its critics." Thus, "despite the contempt in which she held their beliefs, ER defended the rights of the German American Bund, the America First Committee, Westbrook Pegler, and Father Charles E. Coughlin to state their opinion of American war policy."5

According to the standard version of their feud, Mrs. Roosevelt pitied Pegler. "He can't be a happy man," she told an interviewer writing a profile of her in the New Yorker. As "a woman marvelously unendowed with spite or rancor," the New Yorker article explained, she "regards the old boy with benevolence."6 He was, as one scholar explained, too unimportant to deserve a serious response from her. "ER generally ignored Pegler, once telling an interviewer she considered him a 'little gnat'."7

She apparently took the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, more seriously. At the website which the Public Broadcasting Service set up for its "American Experience" documentary on Eleanor Roosevelt, readers can go to a page titled "FBI Files," which describes the First Lady's antagonistic relations with the Bureau. …

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