The Making of a Progressive
During the first half of the first decade of the twentieth century, William Allen White became a progressive. Borrowing from the biblical motif of the prodigal son, he would later characterize the change in terms of a near- religious conversion from conservative to reform Republicanism. Nonetheless, the transition was more a matter of identity than of ideology. It can best be understood as the gradual elaboration of a new self-definition in response to a series of moral challenges and political and economic opportunities. These changes were sometimes very subtle, for he abandoned few of his former roles and rarely altered his ideas substantially. But, to make sense of his experiences, White gradually reordered the priorities among the many roles he performed as small-town newspaperman. He pieced together a new configuration of roles and beliefs, which together formed a new identity as moral champion of his community. White's emergence as a progressive is closely linked to his career as editor of the Gazette, for his newspaper was his chief tool in crusading for moral and economic righteousness. Moreover, its prosperity made possible his political independence. 1
After 1900, White's ambitions for greater autonomy and recognition brought tensions among the obligations of his diverse roles as prospering businessman, rising community leader, aspiring man of letters, and faithful Republican partisan. He had learned well the lessons of practical politics, and he had served the Hanna organization as publicist and grass- roots organizer. In turn, he had been rewarded with the patronage and public reputation that had assured his journalistic career. Yet, as local resentment of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" had taught him, partisan loyalty could have its drawbacks: it undercut his efforts to expand the Gazette's circulation and ran counter to his role as local booster. Moreover, as White sought greater political influence, he became aware that his factional allegiances blocked his own coming of age as a leader. Over the next five years White gradually loosened his ties to the conservative faction led nationally by Mark Hanna, regionally by Cyrus Leland, and locally by Calvin Hood, and cast his lot with a new coalition of ambitious young Kansas Republican politicians who identified themselves with the dynamic new president, Theodore Roosevelt.
Although this transformation was gradual, it was not without trauma, for it required cutting personal bonds of long standing and questioning long-held assumptions. White's quite genuine anguish when he found him-