Last week, religion writers listened to Sarah Palin’s convention address expecting heavy religious code, the scriptural allusions that have come to be standard fare in speeches by Republicans and Barack Obama. There wasn’t much—“a servant’s heart,” a prayer for her son sent off to war. But there was, for those with ears to hear it, a far more disturbing allusion: to Westbrook Pegler, a mid-century Rush Limbaugh, and then some. At the height of his popularity, he was more powerful; as he faded, he fell back on such rank anti-Semitism that even anti-Semites considered him tacky. One conservative paper begged him to come up with fresh material and lay off “1) New Deal and Roosevelts; 2) Kennedys; 3) Jews.” He was a homophobe, too—he once described a critic who’d crossed him as “the bull butterfly of the literary teas”—but he expressed his hatred of homosexuality in such queeny terms that even those who shared his bile turned a blind eye to their man’s evident relish for a certain campy rhetorical style.
Pegler was meaner than Limbaugh, but there was also more to him than Limbaugh. Peg hated fascists, until he became one. He despised fat cats, which may be why he came to loathe himself and anyone who reminded him of his past, including his once-beloved Newspaper Guild. He was contemptuous of political platitudes, unless they were his own. His populism was real, even if his expression of it was not.
Heywood Broun, the leftist columnist with whom he shared the front page of the New York World-Telegram beginning in 1932, once observed of the angry man to his right, “Some day somebody should take the hide off Peg because the stuff inside is so much better than the varnished surface which blinks in the sunlight of public approval.” That’s not to say Peg was a sweetie underneath. He was an angry man through and through, born into hatred of Hearst inherited from his father, responsible for the “Hearst Style,” a populist tongue of blood and cliché, expressive of the sentiments of working people but emptied of any real political content, and forever ashamed of that invention; he’d damn it in its own terms, describing Hearst papers as resembling a “screaming whore running down the street with her throat cut.” Pegler was like that, too; he filled the coffers of his publishers, but he hated them more than he loved the money they paid him. He hated authority, simply put; and when he wrote from the “stuff inside” he channeled that hate into blistering condemnations of corruption that resulted in at least two prison sentences for the deserving.
When Sarah Palin, reading a speech by McCain speechwriter Michael Scully, declared “A writer declared: ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity,’” she passed right over the stuff inside to stand blinking behind her $365 rimless Kazuo Kawasaki glasses in the sunlight of public approval.
In 1999, I spent several weeks poring over Pegler’s columns for a profile of the long-dead columnist in The Baffler, the now defunct journal founded by Tom Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?. Tom’s already done a better job than I could of taking apart Palin’s pander, ugly in its implication that those who don’t live in small towns—80% of America, according to the U.N.—are somehow morally deficient, and insulting in its disregard for the actual facts of life in the very small towns ill-served by the policies championed by Palin. So I’ll stick to Peg, and see if he doesn’t carry back round to Palin, by way of her curiously geographic theology.
Pegler wasn’t a small town man himself until the end of his days. Even when he wrote of the mythical little people—no, not fairies; the common folk—he did so in terms that sounded distinctly urban. Forgive me for quoting my own work; it’s the only piece of Pegler’s work I have available to me:
Pegler carried on his campaigns in the name of one particular “little guy” known as George Spelvin, American. “Spelvin” was the stage name an actor used at the the time when, in addition to his main role, he doubled in a small part. The Spelvins of the world were servants, butlers, messengers, clerks, men-on-the-street, and passersby. Pegler’s Spelvin, though, was an early Archie Bunker. Union men, uppity women, swells, bubbleheads, and, eventually, foreigners, blacks, and Jews all gave George Spelvin a stomachache.
In 1942, Spelvin went looking for a job because “Mrs. R.” (Roosevelt) had “said she thought everyone should be ordered what to do by the government,” and her orders were to fit into the war effort anywhere you can. Turns out, though, there were no more jobs in America that didn’t require a union card, and “Bigod nobody is going to make him join anything whether it is the Elks or the Moose or the Mice or the Muskrats or whatever. It is the principle of the thing with George, and, moreover, being a native American and a veteran of the last war, he has a rather narrow prejudice against being ordered around by guys who talk like they just got off the boat.”
Spelvin’s borough of bubbleheads sounds more like Brooklyn than Mayberry. His anxieties, his bigotries—organized labor, immigrants—are those most commonly attendant to urban living. Even his name is a sly joke for working class sophisticates, common men who’d know enough about culture to be able to whistle “Fanfare for the Common Man,” another populist delusion penned in 1942.
That doesn’t sound like Sarah Palin. Too many Obama supporters have been too quick to prove Palin right when she spoke of the snobs who look down on people like her. Palin is from a small town, and her interests are those of a small town citizen; her churches are small town congregations, suddenly being scrutinized by an army of blogger theologians. Like Pegler, they’re honing in on the wrong targets, angling in from the left instead of the right with aim just as shaky. There’s nothing wrong with being a moose hunter, or a snow machine racer, or a red neck, or a holy roller. The gift of tongues is not a form of political expression. At least, not one easily intelligible.
What should be worrisome about Palin’s religion and her small town roots is the way they seem to merge, the territorial spiritual warfare of her churches phrased in secular terms through her channeling of Pegler. “Territorial spiritual warfare” is the idea, embraced by Palin’s pastors, that entire cities can be possessed by demons. Small towns, too, theoretically, but that’s not usually how it works. The first time I encountered it was at Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, in Colorado Springs. When I asked for a restaurant recommendation, I was warned to steer clear of downtown, no matter what I did; urban areas, New Lifers told me, are rife with demons. It was no accident, one New Lifer told me this past spring, that Pastor Ted’s downfall occurred up in Denver, surely a sister city of Sodom.
That view, it should be remembered, is very much a minority perspective within conservative Christianity. Indeed, there’s just as strong a movement toward cities, as hipster evangelicals plant new churches in New York, Chicago, and L.A. with names like The Journey, The Awakening, and Revolution. But Palin is not a hipster evangelical. She is, as she tells us over and over, a small town girl. And she grew up in a small town church, one with a fondness for spiritual war and a wariness of cosmopolitanism. “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity.” Palin didn’t put that in her speech, a professional speechwriter did. But in her mouth, the fever that filled all of Pegler’s words becomes the spirit, an imaginary municipality, Smalltown, U.S.A., becomes a site of rhetorical pilgrimage, an invocation of place as faith.
The only time Pegler ever lived in a small town were his last years, when he moved into the desert outside of Tucson. Much of what he wrote was no longer publishable, but he sat in his empty, pure, American landscape pounding out more and more of it, trying to get at the monster he couldn’t name. Nearly 40 years after his death, Palin has dragged Pegler into the spotlight again and resurrected his blinking words. In his mind, they were hate, but in her speech, they were theology. Palin, for all her bigotries, is not a hater. She’s too holy for that. Her religion allows her the luxury of sincerity. Which is why it’s worth considering the words with which the late Oliver Pilat began his 1963 biography of Pegler, The Angry Man of the Press: “By his own standards, he was incorruptible, honorable, and sincere, but sincerity is only an effort to gauge reality and conform to it, and his tools for that effort were inadequate.”