Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Elmer Davis: Defender of American Liberties

The nationwide radio audience that tuned into its sets on the evening of March 2, 1942, received quite an earful from CBS commentator Elmer Davis. The Aurora, Indiana-born Davis blasted the government’s ability to inform the public about the war’s progress. “Most of us would feel happier,” he told his listeners, “if we got a little more news about what is going on, provided that news did not tell the enemy something he did not know already.” Pointing out that there were already too many agencies in Washington, D. C., trying to distribute information to the American public, Davis called for the creation of a war news organization directed by one person.

The former journalist turned broadcaster got more than he asked for as a result of his verbal assault on the federal government. Acting on a suggestion made by E. B. White in the New Yorker, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of War Information and selected Davis to run its operations. “He [Davis] will have full authority to eliminate all overlapping and duplication and to discontinue in any department any informational activity which is not necessary or useful to the war effort,” read a White House statement about the appointment. The fifty-two-year-old Davis had stepped from a $1,000 a week radio job into a $10,000 a year government position. “As soon as they give me a chair to sit on in Washington,” he told reporters, “I’ll go to work.”

The take-charge attitude Davis displayed during his OWI experience in World War II served the Hoosier writer and broadcaster well a few years later when he confronted another foe—Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Amidst the hysteria generated by the senator’s allegations of Communists infiltrating the highest levels of government--wild charges that often brought ruin to innocent people—Davis’s “slow, even, Middle-Western voice brought reassurance into millions of American homes,” wrote his biographer, Roger Burlingame. Davis offered people hope through what he called his first and great commandment: “Don’t let them scare you.”
           
Davis was born in the southeastern Indiana town of Aurora, which perches on the banks of the Ohio River, on 13 January 1890. Davis’s father, Elam H. Davis, worked as a cashier for the First National Bank of Aurora, while his mother, Louise (Severin), was the principal at the local high school. Recalling his boyhood days in Aurora at a commencement speech for the town’s 1951 high school graduating class, Davis remembered one thing that distinguished the community from other towns its size “was the universal interest in music and the almost universal capacity for performing it.” Universal, that is, except for Davis. “I was one of the very few people around town who couldn’t sing,” he told the young graduates. “And to be unable to sing, in Aurora of those days, was about as much of a deformity as if you’d had both legs cut off by a freight train.”

Described by a childhood friend as an “avid reader,” Davis began his long career with newspapers the summer after his freshman year in high school by obtaining a job as a “printer’s devil” for the Aurora Bulletin. By the time Davis was ready to enter Franklin College at age sixteen, however, he had received his first payment for a newspaper story, $25 from the Indianapolis Star. He continued his association with the Star through his school years, serving as that newspaper’s Franklin College correspondent.

Returning to the United States in 1913 following a stint as a Rhodes Scholar, Davis found few job prospects back home in Aurora and took an editorial position with Adventure magazine in New York at a salary of $10 per week. A year later, the New York Times hired Davis as a reporter, a job he held for the next decade. During his Times career Davis covered a hodgepodge of stories, everything from the 1923 champion boxing match in Shelby, Montana, between Jack Dempsey and Tom Gibbons to political conventions (for which he created the popular Hoosier political commentator Godfrey G. Gloom from Amity, Indiana) and religious rallies.

In December 1923, Davis left his secure job at the “Great Gray Lady” for the insecure career of a freelance writer. Liberated from the daily grind of churning out copy for a newspaper, Davis rejoiced at his freedom, writing a friend: “Can you conceive the relief, after ten years of writing for tomorrow’s paper, of cutting loose for once and trying to see if you can do something good?” Davis busied himself with writing fiction and nonfiction for such publications as the Saturday Review of Literature, the New Republic, and Harper’s. He also continued to churn out popular fictional books, a habit he began in 1913 with the release of The Princess Cecilia.
           
Enjoying his success as a writer, Davis purchased a summer home in Mystic, Connecticut. Busy writing a serialized mystery novel for The Saturday Evening Post in Mystic in August 1939, Davis received a telephone call from Paul White, news department director for the Columbia Broadcasting System. White asked Davis to come to New York to fill in as a news analyst for popular broadcaster H. V. Kaltenborn, who was on assignment covering the unsettled situation in Europe. “I had done some broadcasting at odd times over the past dozen years, had sometimes even pinch-hit for Kaltenborn during his absences; but to fill in for him in such a crisis as this was a little like trying to play center-field in place of Joe di Maggio,” Davis said. Leaving his mystery serial unfinished, Davis spent the next few weeks reporting on the European crisis, working up to eighteen hours a day, but actually broadcasting for no more than one hour on any single day.

Over the next few years, Davis’s reports on the war news became a daily listening habit to millions of radio listeners. His ability to reach out and grab hold of the American public’s attention was clearly evident in Davis’s March 1942 broadcast urging the federal government to create one organization to be responsible for coordinating war news. E. B. White, writing in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column, went Davis one better by proclaiming: “Of the twelve steps we would like to see taken in this war without further delay, the first is the unification of the information bureaus and the appointment of Elmer Davis to head them up. Mr. Davis, on the air the other night, presented the best case for unification and the strongest indictment of the present mess. In our opinion not only is he right but he is the man to sit on the desk.”

Although he received White’s wholehearted support, Davis thought others might be more suitable for such a position. President Roosevelt, however, selected the man he described as the broadcaster “with the funny voice. Elmer—Elmer something.” On June 13, 1942, the government announced the creation of the Office of War Information with Davis as its director. The new agency consolidated the functions of the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of Government Reports, the division of information in the Office for Emergency Management, and the foreign information service of the Office of Co-Ordinator of Information.

Davis presided over what one observer called “the most powerful information agency this country has ever known,” with a budget topping out at approximately $25 million. The agency’s approximately 30,000 employees included newspaper editors, editorial writers, advertising experts, publicists, playwrights, poets, film directors, lawyers, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and diplomats. Despite his lack of administrative skills, Davis managed to wield this disparate group into an effective information agency. The director spelled out his philosophy for all to see in a sign posted in the OWI’s offices in the Library of Congress, Social Security Building, and U.S. Information Building: “This is a people’s war, and the people are entitled to know as much as possible about it.”

In his three and a half years in office, Davis attempted to balance the need for military secrecy with the public’s right to know. He also had to weather complaints from politicians that he was working to promote not the war, but Roosevelt and the New Deal; infighting among various OWI employees; and wild accusations that he was a Communist stooge. His continued efforts to acquaint the public with the war’s progress came to an end in September 1945, when, with World War II’s end, the OWI ceased to exist. In announcing the agency’s liquidation, President Harry Truman complimented Davis and his staff for their “outstanding contribution to victory.” Freed from his OWI responsibilities, Davis returned to radio, offering news commentary for the American Broadcasting Company. 

Davis may have left behind his wartime battles, but he was soon engaged in another struggle aimed at informing the American public—a battle against the Communist “witchhunt” begun by Republican Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. At a 9 February 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy proclaimed that he held in his hand a list consisting of 205 known Communists in the State Department. Although a special Senate committee headed by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings found little or no evidence to back McCarthy’s charges, the Korean War’s outbreak in June 1950 helped to heighten American fears about the possibility of Communist-sponsored subversion in this country.

Throughout the McCarthy years, Davis, in his radio broadcasts and books like the 1954 best-seller But We Were Born Free, appealed to the better nature of the American citizen, becoming one of the strongest spokesman for reason during those troubled times. Davis’s strong stance against the senator prompted letters of both praise and censure.
          
The battles Davis fought on behalf of freedom and fair play, although bloodless, did have an impact on his health. He suffered a stroke in March 1958 and became a patient at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D. C. Davis died at the age of sixty-eight on May 18, 1958.

The final paragraph of his book, But We Were Born Free, offers a fitting epitaph on Davis’s life and career. In it, he offers for his readers’ consideration the tale of the Philistines at the Battle of Ebenezer, who feared they were faced with a hopeless cause. “But then, realizing that nobody else was going to deliver them,” Davis wrote, “they said to one another, ‘Be strong and quite yourselves like men; and fight.’ And they did fight, and delivered themselves. So may we; but only if we quit ourselves like men. This republic was not established by cowards; and cowards will not preserve it.”
             
    
           
           




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