While David Witwer was writing a recent book that featured Westbrook Pegler, he had to spend a lot of time explaining who Westbrook Pegler was. Many of those who asked about Witwer’s work would simply shrug when Pegler’s name came up in conversation. Maybe, as you read this, you’re also drawing a blank.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Pegler was one of the most famous people in America. His newspaper columns, which blended red-meat conservatism and populist appeal, drew millions of readers across the country. And, in 1939, Pegler hit upon a sensational story, uncovering some unsavory ties between organized labor and organized crime. His fearless reporting, which relied on his own legwork, helped expose a network of corruption that compromised the ability of unions to represent their rank-and-file members.
But Pegler began to rely less and less on reporting in his columns, and more on random speculations that indulged his prejudices. “As his columns degenerated into intemperate screeds in the years that followed, critics would tag Pegler as the ‘stuck whistle of journalism,’ ” Witwer recalled in a recent article about Pegler for Humanities magazine. “His conservatism drifted into extremism, and by 1962 he became too strident for the Hearst syndicate, which canceled his column.” Pegler eventually turned to writing for the John Birch Society, a right-wing fringe group, but even the John Birchers had to let Pegler go. He died in 1969.
Pegler’s life is a cautionary tale about what can happen when any politically engaged citizen, whether conservative or liberal, loses perspective in the daily grind of political discourse.