Thursday, February 28, 2013

Elmer Davis

Elmer Homer Davis had a wit like Mark Twain, and a career like Edward R. Murrow. He remains eminently quotable.  In 1924 Davis wrote a zinger that rings true today:
"The only visible difference of any sort is that the Republican party seems to contain a slightly higher percentage of crooks, and the Democratic party of fools."


Davis was a classic  intellectual. His Hoosier accent may have made his radio career but he was ivy league material. He was born in 1890 in Aurora Indiana. A droll and witty youth, he attended Franklin College and graduated magna cum laude. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and attended Queens College, Oxford. He graduated and became a writer for the New York Times in 1914. He wrote 3 books before 1921 including a history of the New York Times. He stayed on staff until 1924 when he left to freelance. He went on to write for Harpers, the New Yorker, the Life and many other publications. He began appearing as a guest on CBS in 1930.

Elmer Davis became a radio news reporter in 1939 when Paul White, the news chief at CBS, asked him to fill in as a news analyst for H. V. Kaltenborn. (Kaltenborn was on assignment in Europe.) By 1941, the audience for Davis' nightly five-minute newscast and comment was 12.5 million.

In 1942 After less than 3 years in his CBS role, Davis was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as the director of the newly created United States Office of War Information (OWI). That's no small promotion. He went from the talent pool to executive management in a government organization with over 3,000 employees. He had no management experience. Davis landed the role because he brought with him public respect and integrity. In the end it wasn't much of a weapon against internal politics and bureaucracy. He didn't get along with Truman nearly as well.

Davis took strong stands on divisive issues. He recommended  to President Roosevelt that Japanese-Americans be permitted to enlist. This was in an era when Asian-Americans were being interred in concentration camps.  Davis won the issue with Roosevelt, and some Asians were permitted to enlist in a special regiment, (including one future senator) but the camps remained. He also steered VOA programming toward news and away from propaganda. He wanted to retain the objectivity of a his former newscast. In some ways his view agreed with that of John Chancellor who saw VOA as "selling" America as an idea by upholding it's ideals.

 When OWI closed in 1945 Davis took on a role at ABC as a newscaster weeknights. there he criticized McCarthy in the red scare, and opposed Wallace in 1948. He left radio in 1953 and gave TV news a try in 1954 then retired for real. He wrote, published collections of his writing, and died in 1958.