Our Uncensorious Censor

By Donald Wilhelm

[The Independent, January 5, 1918]

GEORGE CREEL is one of those individuals whom one must catch in transit—hard to get into focus, therefore, hard to catch whole, hard, even, to swat and sweep in fragments upon, a magazine page.

Which is one reason why he is one of the most interesting specimens alive, as well as a good teller of yarns, a fighter, and a fierce hater of Germans!

"Undoubtedly something of Creel's rare capacity to kindle devotions," Peter Clark Macfarlane wrote admirably in Collier's four years ago, "is written in his face. We see at a glance the broadish round-cornered brow of the intuitional type of mind which sees widely and thinks clearly but emotionally. The nose is strong and full—feeling again!—but not the sloppy kind of feeling!—rather a tense and refined emotionalism, as indicated by the sharp inturn of the nostrils at the base and the manner in which they quiver in excitement." And now skipping a little—"glance at his hair, carried straight back as if by the headlong speed with which the man dives into whatever enterprize commands his allegiance. But do not think he dives recklessly. Consider his eyes. They are brown and recessed, but gather light. They are woman's eyes, for sympathy and softness, but when wrong has roused them they are warrior's eyes and flash with battle light. For this young George Creel is a fighter, a champion in the lists for the lowly. He has an instinct for humanity. And so, just from looking at his picture we can begin to understand his troubles,"—is troubles, yes, and, incidentally, his passion to reach that mystical entity called the heart of the human race, the very breath of America—to reach it in homes and hamlets, factories and fields, all over the world.

Isn't it clear, thus, that he is an unusual censor?

But look:

"Creel," I asked him, "do you like to censor?"

"I have never in; my life," he said, biting off his words, "put emphasis on destruction. All my life I have fought for freedom of speech and freedom of the press." And he has! He has fought with feet and fingers, head and heart and soul.

In Kansas City, at eighteen, a cub reporter on the World, he fought with his editor—and forthwith made off to New York City on a cattle train, there to write; to assail magazine editors with jokes—for sale!—meanwhile, and, when the weather was propitious, earning one or two square meals and a roof without many leaks, shoveling snow. He cleared, at last, toward spring, for Kansas City. He started a paper there. And he fought! And only his ideals were constant. Yet in ten years he had established himself in nearly all ways under the sun—financially, even. But only to give his paper away! With fifty dollars to make for Denver—according to his lights politically a great and wicked city. There, in its rare atmosphere, where an editorial writer wore a flowing necktie and signed his name, he espoused, first, municipal ownership of local waterworks. He won!

In the next session of the Legislature the Senate blocked the initiative, referendum and direct primary law after Creel and the House espoused it. Then said George Creel, in black and white, double-leaded double-dyed editorial, certain senators—these, by name—ought to be hanged, which naturally, offended them.

Then followed a libel suit, for $100,000. In court, amid other brilliant speeches, when Creel was urged to retract: "Never! Never! The hemp! The hemp! The hemp!'' He won—again! Then more winning fights'! But at last the Post intimated, and he said, that he was on his way!

So the present Censor became a magazine writer and was one, enthusically, until he was asked to go back to the high country and write for the Denver Rocky Mountain News. He went at once into the fight for commission government. Twenty thousand signatures to a petition were secured—yet that petition was thrown into a waste basket. Thereupon the young editorial writer roused Denver and got 35,000 citizens out on the east lawn of the Capitol one bleak and silent day and passed the resolutions he had written—"one of the 'most remarkable demonstrations," Mr. Macfarlane testified, "ever witnessed in an American city, and it clearly showed Creel's great genius for firing and directing the public mind."

Then, with two others, he was made a member of a Board of Excise, Fire and Police Commissioners. Promptly he took the clubs away from the policemen. He let the I. W. W. talk all they wanted to, and they quit talking. He took up the most complex social questions and championed methods of solution until, having in his straightforward, earnest way made enemies enough, the city of Denver verily raised itself up high above the Rockies and dropt itself on him, squeezing him and his wife—Blanche Bates in her stage days—out of Denver—which repented, anon.

And then he rested! But only till the second day and then he saw that there must be light lest the torch of Liberty be sunk in a sea of corporation iniquity. So, like a real American eagle, he picked out the big game, and in one or two magazines blazed away at it, helping even, the publicity squad of the Wilson Campaign Committee put what he called the "rhinoceros birds"—the guardians and publicity agents of some big corporations—to flight. Then the war came to America and when the Secretaries of State, War and Navy asked the President to appoint "a man of proven courage" to be chairman of a Committee on Public Information, the President appointed George CreeL. The newspapers looked upon him' as a censor—'naturally, since a stern censorship bill was before Congress — and in less time than it takes to say so this Young David had no less than about five or ten thousand Goliaths in the Fourth Estate, with clubs and sixteen hundred other weapons, on his trail. They misunderstood their David. That was very sad, but it did not spoil David's appetite.

"Why, it's -war!" I told him, naturally.

“I’m used to it!” he said.

But the really astounding thing was not that not one of all the thousand newspaper and magazine men in Washington got him understandingly on paper, not that, tho the press and Heaven and Congress spared not the wind to this shorn lamb with no prerogatives or power, but that this lamb settled agreeably into the collar and accomplished one of the biggest, most comprehensive but least expensive achievements of war time Washington.

Every day, now, he sits in his office, a youngish man facing a tremendous responsibility, and uses the Navy radio—-the greatest in the world—to whisper round the earth four or five thousand words—the President's or -other's—to thwart any one in any attempt to- malign the U. S. A. Every day his skilled news gatherers, all under oath, of allegiance to the United States, all trusted alike by the Government and by the newspaper correspondents, the thousand of whom the Government officials hardly could see every day in the precarious days of war, get the news from the departments concerned most intimately with the prosecution of the war.

They go back to the two old adjoining red-brick dwellings on Jackson Park, hard by the White House, the State, War and Navy Departments, all of which, like the Department of Justice, the committee serves, and write this news. It is approved, carefully, as would not be possible otherwise, then released to all the newspapers and all the press, or, if it is not news that best can be telegraphed, sent by mail to all the papers large and small in America, with release date specified upon it.

This same news is used in a noteworthy little daily newspaper published by the committee-—The Official Bulletin—which is edited by one man and an assistant, printed by the Government Printing Office and distributed to senators, representatives, post offices, editors, libraries, and to private individuals (who pay five dollars a year for it) to number of more than 80,000. This daily is truly an invaluable record of official news. It likely will never be discontinued.

The committee-has a division, i.e., one room, one director, one stenographer, cooperating with the newspaper syndicates.

It has the Four Minute Men—fifteen thousand of whom are speaking in the intermission of motion picture theaters in every state of the Union—all supplied simultaneously, week by week, with information prepared by the committee.

The committee has a Speakers’ Division, too, with Arthur E. Bestor, head of the Chautauqua, in charge, which sends out men, singly or in groups, across country—a reserve force administered wherever the purposes of democracy require it.

And the movies, too, figure largely in the Creel plan. Hundreds of thousands of feet of film are sent from the Committee on Public Information to every part of America every week, and to Russia also, to Scandinavia, Switzerland Holland, Spain and South America—stirring pictures, sent whirling by Creel, the enthusiast for democracy, and his Committee of Public Information; pictures that show the industrial and social progress of the United States, our war preparations, our purposes and "clean ambitions"—-Creeps happy phrase.

Creel has mobilized the artists of the nation, putting Charles Dana Gibson at the head of them and from the pens and brushes of these men are flowing the posters, the car cards, the pictorial appeals with which the Energetic One is beginning to flood the country.

Then there is a division of Foreign Language Newspapers, posting whole columns of Creel Americanism before infinite numbers of very foreign noses able to scent good English. And there is a division serving specifically the needs of the rural press and the religious press. And the women's pages, too—material sent out in galley sheets prepared with reference to each particular need.

But these are just a few of the things that the Constructive, Uncensorious Censor is doing, and if they prove, by the way, that he is a bull in a china shop, then a bull in a china shop he should be—by all the laws of efficiency. He has the historical ability of the country writing books, and the writers writing aspirations, and the school teachers doing their bit, and the country schoolma'ams doing theirs, and 300 volunteer translators busy, and many more means for molding sentiment here and abroad. He has utilized, in a word, about every means conceivable for stimulating the spirit of Americanization everywhere. He uses that expression "Americanization" advisedly—this Censor. America for him, and for the many other young men who are calling a new America into being—men such as Raymond Fosdick—America means a river ever widening, ever changing, ever growing in volume, ever working swiftly past mossy old rocks in the stream of things out to the currents, of deepest, because most efficacious, truth.

"Democracy,” he told me one night sitting there at his small square desk on which rests, amidst much else a framed picture of two youngsters, "democracy is the struggle everlasting'. It ought never to be considered as an automatic device; no, never!"

He went on: "It's the automatic nature of our citizenship that is at fault."

Why, a vote is about as thrilling a thing as one can conceive of, when you think of its possibilities, but the average man discharges it in a spirit of peevish martyrdom. The only elections, in fact, in which there is any real feeling are those in which we all get drunk on political partisanship."

He got up, clipped words short: "A boy gets to be twenty-one years of age and becomes, a voter automatically, as a matter of course!"

He was asked how he would accord the vote.

He brought his fist down: "We ought to make him work for a vote, make him work for it!"

Now all this, it may be discerned, does not sound censorious. For the first time, actually, a war censor lays title to being constructive, not censorious. He hates the word "censorious." He did not want the original censorship bill framed by the Department of Justice to pass Congress. He' didn't want—he doesn't want—to be a censor.

"I Want the public to see every blade of grass growing in wartime Washington," he told me, early in the war.

And again: "We do not need less criticism in time of war, but more. Incompetence and corruption, bad enough in time of peace, take on an added menace when the nation is in arms."

And the reader can imagine, and I know, the incredulity in the face of a young Canadian newspaper man—incredulity staying there for days in which he told his story over and over—who went furtively into the committee headquarters, expecting doubtless to meet a tall, grave figure with a black beard and blue pencil, frowning upon all a newspaper man's expectancies. "I want to write about Washington affairs," he explained to the Uncensorious Censor, “but I shall not criticize any of your officials."

“Criticize any official you want,” howled George. “The President has said he wants intelligent criticism.”

"Why," a Washingtonian told him one night at a dinner where he had kept the head of the table wherever he happened to sit, "the trouble with you, Creel, is that you're not only a censor, but I doubt even if you're a reformer!"

Creel admitted, in his own idiom, that he is not a reformer, and the table-talk of the dinner went into desuetude.

"Not even a reformer!" some one mused.

"No; never, Never!" Creel shouted, hammering the table with his closed fist, biting off his words. "Anthony Comstock was a reformer! Heaven rest his soul!"

And he told me: "In the public mind reformers are persons—persons!—who peep thru keyholes and peep over transoms. A reformer, in fact, is a man who steals up to smell another man's breath!" Then seriously: "The word 'reformer' in the public mind has come to be associated with attack upon merely symptomatic' evils, persons who interfere with the personal habits of others—bigots! But—"

He went on: "You can't make people good by law. You've got to get down to causes. You've got to change their environment, and it will be only when we can get down to causes and take, the injustice, the greed, the unhappiness out of life that we may expect spiritual progress."

He said, then, with characteristic emphasis, that he hasn't, never has had, never will have, any interest in any reform that is not constructive—-that doesn't hew clown to the roots—which reveals the reason, perhaps, why censoring is abhorrent to him and he is doing virtually none of it, and why constructiveness, or Americanization, are dear to his ardent soul. He is an educator, this censor. Most noteworthy Americans are.

And if it is hard to reconcile his constructiveness and the notion of radicalism that many persons will accord to his work in Denver, then:

"What I fought for out there" he told me vehemently, "was commission form of government, home rule for cities (this with fervent Irish emphasis), child labor laws, workingmen's compensation laws—laws, in a word, that are designed to make justice speedier, because we all know that poverty, entails an inability to enforce certain rights."

He went on: "I wanted the right use of the school buildings by neighborhood groups. I fought for the organization of the citizenship, in short, into an all-the-year-round deliberative body. I am a single taxer. I have fought for equality in suffrage all my adult life. I believe implicitly in the recall of public officials."

I tried hard to get him "placed"—to get a label on him.

"You're not a reformer," he was told. "You're not a radical, you say; you're refusing to admit that you're a liberal, even, then what are you—the readers of the magazines have got to know!"

"I refuse to be classified," he said, clipping off his words, "except as an American. The average American, I know, has a passion for labels—but I want to be at liberty all my life to identify myself with anything and everything that seems fitted to advance the interests of democracy."

"Can't I even pin a blue label on you?'

"No," he laughed, "nor a red one either!"

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury