The series strikes today's reader as bizarre: for one thing, it totally lacks the kind of documentation today's standards for publication and credibility require. An editor's note on the first piece says, "Some of these stories will present extremes; others will describe typical attitudes. All of them will seem incredible. But they are based on verified experiences."
The reader gets, however, no verification. No names, places, dates or times appear; you have to take Sevareid's and the paper's word for it. And the style of most of the writing has long since been dismissed as "Gee whiz" journalism.
Any reporter loves getting on page one, but Sevareid didn't like the way the Journal played his splashy story. What he found so offensive and dangerous to society, his editors at the pre-Cowles conservative paper regarded with a tone of mockery, as a later generation of editors would regard conventions of UFO buffs.
The stories described a secret society of right-wing survivalists who envisioned a takeover of America by a Jewish-Communist conspiracy. One of its supposed leaders was Maurice Rose; they saw him as an international banker in disguise. In fact, Rose worked as chauffeur to Governor Floyd B. Olson.
Predicting a takeover, one Silvershirt told Sevareid: "In Minneapolis they are going to start through Kenwood and sweep eastward around the lakes and thence across the city." In line with the editorializing tone of the series, Sevareid offered an observation:
"I was astounded, but not from the cause to which he attributed my astonishment. I was astounded that such childish reasoning could exist in a brain of a man so mature."
Despite the prominence the series gave Sevareid, that experience and others at the Journal hardened attitudes in him that his bosses could not abide, and they fired him. Those attitudes took shape in the years just before, when as a student at the "U" he led the successful fight against compulsory ROTC, and President Lotus Coffman saw to it that Sevareid was denied the editorship of the Daily that he had earned.
"For the first time," Sevareid later wrote, "I tasted the ashes of bitterness."
Particularly bitter for one who had worked so hard and who had won the respect of so many peers and teachers. And for one whose drive and optimism made him think of himself as much less likely a victim of unfairness than those whose causes he had taken up.
The Depression, the rise of fascism, and challenges to his sense of fairness all combined to change Sevareid from the boy he described in his autobiography, Not So Wild A Dream, published in 1946.
When Sevareid left his farm town of Velva, North Dakota (pop. 837), even when he finished Minneapolis Central High School in 1930, this soon-to-be campus radical still believed — as he later wrote — "that Herbert Hoover was a great man, that America was superior to all other countries in all possible ways, that labor strikes were caused by unkempt foreigners, that men saved their souls inside wooden or brick Protestant churches, that if men had no jobs it was due to personal laziness and vice — meaning liquor — and that sanity governed the affairs of mankind."
His experiences at the University and downtown with the Journal convinced him otherwise. He developed strong sympathy for organized labor, including the embryonic Newspaper Guild he had joined. Once, assigned a story on a suburban camp that downtown businessmen were "nobly" organizing for the poor and homeless, he listened as a banker confided:
"Of course, between you and me, we have a hard-headed motive. These filthy bums are edging too far up Nicollet Avenue. If we don't get them away they will tarnish the high tone of these blocks and drive real-estate values down."
Sevareid recalled: "He nudged me and winked. The potentate, letting the lowly scribbler into the secrets of power! I delayed writing the story, and when an editor inquired about it, I was foolish enough to blurt out my feelings on the matter. I was told to conform or resign from the paper."
Not long after that, Sevareid wrote a story mistakenly identifying a veterans group as the American Legion instead of as the VFW, and the paper took advantage of the opportunity to fire him.
These were the journalistic roots of the man most Americans picture as that silver-haired, dour fellow — the very model of moderation — who delivered himself of deliberate interpretive essays on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Did Sevareid talk that way off camera? One of his college chums, Warner Shippee, now retired director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs here, remembers Sevareid's speech as measured: "He thought of himself primarily as a writer. I saw him as a person who was very judicious, who weighed things — a true journalist."
Shippee and Sevareid belonged to a maverick campus group, a non-Greek fraternity called the Jacobins, a name derived from the political group in the French Revolution known for extreme egalitarianism. Minnesota's Jacobins included Dick Scammon, who later headed the U.S. Census Bureau; Earl Larson, who became a federal judge; Lee Loevinger, who became a state supreme court justice and Federal Communications Commissioner; Phil Potter, who had a great career on the Baltimore Sun; Art Naftalin, who became mayor of Minneapolis.
Naftalin says of Sevareid:
"He was a hero to me and the rest of us who came after him at the University. He was someone who'd gone off into the real world to fight for what so many of us believed in." Naftalin said he's been reading Sevareid's autobiography again and appreciating his writing more than ever: "He had an incredible ability to capture the mood of whatever he was involved in."
Sevareid's writing sets a high standard. Take his sense memory of his boyhood home in North Dakota, where there was "no roof to the sky, no border to the land." Can't you hear his familiar cadence? "Wheat was the sole source and meaning of our lives...it was rarely long outside the conversation." He loved the democracy of his farm town, and he wondered, "Why can't the rest of the world be like us?"
He discovered how different it was, not only in the big city, where small fry fascists fomented hate, but in Europe, where haters became killers. In Minneapolis, after his Silvershirts series ran, he recalled, his personal life became a hell, filled with vicious verbal attacks on him. In France, in September 1939, he inhabited another hell, as war broke out. This hell was more theirs than his, but he felt it keenly enough to make us feel it, too. Sevareid witnessed the boarding of the trains that would take thousands of Frenchmen, still exhausted by World War I, off to training and battle.
"No bands played," he wrote after the war, "there were no flags, and nobody make a speech about 'la gloire.' They moved to the trains of endless length as though it were a weary routine they had practiced for twenty years. As far as you could see there were the clusters of faces, expressionless faces in the compartment windows. Another journalist who saw it — Miss Dorothy Thompson, I think — said, 'Not one replaceable face.'"
Arnold Eric Sevareid — like any of the rest of us — is not replaceable, either. But today's news media need to make room for his kind of journalism — explaining the life-and-death issues of the day.
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