Fulton Lewis Jr.: Combating the ‘Ultra-Liberal Eastern Crowd
Nearly 40 years after his death, Fulton Lewis, Jr. was back in the news again. In 2005, Ken Tomlinson, the chief of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, sought to bring balance to the left-leaning National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting System TV.
The move was met with expected resistance, but the liberal online magazine Salon determined Tomlinson and William Schulz, the CPB ombudsman, were McCarthy-ite throwbacks. To prove this, Salon writer Eric Boehlert looked at a brief association the two men had 40 years ago to discredit whatever point they had to make in 2005, which was sort of, well, a McCarthy-ite move.
Salon reported that Tomlinson was once an intern for Lewis—an anti-New Deal, pro-McCarthy radio commentator, while Schulz was once a writer for Lewis.108 Retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis griped, “If both men wrote for Fulton Lewis it means they were dedicated to an extreme-right position that should disqualify them from determining somebody’s objectivity.”
Politicians and commentators from both sides have often found the best weapon in the public arena against a substantive argument is an ad homonym boogey man. For the left, these boogey men are generally representative figures such as “the wealthy,” conjuring up images of a monopoly man in a big hat, “big business,” conjuring up an image of a ruthless cigar-chomping man in an expensive suit and the “big oil” image of a J.R. Ewing type figure sticking it to you at the pump. The straw figures are endless. A few real people make the cut, such as Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. But the Salon piece going after Tomlinson proved that Fulton Lewis was still a boogey man for the left after all these years, which is quite an accomplishment.
Fulton Lewis, Jr. was definitely part of the extreme right—at least extreme for his time when most Republicans had accepted the premise of the New Deal policies. Lewis railed against the New Deal, supported some discredited communist witch hunts in government, and even lobbed oratorical grenades at Eisenhower Republicans. He was nevertheless very popular at his 7 p.m. weekday broadcast on 550 stations with 16 million listeners per week.
He established the same rights for radio correspondents to cover Capitol Hill that newspaper reporters had. Like others of his era, his star waned with TV—a medium for which he was not well suited.
He introduced such phrases to the political lexicon that would be recycled in some way or another for generations to come such as “The ultra liberal eastern crowd,” “the New York Park Avenue Pink Set,” “the Left Wing Fund for the Republic,” and the “CIO-backed Communist left wing crackpots.”
“He would take a position or a stand and people would react to it,” said Lee Edwards, a leading historian of the conservative movement, and distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “He was really as big as, if not bigger than, Rush Limbaugh, in the 1940s.”
With a weekly income of $7,000, he was the highest paid broadcaster, and among the highest paid Americans, in the 1940s.
Years before Phyllis Schlafly penned “A Choice Not an Echo,” and decades before Ronald Reagan was elected president, Lewis almost prophetically argued that if Americans actually had a choice between conservatism and liberalism, they would vote conservative.
The problem, he said, is that moderates had taken over the GOP.
“I said between a clear drawn election between the right, between conservatives—I didn’t use the ‘right’—between conservatives, conservatism and liberalism, and this is the thing that I have been driving for, for years and years and years, and until we get it the American people are not going to be able to have a free expression,” he said in an interview with Mike Wallace in 1958. “If we could get an election between the conservatives and the liberals there is not any question in my mind whatsoever. … There is no question in my mind whatsoever that the balance would be sixty to seventy-five percent on the conservative side.”
Lewis was born in 1903 into a well-to-do family, the son of a prominent Washington attorney. The National Cathedral now sits where his childhood home once stood.116 He dropped out of the University of Virginia—where he led a dancing orchestra—after three years. He later enrolled in George Washington University
School of Law, but his father’s footsteps were not for him. He went to work for The Washington Herald in 1924, a Hearst-owned morning newspaper and became city editor within three years.
He tried radio in the 1920s, and it didn’t work out. So he devoted his life to print journalism and gained a lot of success. He did a major investigative piece on irregularities in the federal payments that airlines got for transporting mail, rooting out huge government overpayments. The Herald found it too hot to publish, so Lewis turned his notes over to a congressional committee, which probed the matter and led to the government cancelling all airmail contracts.
Such a view of government waste likely led him to lean more to the right.
His journalism career continued to rise when the Hearst Corporation made him the Washington correspondent for Hearst Universal News Service from 1928 to 1937. The news service leaned right, but Lewis really gained bona fides in conservative circles after he married Alice Huston, the daughter of former Republican National Committee Chairman Claudius Hart Huston.
The wedding drew 2,000 Washington elites, including First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. But, Lewis wouldn’t always fit in perfect with establishment Washington, as broadcast colleague Wythe Williams would later comment that Lewis was too caustic to be popular with Washington officialdom or other Washington reporters.
These same qualities made for high ratings as a broadcaster.
From 1933 to 1936, he had a syndicated column called The Washington Sideshow. Then, in 1937 after a 10-year absence from radio, he substituted for a vacationing radio announcer with Mutual Broadcasting Company. Though he used slang and clichés, he had an excitable voice, he showed up for work on time, and Mutual WOL station manager William Dolph loved the energy and passion.
Dolph said, “Announcers who can read the news perfectly are a dime a dozen. I’ve asked perhaps a hundred announcers to tell me the news after they read it and not one ever came close. They don’t know what they’re reading. They don’t care. Fulton reads from a script, sure, but it’s a script he himself has written at the last moment. … He gets excited and loses his place, but you know a guy like that just can’t be phony.” After Dolph asked him to do commentaries full time for WOL, Lewis dropped his newspaper column with King Features and took a pay cut to do radio full time.
By the end of 1937, Lewis’s program was being broadcast nationally, and the Mutual Network, the smallest of all the radio networks, touted him as the only national news commentary originating from Washington. But being a commentator did not mean he was no longer a reporter. He still cozied up to sources on Capitol Hill, and sought to get dirt on the Roosevelt administration. Most of his sources were conservatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties, skeptical of the New Deal. Being a real reporter in Washington means having credentials to cover Capitol Hill, something radio correspondents were not allowed to have then, as the print journalists that ran the press galleries looked down on radio reporters. Lewis leaped into action to crusade for radio as being every bit as legitimate a source for news as newspapers.
Newspaper and wire reporters were not considering politicians loved publicity from any medium. Lewis’s crusade paid off when Congress voted in 1939 to establish a radio gallery for covering the House and Senate.
He became the first president of the Radio Correspondence Association.