Elmer Holmes Davis · 1974
By William Frank Spaulding
Elmer Holmes Davis, reporter, philosopher, novelist, essayist and classical scholar was born in Aurora, Indiana, on January 13, 1890. Davis was the only child born to Elam Holmes Davis, a bank employee, and his second wife, Louise Severin Davis.
Elmer Davis spent the first 16 years of his life in Aurora. He was an excellent student but a frustrated athlete. After graduating from Aurora High School in 1906, Davis went north two hours by train from his hometown on the Ohio River, to Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana.
During his freshman year, Davis was pledged into Phi Delta Theta social fraternity. Among his other activities were membership in the Young Men’s Christian Association and in 1909 he was editor of a campus publication, "The Flashlight." Considered a brilliant student in his undergraduate days, Davis was nicknamed "the deacon."
His brilliance as a student was evidenced both by his curriculum and his grades. Davis studied Greek, Latin, German, mathematics, history, chemistry, political economy, psychology and geology. His grades never dropped below "A" except for one time in each of the last two subjects above. Davis was elected to "Alpha" a local honorary scholastic fraternity roughly equivalent to Phi Beta Kappa. Before graduating with an AB – Magna Cum Laude in 1910, Davis found time to teach for two years at Franklin High School.
Davis’ education continued on the graduate level when he was honored as the 398th Rhodes Scholar. For three years, from 1910 to 1913, he studied the classics in a curriculum called "Greats" at Queens College, Oxford, England. During breaks in his studies Davis took the opportunity to travel in Europe and the Near East. When he left Indiana to go to Oxford, he left his home state for good.
His return to the United States found Davis in New York City where he began his professional journalism career as an editor for a magazine known as "Adventure." Davis remained at that position for only a year.
From an editor at "Adventure" to being a cub reporter for The New York Times must have been quite a switch for Davis, but it was one which truly advanced his career. He worked for The Times for 10 years, from 1914 to 1924, and was a sports writer, political expert, foreign correspondent and eventually an editorial writer in addition to his general reporting assignments. While at The Times he undertook the massive task of writing its history. History of The New York Times 1851-1921 was published in "communication of the quarter centenary" of its then present management and also of the newspaper’s 70th anniversary of its first issue.
Davis married on February 5, 1917. His bride was the former Florence MacMillian. They were the parents of two children, Robert Lloyd, who much later edited his father’s works into the volume, By Elmer Davis, and Carolyn Anne.
His newspaper writing continued as a free-lance for another 15 years after he left the Times. This free lance writing extended to the sale of magazine articles, short stories, essays and novels which were very successful. Among his works were White Pants Willie, which was about the Florida land boom; Friends of Mr. Sweeny, the most popular of his light-hearted novels, Show Window, a collection of essays; and Times Have Changed, his first real novel and a bestseller.
Davis’ free-lance work also included an occasional appearance on radio. But it was an invitation by CBS to fill in one night for commentator H.V. Kaltenborn in the summer of 1939 which opened the door to his career in broadcasting. Almost immediately he was hired as a full time radio news analyst for CBS. By 1941, Davis’ audience for his nightly five-minute newscast and comment was 12.5 million.
Davis spent two and a half years speaking to the nation and gaining its trust. Then in 1941, his colleagues persuaded Franklin Delano Roosevelt to appoint Davis head of the newly created Office of War Information (OWI). Davis left his position at CBS, which paid $53,000 per year, to work for the government during the crisis of World War II. The OWI was a sprawling organization with 3,000 employees and office space wherever it could find room in crowded Washington, D.C.
On his first day at OWI, Davis commented that the "confidence of newsmen is my biggest asset, but I won’t keep it if I don’t get results." He did keep the confidence of his colleagues by not forgetting that he, too, was a journalist. He fought government suppression of facts, taking one case all the way to the White House and winning. About the purpose of the OWI, Davis pointed out that a war is won mostly by the fighting man but psychology and political warfare make the fighting easier — it was entrusted to his office to pave the way for military operations and make them easier.
When the OWI was disbanded in September 1945, Davis returned to broadcasting, this time for ABC. He remained with ABC’s news operation until 1953 when he retired due to poor health.
It was during his tenure at ABC that U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin began making campaign speeches which, in the end, might have toppled our government. It was Elmer Davis on the radio, along with Edward R. Murrow on television, who steadied the nerves of the nation with calm, courageous reason. In his biography of Davis, the title of which succinctly restates Davis’ premise during the McCarthy years, Don’t Let Them Scare You, Roger Burlingame writes:
"In a year of great anxiety and bitter partisanship, it has been reassuring and edifying to hear the sanity, the horse-sense, and the dry Hoosier wit with which Davis contemplates a troubled world. To his broadcasts he brings intelligence, integrity and a writing skill unmatched in radio today."
The New York Times called Davis the "Mount Everest" of commentators as he opposed the steady encroachment on freedom of thought during the McCarthy era. Davis’ patriotism was "unassailable." Davis’ voice was a vigorous check on the strong power of government, much like the words of journalists during the more recent Watergate era.
In 1954 Henry Steele Commager praised the courage and common sense Davis possessed. "He has always been independent; he has always spoken his mind — and what a mind! He has always confronted life with courage. It is a courage tempered with humor, with tolerance, with humility, but with a courage that never fails."
It was said that the battles fought against McCarthyism drained Davis, for he suffered a series of debilitating strokes, forcing him to limit his time on the radio and cut-short the beginning of yet another facet of his career — television. Elmer Davis retired to his home in Washington, D.C. where he had lived since his days at the OWI.
On May 18, 1958, Davis died of complications from another stroke. A memorial service was held at the Washington Cathedral on May 21st.
He was mourned and eulogized by many:
Elmer Davis "mastered the whole range of his craft…he could write, speak, explain, describe, and expose hypocrisy." – James Reston A distinguished reporter and interpreter of national news whose integrity was indisputable. – The New York Times
He was a member of that precious and restricted fraternity, the men of the tough mind and the tender heart…Elmer Davis was the whole man, the complete American." – Eric Severeid
He was "the only broadcaster who understood the news and could make me understand it too." – Roger Burlingame
"It was not an accident that he became the greatest reporter of his time." – Louise M. Lyons.
Davis was often honored during his lifetime. In 1931, his undergraduate alma mater, Franklin College, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. Franklin and Marshall College followed suit in 1941; Swarthmore in 1954. A Doctor of Letters of Humanity (honorary) was bestowed on him by Wabash College in 1942. St. Lawrence University granted him an honorary Doctor of Laws in 1946. In 1951 he received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Radio Award. Foreign governments inducted Davis into the Dutch Order of Orange — Nassau and the Czechoslovak Order of White Lion among others. His own government thanked him for his wartime work with the Medal of Merit. The Indiana Society of Professional Journalists made Elmer Davis a member of their Hall of Fame on June 25, 1974.
Among his writings, two books stand out above all else. But We Were Born Free (Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis 1954) and its sequel, Two Minutes To Midnight (Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1955) are both reactions by Davis to the trials of McCarthyism and his own hopes for the future of the nation. His biographer, Burlingame, described Two Minutes To Midnight as the "ultimate testimony of his gifts as a philosopher and a writer."
But We Were Born Free was a surprise best-seller in 1954. However, his contemporary, E. B. White, writing in "The New Yorker," showed little surprise at Davis’ eloquence:
"The experience of reading his new book, But We Were Born Free, is memorable; it is the high fidelity of the publishing world. And the same voice that in 1940 used to steady us at five minutes to nine, quieting our goose pimples, now has the opposite effect — it is the voice that stirs us with warnings of internal defeats perhaps more ruinous than war itself. As clear as the sound of his voice is the sound, in this book, of his singleness of purpose. Mr. Davis is a devout man. His religion is a secular religion that unifies America — faith in freedom, in self-government, in democracy.
He is over 60 and his doctor wants him to taper off. Even a tapered off Davis is worth ten of most men. He has spent his life tending the twin fires of liberty and justice in the drafty rooms of politics; this book is his testament — a short, resounding book, dogging the steps of the fearmongers, praising that rare felicity, the right to think what one pleases and to say what one thinks."
Elmer Davis’ personal papers are now in the collection of the Library of Congress. "The New Yorker" magazine is also a collector of Davis memorabilia and information.