Pegler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota; his father was a prominent editor. Working for United Press young Pegler was the youngest American war correspondent in World War I. After the war, Pegler wrote sports columns, then switched to general interest stories. In 1925, he was hired as a columnist by the Chicago Tribune, the most important conservative paper in the country. In 1933 he reached a larger audience by moving his column to the Scripps Howard syndicate, at which he worked closely with his friend Roy Howard. In 1942, he was named one of the nation's "best adult columnists". His columns went out six days a week to 174 newspapers that reached about 10 million subscribers. He moved his syndicated column to the Hearst syndicate in 1944.
Pegler initially supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but after seeing the rise of fascism in Europe he returned to warn against the dangers of dictatorship in America. He became one of the Roosevelt administration's sharpest critics over what he saw its abuse of power. He rarely missed an opportunity to criticize Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt or Vice President Henry A. Wallace. His views—always expressed in vehement, shrill and colorful language—became increasingly conservative and right-wing. Pegler was especially outraged by the New Deal's support for powerful labor unions that he considered morally and politically corrupt. Pegler saw himself a populist and muckraker whose mission was to warn the nation that dangerous leaders were in power. However he was a loner, and never joined a political movement.
In 1941, Pegler became the first columnist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, for his work in exposing racketeering in Hollywood labor unions, focusing on the criminal career of William Morris Bioff.
In 1940, Pegler exposed the criminal past and organized crime connections of George Scalise, the president of the Building Service Employees International Union. Scalise was convicted and sent to prison. This widely reported scandal tarnished the labor movement and served to vindicate conservative critics of organized labor, who cited such corruption to support efforts to rein in union power. Scalise's career demonstrates how organized crime came to control certain unions in the 1930s and the various ways corrupt officials used the labor movement for private gain. This scandal also highlights the biased reporting on union corruption, which depicted employers simply as victims, when many of them played a much more complicit role. The real victims were workers, who found themselves forced to join a union organization that did nothing but levy a tax on their employment. For many of these workers this experience left them deeply disillusioned with the labor movement.
Feud with Eleanor Roosevelt
After 1942 assailed Eleanor Roosevelt (and FDR) regularly. In public Eleanor ignored him. In private in 1942 she asked the FBI to investigate Pegler suggestion a column he wrote involved “sedition.” Her actions belied her public reputation as a champion of First Amendment rights when it came to leftists. In fact, she wielded her influence as First Lady to push the Bureau on this case. Dissatisfied with the FBI's initial report on the Pegler's column, she prodded J. Edgar Hoover to expand the investigation until it took on a voluminous scope. Recent scholars (including Betty Houchin Winfield, Kenneth O'Reilly, and Richard W. Steele) have exposed Franklin Roosevelt's political use of the FBI and traced how he ordered wartime sedition investigations of anti-New Deal newspaper publishers, such as William Randolph Hearst and the Chicago Tribune's Robert McCormick. In the Pegler's case, there was a willingness to use similar tactics against a prominent conservative columnist. Moreover, it also becomes clear that, despite her reputation as a champion of free speech rights, Eleanor Roosevelt resorted to similar methods against a media opponent. The charges were entirely false, the FBI reported, but Eleanor continued to push the FBI to investigate Pegler.
Pegler exemplified a traditional defense of American values—especially republicanism—against powerful and corrupt government, in an echo of the Patriots of 1775. Pegler depicted a dark conspiratorial world where criminal syndicates, corrupt union bosses, and Communists threatened the economic freedom of working Americans, while being protected and promoted by liberal allies in the New Deal. Pegler criticized every president from Herbert Hoover to FDR ("moosejaw") to Harry Truman ("a thin-lipped hater") to John F. Kennedy for their failures to uphold the values of republicanism. He also attacked the Supreme Court, and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as labor unions big and small.
Enamored of a reckless style of attack writing, Pegler grew careless of the facts after 1950. His attack on writer Quentin Reynolds led to a costly slander suit against him and his publishers, as a jury awarded Reynolds $175,000 in damages. In 1962, Pegler lost his contract with King Features Syndicate, owned by Hearst after he started criticizing Hearst executives. His late writing appeared sporadically in obscure publications, including the John Birch Society's American Opinion and grew increasingly vituperative, violent, and unnoticed by the public that once read him eagerly.
Pegler published three volumes of his political columns:
- T'ain't Right (1936)
- The Dissenting Opinions of Mr. Westbrook Pegler (1938)
- George Spelvin, American and Fireside Chats (1942) excerpt and text search
- Farr, Finis. Fair Enough: The Life of Westbrook Pegler. (1975), a standard biography.
- Pilat, Oliver. Pegler, Angry Man of the Press (1973), (1973)
- Witwer, David. "Westbrook Pegler and the Anti-union Movement" Journal of American History 92.2 (2005): online
- David Witwer, "The Scandal of George Scalise: A Case Study in the Rise of Labor Racketeering in the 1930s," Journal of Social History 2003 36(4): 917-940 in EBSCO
- David Witwer, "Westbrook Pegler, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the FBI: A History of Infamous Enmities and Unlikely Collaborations." Journalism History, 2009 Vol. 34, Issue 4 in EBSCO
- Westbrook Pegler on geocities.com contains quotes and vintage text. May have pop-up ads on JavaSript enabled browsers.