Mencken would approve

Paul T. Bohn

July 10, 1992|By Paul T. Bohn

H. L. MENCKEN would have had a word for it, probably many words: the state of the pumpkin we call politics. In this country. At this time. A presidential election year.

His was the buzzsaw approach to reality. He seldom saw a tree he didn't want to trim if not cut down. He usually always found the flaws. The insanity. And dealt with same with roundhouse rights.

Never one to quibble about ceremony or status, he came down on president and peon alike, on inanimate as well as animate objects.

Of Herbert Hoover, the rage of Baltimore (he wrote most of his high-octane vitriol for The Sun and Evening Sun) said:

"He is the perfect self-seeker. His principles are so vague that even his intimates seem unable to put them into words. He knows who his masters are, and he will serve them."

(Sound like anybody we know today?)

Two of his most un-favorites were Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding. Coolidge he called a near-fascist clown whose career is "as appalling and as fascinating as a two-headed boy."

He landed even harder on Harding, tagging him as master of the glorious near-English in which "the relations between word and meaning have long since escaped him." His style "reminds me of wet sponges . . . tattered washing on the line . . . stale bean soup and college yells . . . dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."

Even to those he thought well of, he could be poison. Al Smith, for example, "like all habitual orators, plainly likes to make speeches, no matter how dull the subject or hot the hall."

Of the Japanese (of course, this was not too long before Pearl Harbor), he stereotyped, "They are an extremely homely people . . . look, talk one with another like Boy Scouts with buck teeth, wearing horn-rimmed spectacles." Most presciently, he also observed of the Japanese that they were not to be taken lightly. We would hear from them again, said Mencken.

The point is, he loathed fraud and the platitudinous and the pontificator. Had he been witness to the late, unlamented primaries, he might have said our TV sets have become as butcher blocks. We have been half bled to death by them. Puerile political messages. (He loved the word "puerile." It means childishly foolish, immature, silly.) Pure cacophony; sound and fury signifying dismay and disarray.

Where I live, several fighting-for-their-lives congressional types picked up where the Willie Horton ads left off four years ago. Most ecstatically proclaimed the "C" word -- change, change, change -- as though the genie would miraculously appear from the bottle and cure our ills.

Mencken (he lived from 1880 to 1956) might have assessed what's perplexedly happening now as follows:

* Politicians' aim in life is to reincarnate themselves in another term. They make promises they know they can't keep. They pretend to admire people they despise. Having made their way into office again, their goal is to hold on to it for as long as they can.

* Money is as much the root of voter dissatisfaction as it is of all evil.

* Ross Perot is money, but it's his own money. Isn't that a pleasant thought to take to the polls in this day of special interests and "soft-money" contributions?

* Tabloid-type journalism and egregiously overweening self-proclaimed pundits and experts clamber over the remains of once-respectable print and broadcast venues. (Even my doctor's office now sports reading material saucily headlining: "Baby born wearing ring mother lost nine months ago."

* Too many of us have become reeds in the wind or little more than tire kickers and crystal-chandelier thinkers. For this, we can blame ourselves.

* Who cares whether Ross Perot goes all the way? It will suffice if his is but the wake-up call for leadership, for honesty in dealing with our problems before we pass them along as millstones to our children and their children, for finding what America has lost and is losing and for redefining America itself.

Follow the yellow brick road? Not with the munchkinesque thinking of old, thank you. Make some house calls, candidates. A little H.L. Mencken wouldn't hurt. Venom and all.

Paul T. Bohn writes from Rocky River, Ohio.

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