ALMOST EVERYTHING politically and sociologically relevant written by literary journalist H. L. Mencken is best taken with a grain of salt.
Yet the man's audacity and stylish command of the language placed him high among America's men of letters. So there is still great anticipation now that "Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work," the last of Mencken's major unpublished works at his death in 1956, will soon be released by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mencken delighted in observing and ridiculing American presidents. Rightly or wrongly, he doubted politicians of all sorts, finding them full of posture and pretension. But he aimed his choicest barbs at the occupants of the Oval Office.
Warren G. Harding he ran through his typewriter as a "third-rate political wheel horse, with the face of a moving-picture actor, the intelligence of a respectable agricultural implement dealer, and the imagination of a lodge joiner . . . a benign blank . . . a decent, harmless, laborious, hollow-headed mediocrity. His writing reminds me of tattered washing on the line; of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."
Grover Cleveland, hardly an American icon but one of Mencken's favorite presidents, did not escape H. L.'s darts. "His whole huge carcass seemed to be made of iron. There was no give in him, no bounce, no softness. He sailed through American history like a steel ship loaded with monoliths of granite."
Certainly one of Mencken's least favorite presidents was Calvin Coolidge. H. L. called Coolidge a near-fascist clown whose career is "as appalling and as fascinating as a two-headed boy." "He slept more than any other president, whether by day or by night. He had no ideas, but he was not a nuisance."
Of Herbert Hoover: "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."
Not even the father of our country nor the great emancipator escaped the Mencken wrath.
Mencken's George Washington "would be under indictment by every grand jury south of the Potomac. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He regarded the lower classes as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the Republic from them."
And Mencken demythologized Abraham Lincoln as follows: "In point of fact . . . until he emerged from Illinois they always put the women, children and clergy to bed when he got a few gourds of corn aboard, and it is a matter of unescapable record that his career in the State Legislature was indistinguishable from that of a Tammany Nietzche."
Anti-liberal to the core, he pounced on Woodrow Wilson for his "whole Wilsonian buncombe" and "the Woodrovian style," and bitterly attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt's "planned economy" and his brain trust.
FDR's approach, Mencken said, was "that of a snake-oil vendor." He was a "wizard" and employed "frauds and sorcerers" to help him hoodwink the American public. In a 1936 essay, Mencken prophesied Roosevelt's defeat in November, characterizing his chances as so poor that "a Chinaman, or even a Republican" could beat him. When Roosevelt died, he wrote that his "unparalleled luck held out to the end. He dies an easy death, and he did so just in time to escape burying his own horse."
He concluded that Harry Truman was a third-rate politician "on the order of Harding," and denounced Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima as "crowning our Christian civilization . . . It appears that the firing of Japanese women and children was specifically ordained by our Redeemer."
Dwight D. Eisenhower struck him early on as a "hollow fellow -- all smiles and back slapping." Later he conceded, near the time of his death, that Truman had done "some good work" and that Eisenhower was doing a "better-than-average" job as president.
What are we to make of this iconoclast who wrote so brilliantly and so relentlessly, often wrong in his conjectures and trifling in his summations of character and purpose?
Biographer Fred Hobson in his new book, "Mencken, A Life," offers that he is the flip side of poet Walt Whitman who died in 1892:
"Mencken was our nay-saying Whitman, and whatever his manifold inadequacies of heart and conscience, he sounded his own barbaric yawp over the roofs of the timid and the fearful, the contented and the smug."
For better or worse, Mencken was a remarkable man with such power of language and force of will and hedonistic tendency that he remains a thoroughly fascinating subject.
Paul T. Bohn writes from Rocky River, Ohio.