Mencken saw political conventions in a harsh light


July 31, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Though he has been dead and gone for 48 years, H.L. Mencken's trenchant observations on attending national political conventions was recalled earlier this week in a New York Times column by R. W. Apple Jr.

The Houston Chronicle, Agence France-Presse and the Australian Financial Review also conjured up the Sage of Baltimore's convention reportage during the past week.

Mencken was 23 years old when he covered his first conventions in 1904, when the Baltimore Herald sent him to the Republican convention in Chicago and the Democratic gathering in St. Louis.

He ended his convention coverage with the 1948 Democratic, Republican and Progressive conventions in Philadelphia.

"It is hard to imagine Boston 2004 living up to Mencken's classic description of the conventions," Apple wrote.

"There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging," Mencken wrote after surviving the 1924 Democratic National Convention, where delegates took 17 days and 193 ballots to select John W. Davis as their standard bearer.

"It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell - and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour," he wrote.

Mencken actually enjoyed the grand show. He'd set up shop at the press table in the hall with his noiseless portable Corona and stack of copy paper.

He'd then spend hours between typing and slowly puffing on an Uncle Willie cigar while observing the passing show and endless buffoonery.

Joseph C. Goulden, in his 1976 book, Mencken's Last Campaign: H.L.Mencken on the 1948 Election, wrote, "Writing in the era before television took de facto possession of the conventions, transforming them into living-room entertainment, Mencken made politics an acutely visual - and visceral - experience.

"Persons who read The Sun, Mencken's primary outlet for politics, knew not only the color of the bunting on the hall but also the relative pulchritude of lady politicians of each party. (Not infrequently, he marveled, they resembled `British tramp steamers dressed for the King's birthday.')"

In a 1924 Evening Sun piece, Mencken wondered if political conventions had become "carnivals" and suggested the time would be better spent "playing marbles or getting drunk."

"One of the proposals that I have heard many times is that the number of delegates be reduced by half, and that future conventions be held in smaller halls, with room only for the delegates, the alternates and the newspaper reporters," Mencken wrote. "The gallery has got to be an almost unbearable nuisance. It is not much interested in the business of the convention; what it wants is simply a vulgar show."

Mencken's political prognostications, however, could be off the mark, as a dispatch to The Evening Sun from the 1932 Democratic convention that nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt shows.

"The great combat is ending this afternoon in the classical Democratic manner ... the victors are full of uneasiness and the vanquished are full of bile," he wrote. "It would be hard to find a delegate who believes seriously that Roosevelt can carry New York in November, or Massachusetts, or New Jersey, or even Illinois."

In the general election that year, Roosevelt easily rolled over Herbert Hoover with 22,821,857 popular votes to Hoover's 15,761,841. Roosevelt earned 472 electoral votes to the Republican challenger's 59.

In 1936, Mencken described the incumbent as "a vindictive fellow, despite his Christian Scientist smile." Mencken threw his support to Kansas Gov. Alfred M. Landon, the Republican nominee, whom he predicted would easily dispatch the New Dealer come November. FDR, however, won in another landslide, piling up 523 electoral votes to Landon's eight.

Mencken spared no one, regularly filleting Democrats, Republicans and Progressives with equal verbal dexterity.

Commenting on Herbert Hoover's plain, perfunctory speaking style, Mencken observed, "He is the sort of man who, if he had to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm, would make it sound like a search warrant issued under the Volstead Act."

Of Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee, Mencken said he was "no more of a wizard than Roosevelt, but he has something of the same capacity to convince idiots that he is."

After a stupefying speech by New York Gov. Herbert Lehman at the 1936 Democratic convention, Mencken watched as bored delegates milled about in the aisles "gossiping, yawning and wishing that this sorry life were done and over and they were safe in hell at last."

Mencken's routine at convention's end was to pack up his Corona, bid farewell to his fellow reporters and predict that the end of the Republic was at hand.

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