If Mencken were here...

What would the 'Sage of Baltimore' have to say about the groundbreaking presidential campaign?

November 02, 2008|By Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

H. L. Mencken would have savored this presidential election year. To him, political conventions and elections were made for "connoisseurs of the obscene." He had a lusty appetite for crackpots of every kind. "A good politician, under democracy," he wrote, "is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar."

In the romantic era of the 1920s, when Mencken reigned from Baltimore as America's most famous journalist, presidential primaries were few. The suspense of national conventions rested in watching the candidates jockey for position at state caucuses in hotels outside the convention hall. Snapping his suspenders and puffing on his cigar, Mencken visited these "zoological gardens" before pounding out his copy. Wit was his weapon to hammer home a serious point. Then, yanking the paper from his typewriter, he would hand it to the telegrapher and close up for the night, noting, "Time for a beer."

A "lifelong Democrat," Mencken was, nonetheless, anti-liberal. Fiscally conservative, he railed against FDR's New Deal. He was equally suspicious of politicians favored by big business. He considered them "devoid of public spirit" and "common decency."

Mencken believed that democracy, with its "singular passion for conformity," was cruelly hard on politicians of "vigorous mind," "stout convictions" and "self-respect." When intellect is not appreciated, he said, "all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre - the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum."

Four years ago, MSNBC television host Keith Olbermann regularly quoted Mencken: "On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' decision at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

What would Mencken have said of President Bush now? It helps to cite him on Herbert Hoover, who, by 1932, had become "the pebble in every American's shoe." If the president had any friends left, observed Mencken, "they must all be deaf and dumb, for nothing is ever heard of them."

When it came to politicians, Mencken was impartial in his contempt. Just for the fun of it, can we imagine what Mencken would have said of our current crop of presidential and vice presidential nominees?

Consider, for instance, what Mencken, champion of women's mental superiority, would have made of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. He dismissed female politicians in his day as being indistinguishable from their male counterparts: "They both have their eyes centered upon the swill in the trough and are quite willing to do anything, however idiotic, to get their share. What becomes of the old theory that women in politics would refine the science? Nothing remains of it save a faint whiff of staling perfume."

Sen. John McCain? "A political cadaver." Mencken observed that a politician's aim in life was to get a job, make promises he knew he could not keep, and pretend to admire men he despised. Then, once in public office, his aim was to hold on as long as possible.

To fans of Sen. Joe Biden, I refer you to Mencken's study of The American Language. Note the use of the word "talkathon."

Tell Mencken that Sen. Barack Obama was the Democratic presidential candidate, and he would probably have been delighted that for the first time in the history of the United States, an African-American had been elected the nominee.

This observation will surprise some, but not those who know Mencken's record. He was the first white editor of a major magazine to champion (and publish) the work of black authors; he waged fierce campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan and segregation; and he joined the NAACP in its fight against lynching.

When it came to better relations between the races, Mencken said the only hope lay in new leaders, black or white. "I believe that wherever and whenever such a leader bobs up in rural America, whether North or South, East or West, he will meet with a very hearty response, and have a lot of fun. And if he is lucky, he may also achieve some good."

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast" and editor of the newly released "Notes on Democracy" by H. L. Mencken. Her e-mail is


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