- - Monday, October 10, 2016


Oh, how H.L. Mencken would have loved this. The renowned Baltimore journalist who said that national political conventions and politicians were for “connoisseurs of the obscene” would have never guessed how obscene it could be. Not that he would have endorsed obscenity — he was Victorian by upbringing — but the spectacle of politicians sweating and strutting their stuff offered him endless sport. Here in America, he said, you could laugh yourself to death every day.

Never a fan of television, Mencken would have applauded the latest Trump faux pas, for television, like radio, was the best medium to expose the “vacuity” of a politician’s “utterances and how incompetent they are.” He might have equated the latest Trump video footage to Bob Woodward’s famous assessment of the Nixon White House tapes, as “the gift that gives on giving.”

For those who think Mencken would have endorsed the aims and language of Donald Trump, think again. He would have equated Mr. Trump with the 1936 third-party candidate Father Charles E. Coughlin, “a fraud of the first calibre” whose fits of rhetoric burst forth “like a discharge of artillery.” As for Mr. Trump’s masterminds on exhibition — namely Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, Mencken would have warned the discerning voter that there are lessons to be obtained. Namely, “that politicians, in the main, are poor hands at practical politics — that their professional competence is very slight. Their tricks are transparent and deceive no one, not even other politicians.”

What happens “to these great professors” is that all of them come “to ridiculous ends.” They end up being deserted and are left standing “on the burning deck alone,” and when they finally leap into the water and swim ashore, “there is no one left to give … a cheer.”

Mencken might have congratulated the isolationism of fellow libertarian Gary Johnson, but as he once said of Andrew Mellon, “If there is anything in his head, which is very doubtful, it has surely left no trace upon his face.” Or he may have been tempted to borrow the phrase from Republican leader John Crews about New York Mayor Robert Wagner: “He’s light enough to do a tap dance on a charlotte russe.”

A defender of women’s superior intelligence and their fight for equal rights, the maneuverings of Hillary Clinton would have hardly surprised him: Every day, he noted, “it appears that a woman politician is indistinguishable from the male politician — 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 save a faint whiff of staling perfume.”

The dismal prospect before voters always led him to ask, what merit leads a man into elective office in the first place? If the candidate was a man of self-respect, the test was cruelly hard. “In the face of this singular passion for conformity,” Mencken wrote, “it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life … . This leaves the field to intellectual jellyfish and inner tubes.”

And what does the public get out all of this? A humorous and thrilling show. “Herein, indeed, lies the chief merit of democracy,” wrote Mencken. “It may be clumsy, it may be swinish, it may be unutterably incompetent and dishonest, but it is never dismal — its processes, even when they irritate, never actually bore.”

Behind Mencken’s winks was a fierce determination that Americans never forget the overriding issues facing them. He despised spineless journalism. In choosing presidents who will determine the policies of the United States in peace and war, Mencken wrote, the reason half the candidates were “venerated by the booboisie” was because newspapermen had initially treated them with “the utmost gravity,” writing about them “soberly and respectfully as if they were so many Goethes.”

In a country that has grown discouraged by the current endurance match, and ever more polarized and shrill, I join the choir in wishing Mencken were here with us now. Anything but a moralist, Mencken, like Mark Twain, recognized that sound information and lively wit are the best way to defeat hypocrisy and fraud.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” and editor of “Mencken’s Days Trilogy: Expanded Edition,” recently published by The Library of America.

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