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H.L. Mencken enjoys presidential campaign revival
BALTIMORE, Maryland (Reuters) -- H.L. Mencken knew exactly how the cynical American voter feels when it comes time to close the voting booth curtain and get down to the business of choosing the lesser evil in a presidential race.
"It is difficult to see," he wrote on the eve of the 1924 ballot that elected Calvin Coolidge, "how any self-respecting man will be able to vote for the Hon. Mr. Coolidge without swallowing hard and making a face."
For Mencken, the sharp-tongued satirist who lampooned the American political scene of the early 20th century, politics was "a carnival of buncombe" run by "clowns" and "mountebanks" who were always ready to dispense whatever flapdoodle would appeal to what he called the "mob" of voters.
"All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form. This is to say, they are all ... more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job," he once observed.
Little wonder that the famed author, editor and columnist should enjoy a revival as this year's race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore hurtles toward the finish line.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Mencken's hometown of Baltimore still maintains the clipping service he hired after publishing his first book in 1905, when he was in his mid-20s. So thousands of newspaper and magazine articles quoting Mencken stream into the library most years, and whenever someone runs for president the stream becomes a flood.
Mencken and Twain most quoted
"He and Mark Twain are the two most widely quoted American authors," said Vince Fitzpatrick, curator of the library's Mencken Room. "Because some of his more memorable quotes are about politicians and democracy, you get a lot more in presidential election years."
In one of this year's clippings, Mencken's former employer, the Baltimore Sun, wags a scolding forefinger at Bush and Gore for trying to hornswoggle the American public into believing in "figmentary" budget surpluses.
"They seem to have taken to heart H.L. Mencken's cynical view: 'No one in this world ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people,' " the newspaper said in an early dispatch from the campaign front.
"He's really the best prose stylist since Twain," said Ray Stevens, president of the Mencken Society, a group devoted to preserving the legacy of the "Sage of Baltimore."
Mencken, who died at 75 in 1956, sprang from the same satirical vein as Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Dorothy Parker and Russell Baker. He saw "no human right that is half as valuable as the simple right to pursue the truth at discretion and utter it when found." And it was his stated view that competence, rather than ideology, was the true measure of the individual.
Armed with these convictions, he used wit, humor and aristocratic affectation to blast the common assumptions of American society, including the notion that U.S. democracy should necessarily be seen as a guarantee of freedom.
"To him, Americans aren't really a free people. They don't want the cold, bracing air of freedom. They want the warmth of the herd and will take the shepherd that goes along with it," said biographer William Williams, author of "H.L. Mencken Revisited" (Twayne, 1998).
'An hour or two of idiotic whooping'
Thus emerged a host of scathing political observations, many of which ring true generations later. Take, for instance, his forecast for the proceedings of the 1924 Republican National Convention:
"Some dreadful mountebank in a long-tailed coat will open them with a windy speech; then another mountebank will repeat the same rubbish in other words. Then a half dozen windjammers will hymn good Cal (Coolidge) as a combination of Pericles, Frederick the Great, Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and John the Baptist; then there will be an hour or two of idiotic whooping, and then the boys will go home."
Were Mencken alive for this year's campaign, experts say, he would find more than enough material to keep busy.
Campaign rhetoric about honesty and character would seem a likely target: "For if experience teaches us anything at all, it teaches us this: that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar," he observed.
Another might be promised billions in spending across a range of popular programs: "If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country," he wrote of Harry Truman's 1948 election campaign, "he would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayers' expense."
"Mencken would have made much of Bush and Gore as the Ivy League-educated sons of established political families, trying to pass themselves off as folksy. Bush, especially -- the son of a former president, casting himself as a Washington outsider," Williams said.
'A string of wet sponges'
But Mencken's main target would likely have been the debasement of language in political rhetoric, a favorite subject dating back famously to Warren G. Harding's 1921 inaugural address, which he described as "the worst English that I have ever encountered.
"It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights," he wrote. "It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. But I grow lyrical."
Mencken was not out to abolish democracy but to encourage the voter to ignore false pretense and choose his candidate "as he makes his selection between two heads of cabbage, or two evening papers, or two brands of chewing tobacco."
"Today, he chooses his rulers as he buys bootleg whiskey, never knowing precisely what he is getting, only certain that it is not what it pretends to be."
Like Mark Twain, Mencken's reputation in recent years has fallen under a cloud amid evidence that he held racist and anti-Semitic views. Admirers have tried to deflect criticism by pointing to the less-than-charitable mores of his time.
Others seem less disappointed in Mencken's fall from grace than in the relative scarcity of good, biting satire since the days when America emerged victorious from the Second World War and seized the unelected office of world leader.
"America in the '20s and '30s didn't take itself so seriously. After World War II it's like a sea change. Suddenly the society takes itself very seriously: We're in majestic America; we have the hydrogen bomb; there's no more time for jokes," said Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham, a satirist in his own right.
"Now we're a society that is completely occupied with getting ahead, networking and keeping in the loop and not saying anything mean," Lapham added.
"So we have this whole court etiquette, political etiquette, politically correct language. You don't dare say something sharp because you might insult someone who could do you a favor."
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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