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H.L. Menken regarding politicians:

"I not infrequently find myself looking to them to be able, diligent, candid and even honest. Plainly enough, that is too large a order"
While browsing the basement of an antique store in the Texas Hill Country this Summer I stumbled across a copy of A Mencken Chrestomathy, the Sage of Baltimore's last published work, printed in the year of my birth. The book gathers bits and pieces of the author's writings over the course of his career as a critic, editor and editorial writer, and cold eyed observer of American politics. Starting today, I will mine this treasure trove of Menkenia for nibbles from his 20th Century observations and hope to provoke some discussion of the political realities of our own time.

Continue reading for today's excerpt and discussion.

After damning politicians up hill and down dale for many years, as rogues and vagabonds, frauds and scoundrels, I sometimes suspect that, like everyone else, I often expect too much of them. Though faith and confidence are surely more or less foreign to my nature, I not infrequently find myself looking to them to be able, diligent, candid and even honest. Plainly enough, that is too large a order, as anyone must realize who reflects upon the manner in which they reach public office. They seldom if ever get there by merit alone, at least in democratic states. Some times, to be sure, it happens, but only by a kind of miracle. They are chosen normally for quite different reasons, the chief of which is simply their power to impress and enchant the intellectually underprivileged. It is a talent like any other, and when it is exercised by a radio crooner, a movie actor or a bishop, it even takes on a certain austere and sorry respectability. But it is obviously not identical with a capacity for the intricate problems of statecraft.

From The Politician, lecture, Institute of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, NY NY, January 4, 1940


Gee, does any of that sound like anybody we know in politics? How about his insight that the process by which we select our politicians is weighted against electing anyone who is any good at governing. I'm sure glad we don't have that problem any more and we get such great candidates. What? Oh, yeah. What was I saying?  

More than two decades before Jack Kennedy out performed Dick Nixon in the 1st nationally televised Presidential debate, Mencken recognized that the essence of American politics is marketing, entertainment and misdirection. If only the Sage were still here to comment on the Tea Party. Does anyone have an idea what he might say? Possibly, "I told you so."  

I am going to create an H.L. Mencken Society group and post this diary there, along with others I may post from time to time in similar form inspired by my readings from the Chrestomathy, or sometimes, perhaps, when something in current events reminds me of something Mencken said.  I invite anyone to post to that group who appreciates this controversial and not entirely uncontradictory giant of American letters and has something to say that is about or inspired or influenced by Mencken's work and helps illuminate some aspect of contemporary political or social affairs.  

Originally posted to LeftOfYou on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:19 PM PDT.

Also republished by The H.L. Menken Society.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (14+ / 0-)

    "If you are going to tell people the truth, be funny or they will kill you." Billy Wilder 1906 - 2002

    by LeftOfYou on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:19:05 PM PDT

  •  My grandfather loved Mencken, though I (5+ / 0-)

    am pretty sure Mencken was a Republican and my grandfather was decidedly not.

    Here's a Mencken quote I have always loved:

    "No one ever got rich overestimating the taste of the American public". Or something close to that.

    Commonmass is able to receive a gift subscription. equalitymaine.org

    by commonmass on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:24:14 PM PDT

    •  Close, (4+ / 0-)

      "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." H L Mencken

      My country is the world, and my religion is to do good. Thomas Paine

      by irate on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:31:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Mencken was probably (4+ / 0-)

      a Republican of the era -- he'd be a screaming liberal today.  He was extremely complex because of his German heritage.  For me -- his body of work speaks for itself -- predominately progressive with seriously awful segues.   Not much different from what we read from today's "progressives."

      Vi er alle norske " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

      by gchaucer2 on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:33:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I don't think he adhered to any party orthodoxy. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Empower Ink

      Here is his speculation of as to how Republican Calvin Coolidge would have reacted had the Great Depression come on his watch rather than his successor, Hoover's.

      he would have responded tobad ties precisely as he responded to good ones -- that is, by pulling down the blinds, stretcching his legs upon his desk, and snoozing away the lazy afternoons.
      He was pretty much an equal opportunity critic of the political status quo.  

      "If you are going to tell people the truth, be funny or they will kill you." Billy Wilder 1906 - 2002

      by LeftOfYou on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:40:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a Baltimoron (thanks H.L.) (6+ / 0-)

    and a devotee of Menckenalia.  One of the most marvelous books he published was A Schimpflexicon which is a collection (most from his wife) of abusive commentary against him.  I have a first addition which is a treasure.

    Mencken had many issues re: AAs and Jews as are revealed in his diaries.  Bottom line -- he defended both in the Sun Papers when it wasn't popular.

    I love Mencken and wish he were alive today because he would be orgasmic over the baggers.

    Vi er alle norske " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

    by gchaucer2 on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:30:15 PM PDT

  •  Kennedy Only Outperformed Nixon By Those Who (4+ / 0-)

    could see his superior good looks.

    The radio audience judged Nixon the winner of the debate that they only experienced in words.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:37:02 PM PDT

  •  Mencken Today Would Encounter an Information (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LeftOfYou

    environment he would not recognize.

    Marketing, he understood. Global information warlord ownership and operation of our entire mainstream national reality and discourse, that requires voters to be some combination of spies, scholars and detectives to know what their leaders are even proposing, that he wouldn't understand.

    The only places we've ever had information environments this free of reason and the interests of the people, there was no point in their people taking any interest.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 04:51:24 PM PDT

  •  I truly suck at finding (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LeftOfYou, esquimaux, Empower Ink

    the perfect picture -- but this one exists because it is in Mencken's biography.  He made his own beer (massive amounts) and stored them in his basement in E. Baltimore.  He placed a sign on the outer door which was comparable to a bio-hazard sign today and warned of some kind of explosive response if the door were opened.

    Damn I have the bio here but can't skim easily enough.

    Again -- Mencken is one of many humans I admire.  If anyone reviews his academic history -- they will see that genius does rise from the masses and supersedes the Ivies many times over.  

    Deal with his obvious complexities -- in the end, he is truly a heroic voice which I believe has yet to be matched.

    Vi er alle norske " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

    by gchaucer2 on Sat Aug 13, 2011 at 05:05:04 PM PDT

  •  Rexroth on Mencken (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LeftOfYou

    Here is Kenneth Rexroth's 1964 appreciation of Mencken.

  •  Looking for a Mencken quote led me to political (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LeftOfYou, Empower Ink

    blogs.  

    Many years ago, somebody sent me Valentine's Day spam, so in revenge I wanted to find a caustic anti-luv Mencken quote to fire back at the person responsible.  Lo and behold one of Google's results was something called "Hector Rottweiler's Web Log" (I think I have that right).  Such a strange title compelled me to check it out...and God Almighty, I found that there be people who thought like me out there on the Internet.  I was feeling a little alone and wondering if I was going crazy; I felt I was the only person who had doubts about Georgie's Excellent Iraq Adventure.  But no! Here was someone literate quoting chapter and verse from the CIA World Fact Book explaining how Georgie was full of shit...with added humor and literary taste.  I think I immediately re-grew 3 lost neurons after reading for the first 5 minutes.   Alas, the echoing silence that met the protests of millions of people so dispirited the main voice of that blog that it ended.  I miss that blog to this day.  I love arch, literary snark.

    So, I basically owe the wastage of the last 7 or 8 years of my life to Mencken, that caustic old bastard.

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