Seeking relief from the midterm madness, I’ve been rereading H.L. Mencken’s political reportage and commentary, selections from which have been published in most Mencken anthologies. Up to Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for a second presidential term, American politics was still enjoyable—bitter though many campaigns in the 19th century were, especially as the War Between the States approached. Then, it was essentially a matter of personalities debating concrete political issues, not ideological and all-consuming, as it is today. Mencken himself claimed that no more glorious spectacle was to be found on earth than an American presidential campaign; a claim he proved by his always stimulating and often hilarious reporting on these quadrennial events. Reading his dispatches, in A Carnival of Buncombe and elsewhere, I’m impressed by how far the craft of political journalism has become degraded over the last half-century, in direct parallel with the practice of politics.
Mencken wrote superbly—incomparably better than any newspaperman I can think of today. Indeed, he was one of the greatest literary stylists writing in English in any era. At bottom, he was a novelist writing in the guise and form of an essayist and nonfiction writer. The fact—apparent in nearly everything he ever wrote, from his book-length meditation on the gods to his book reviews in The Smart Set and The American Mercury—can be explained by his instinct to go straight for the personal element behind his subject, whether that was a new novel, a party convention, or a jury trial in Tennessee.
Take, for example, the two long stories he filed for the Baltimore Evening Sun from Chicago on July 1 and 2, 1932, and reprinted in tandem in The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistaire Cooke, as “The Nomination of F.D.R.” The first thing that must strike today’s reader is their status as literature, sailing under the black flag of journalism. Quite apart from the beauty of the writing, this quality is owing to the complete absence of partisanship and partisan rancor (though Mencken came shortly to detest Roosevelt as he detested no one else in his career) and the author’s high-spirited and complete absorption in the human spectacle unfolding on the floor beneath the press boxes. Mencken, it seems, knew nearly every one of the hundreds of delegates by name and reputation; a familiarity that allowed him to follow and describe their antics almost as if they were the creations of his own novelistic imagination.
The failure of the opposition [to Roosevelt’s nomination] was the failure of Al Smith. From the moment he arrived on the ground it was apparent that he had no plan, and was animated only by his fierce hatred of Roo sevelt, the cuckoo who had seized his nest. That hatred may have had logic in it, but it was impotent to organize the allies and they were knocked off in detail by the extraordinarily astute Messrs. Farley and Mullen. The first two ballots gave them some hope, but it was lost on the third, for the tide by then was plainly going Roosevelt’s way. Perhaps the Al of eight or ten years ago, or even of four years ago, might have achieved the miracle that the crisis called for, but it was far beyond the technique of the golf-playing Al of today. He has ceased to be the wonder and glory of the East Side and become simply a minor figure of Park Avenue.
Mencken in his lifetime was known (affectionately) as a curmudgeon. But his “curmudgeonly” writings bear no resemblance to the vicious, vulgar, infantile, and irrational attacks that are the stock-in-trade of journalists today. Perhaps the most acute critical perception of Mencken ever written was Walter Lippmann’s, condensed into a single line: “He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live.”