One night, watching the Republicans with growing panic for the deteriorating state of my mental health, I remembered H.L. Mencken, who covered every national convention of both political parties from 1904 to 1948 for The Baltimore Sun. After locating The Impossible Mencken on my shelf, I sat down to read and learn how they were conducted in the past, and even more importantly how the quality of the speeches and the character and qualifications of various candidates has changed. I wasn’t disappointed. As an analysis of the type of men who run for public office in the United States, and their motives, these pieces are not only still right on the mark; they are lots of fun to read too. “Consider the matter of the so-called keynote speech,” Mencken writes in 1924. “Some hollow party hack is put up to rant and snort for an hour and a half, and when he is finished it is discovered that he has said precisely nothing.” Sure, there are exceptions. Obama gave a pretty good one in 2004. But as a rule, as Mencken points out, they consist of several thousands words of puerile platitudes and drivel, the very worst among them managing to be both instantly forgettable and enduringly irritating.
Though our political system is now unimaginably more corrupt than it ever was in the past, and our conventions are becoming carefully scripted, usually foreclosing any possibility of delegates’ choosing how they are conducted, many of the forces that have made it so today have been working on rigging the game for a long time. Here, for instance, is Mencken, again in 1924, describing Big Business’s support for the candidacy of Honorable Calvin Coolidge:
Big Business, in America, is almost wholly devoid of anything even poetically describable as public spirit. It is frankly on the make, day in and day out, and hence for the sort of politician who gives it the best chance. In order to get that chance it is willing to make any conceivable sacrifice of common sense and the common decencies. Big Business was in favor of Prohibition, believing that a sober workman would make a better slave than the one with a few drinks in him. It was in favor of gross robberies and extortions that went on during the war, and profited by all of them. It was in favor of the crude throttling of free speech that was then undertaken in the name of patriotism, and is still in favor of it.
If you are thinking Mencken was a leftist, you are wrong. He loathed Franklin Roosevelt, and was a conservative on most matters. What he witnessed and what today’s reporters witness too, but are not allowed to describe as bluntly as he did, is that a great many men and women Americans elect to office are frauds, with no interest in helping anyone but themselves, but who know to never lose sight of who their masters are and how to serve them. They also have the good fortune of a trusting herd of mentally lazy or downright ignorant voters, who cannot tell the difference between a crook and an honest person and who return them to office again and again, seemingly unperturbed by the incumbent’s repeatedly lying to them and demonstrating a total lack of moral character.