Over lunch today I read one of H.L. Mencken's columns, dated February 9, 1920, in which he slices up the small army of presidential candidates under consideration that year. The opening paragraph reminds us that American politics is, shall we say, ever thus:
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 extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job; the necessary equipment of inescapable issues, immutable principles and soaring ideals can wait until it becomes more certain which way the mob will be whooping. Of the whole crowd at present in the ring, it is probable that only Hoover would made a respectable President. General Wood is a simple-minded old dodo with a delusion of persecution; Palmer is a political mountebank of the first water; Harding is a second-rate provincial; Johnson is allowing himself to be lost in the shuffle; Borah is steadily diminishing in size as he gets closer to the fight; Gerard and the rest are simply bad jokes. Only Hoover stands out as a man of any genuine sense or dignity. He lacks an intelligible platform and is even without a definite party, but he at least shows a strong personality and a great deal of elemental competence. But can he be elected? I doubt it.The players are different in 2015, but not unrecognizable to modern tweeters. One might easily swap in Biden for Leonard Wood (although McCain would be a better analogy), Clinton for Palmer, Perry for Harding, O'Malley for Hiram Johnson, Cruz for William Borah, and Pataki or Webb or anybody else for James Gerard. One can overdo the analogy -- I do not suggest that Perry will win in the end -- but the basic point holds: There have been many characters in American presidential politics, and will be again. No doubt the campaign of 1920 was considered oh so important at the time, and yet it turned out not really to matter at all. Harding was soon gone, and Calvin Coolidge presided over most of two terms in which he did damn near nothing. And very effectively, at that.
There are two interesting items from later in the same column. The first is Mencken's argument for believing that Hoover could not be elected. It seems that anti-English sentiment was strong in the United States in the years following World War I, and William Randolph Hearst sold papers to Irish-Americans by stirring it up. Hoover was Hearst's favorite whipping boy, an easy target because the Great Humanitarian from West Branch had earned most of his huge fortune abroad, especially in London. His eventual nomination and election in 1928 no doubt turned on his leading the relief efforts following the massive Mississippi floods of 1927.
Then there is this (emphasis added):
Two issues show some likelihood of surviving. One is the issue of national independence -- what is now visible as the anti-English question. The other is the issue of personal freedom. Between Wilson and his brigades of informers, spies, volunteer detectives, perjurers and complaisant judges, and the Prohibitionists and their messianic delusion, the liberty of the citizen has pretty well vanished in America. In two or three years, if the thing goes on, every third American will be a spy upon his fellow citizens. But is it going on? I begin to doubt that it is. I begin to see signs that, deep down in their hearts, the American people are growing tired of government by fiat and denunciation. Once they reach the limit of endurance, there will be a chance again for the sort of Americanism that civilized men can be proud of, and that sort of Americanism will make an issue a thousand times as vital as the imitations put forward by the Prohibitionists, the Palmer White Guard, the Wilson mail openers and the press agents of the American Legion.We, too, are damned tired of government by fiat and denunciation, yet that is what he have suffered through, not to mention spies, messianic delusion, and "mail openers," albeit of the digital sort. My vote will go to the first candidate who genuinely speaks up for freedom that matters, instead of fanning grievances of ethnic, gender, or sexual identity, stoking angry nativism or confessional resentment (the left and right sides of the same coin, really), bashing people who make the economy grow, or refighting lost culture wars. Who is that man or woman today?
Prove Mencken right, if 95 years late.