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by William H. Benson

August 21, 2008

     In 1904, a cub newspaper reporter, not quite twenty-four, attended his first national political convention: his name was Henry Louis Mencken, and he wrote for a Baltimore newspaper. The Republican Convention that year was held in Chicago, and the delegates there nominated Theodore Roosevelt, whose political oratory failed to impress Mencken, calling it all “imbecilities . . . as even a Methodist conference could not match.”

     This was the first of Mencken’s eleven convention seasons that stretched over the next forty-four years. It was said of Mencken that he collected political conventions like others collected works of art. Theatre may have impressed him, but this was “living drama.”

     That same year in St. Louis at the Democratic Party’s convention Mencken stared gaping in astonishment as he watched William Jennings Bryan, dressed in an alpaca suit, bid a tearful farewell to his fellow Democrats. Mencken wrote, “I was against Bryan the moment I heard him.”

     At 2:00 a.m. on June 12, 1920, after a week of ballots and voting, the Republicans nominated Warren G. Harding for President and Calvin Coolidge his Vice-President. A disappointed Mencken wrote: “It was a poor show. Harding is of the intellectual grade of an aging cockroach.”

     Harding won the election, and Mencken attended his inauguration, walking away appalled at Harding’s speech, and saying that it was “the worst English 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.”

     Mencken presented one of Harding’s atrocious sentences: “I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved.” Of it, Mencken commented: “I assume that you have read it. I also assume that you have set it down as idiotic—a series of words without sense. You are quite right.”

     At the 1924 Republican Convention, the delegates nominated Calvin Coolidge, whom Mencken considered, “a stubborn little fellow with a tight unimaginative mind.” To fellow reporters Mencken confided, “Let us at once admit that all such affairs as this are the most dreadful buffooneries conceivable. . . . Coolidge can’t arouse any more enthusiasm than a spittoon.”

     Four years later Mencken described Herbert Hoover as “no more than a fat Coolidge,” and that he “has a complexion like unrisen dough.”

     In 1936, Alfred Landon, Governor of Kansas, received the Republican nomination for President, and even though Mencken preferred Landon over Franklin Roosevelt, he thought Landon’s speeches awful, that his voice was that of “a muted xylophone,” and that there were “no more thrills it than a game of checkers.”      

     In 1948, Mencken attended his final Presidential convention, in Philadelphia, where, approaching sixty-eight, he worked as hard as ever typing a good report. The younger reporters looked upon him with reverence, and when somebody yelled, “Mencken for President!”, he stood, bowed, and said in jest, “I accept.”

     Mencken, like most Americans, wondered why the more exceptional people do not run for President, and he decided that, “In the face of this singular passion for conformity, it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life. . . . This leaves the field to the intellectual jellyfish and inner tubes.”

     The Democratic National Convention will convene next week, on Monday, in Denver, Colorado, at the Pepsi Center, and if all transpires as anticipated, on Thursday, across the Interstate, at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium, the Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, will accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States.

     The following week in Minneapolis-St. Paul the Senator from Arizona, John McCain, will accept the Republican Party’s nomination for the same office.

     If only we had H. L. Mencken to attend each of the conventions and give us his caustic comments of the proceedings, written in a prose style unmatched by any other.