Mencken’s Last Hurrah


By 1948, H.L. Mencken was sixty-eight years old and had covered twelve presidential elections. The commonly accepted view of him was that his glory days as an attack dog on the cant that politicians spewed out were over. From being the most read newspaperman of his day, the 1920s, he was, by the 1930s, largely forgotten because of his anti-New Deal views. His opposition to the “Good War,” further alienated him from audiences and compelled him to spend the war years writing nostalgic memoirs.

But there would be one more great moment before the end. Mere months before a stroke would disable him, he covered the 1948 Progressive Party Convention that would nominate former Vice President Henry Wallace.

Wallace would provide Mencken with the ultimate target the summa cum laude he had cut his lance on for decades. For religious quackery, Mencken was presented with a Wallace who employed a yogi as a consultant. For political naivete, Mencken had a Wallace who saw the Russian Revolution as part of a “long march to freedom” and during a wartime visit to a slave labor camp (with his KGB minders carefully steering him toward well-scrubbed secret police masquerading as prisoners while the real, emaciated, terrified version was locked in barracks) he stated that the Soviet future was working; and Mencken had a politician who was controlled by Communists on his campaign (several of whom were espionage agents—a matter that Mencken, true to his political savvy, correctly guessed).

But for true religious fanaticism, Mencken found its biggest offenders in the audience. Pecking away on his typewriter, while outraged Progressives peered over his shoulder, Mencken described the group as crackpots:

“To a very large extent he has acquired the semi-celestial character which attached to the late FDR. If, when nominated today, he suddenly sprouts wings and begins flapping about the hall, no one will be surprised.”

Gazing at the group, Mencken experienced a feeling of nostalgia not felt since the days of the mob that attacked John Scopes:

“The more extreme varieties, I have no doubt, would not have been surprised if a flock of angels had swarmed down from Heaven to help whoop him up, accompanied by the red dragon with seven heads and ten horns described in Revelation XII, 3. Alongside these feeble minded folk were gangs of dubious labor leaders, slick Communists, obfuscators, sore veterans, Bible Belt evangelists, mischievous college students, and such like old residents of the Cave of Allum.”

Mencken did not let President Truman off the hook, either. Although he did not find Truman as deluded and nutty as Wallace, Mencken despised Truman as a machine politician, utterly ruthless in a way that Wallace was not. The greatest insult Mencken bestowed upon Truman was that the President was a rabble-rouser like his predecessor FDR.

But he accused both Wallace and Truman of selling snake oil to the American people, and uncharacteristically threw his support to Strom Thurmond, a third party Democrat running on the Dixiecrat ticket–the very epitome of white trash politician Mencken denounced during the Scopes Monkey Trial.

It is a pity that Mencken is not alive today, for in former president Barack Obama’s followers he would experience 1948 all over again. Like the Progressives, the Obama camp experiences the same religious exultation (“Barack My World”) and blind leader worship (“I’m waiting for him to tell me what to do” says the great political philosopher Halle Barry) as well as a determination to protect him from free speech (The North Carolina teacher told the anti-Obama student that she would not “allow criticism of the President in my classroom;” the student displayed a Mencken-like ability to detect quackery when he replied “He’s not God.”)

Mencken would find a ready target in the cant that Obama spewed.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

1 Comment

  1. Nice. I’ve been reading a lot of Mencken recently, but hadn’t encountered this. I highly recommend Happy Days, the first volume of his autobiography. Not much in the way of politics, but a fascinating and often hilarious memoir of growing up in Baltimore in the 1880s.

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