»  The Straggler, No. 74

December 29, 2008

   The Cold Eye

President George W. Bush would "like to be a president [known] as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace," it says here. Well, that's nice. I don't recall either of my votes for the gentleman having been cast with that in, or anywhere near, my mind, but I won't begrudge the departing president such consolations as he can find. Meanwhile my investments are down 35 percent from last year-end, a friend has just lost his business and had to put his house up for sale, and a Democrat steeped in crackpot college radicalism is heading to the White House.

Fans of H.L. Mencken will at any rate know where they are with that latest statement of our departing president's: viz., in the presence of a World Saver. From Mencken's obituary of Calvin Coolidge:  "Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant?"

Terry Teachout, in his splendid 2002 book about the Sage of Baltimore, frowns at Mencken's many mockings of Coolidge, noting that the 30th President was a cum laude graduate of Amherst who read Cicero in the original and had a well-thought-out philosophy of governance. (Teachout omits to mention that Coolidge also attempted a translation of Dante.) Mencken's scorn for World Savers is worth recalling, though. Indeed, it is worth emulating. It is possible that we traded one World Saver for another on November 4th last. We should hope not, but it is possible.

I had to brush up my Mencken recently after being invited to talk to the H.L. Mencken Society in Baltimore. I read the Chrestomathy all through for the first time, and Teachout's book, and reacquainted myself with The American Language, which I had bought and read many years ago as part of my self-Americanization project.

With things in the state they are in, Mencken's loathing of politicians and "jobholders," along with his contempt for World Savers and "uplift," are hard to resist. In one 1938 edition of the Baltimore Evening Sun, he filled six columns of the editorial page with a mass of tiny dots, each representing a federal jobholder. Nowadays he could have filled the whole paper, many times over.

Mencken's description in the Chrestomathy of how Harry Hopkins and three of his aides thought up the New Deal is priceless:

Four preposterous nonentities, all of them professional uplifters, returning from a junket at the taxpayer's expense, sit in a smoking car munching peanuts and talking shop. Their sole business in life is spending other people's money. In the past they have always had to put in four-fifths of their time cadging it, but now the New Deal has admitted them to the vast vaults of the public treasury, and just beyond the public treasury, shackled in a gigantic lemon-squeezer worked by steam, groans the taxpayer.

Hopkins had a mere billion dollars to work with — equivalent to $16 billion in today's money. One wonders how Mencken would have summoned up enough scorn to cope with the multi-trillion-dollar "stimulus" and "bailout" extravaganzas that fill today's news stories, one after another.

Mencken must have been a hard man to like, though. Reading Terry Teachout's book, I was surprised at the narrowness of Mencken's life. He lived at home with his mother till she died in his 46th year; then he lived on in the same house till he married five years later. He traveled little and was not gregarious, spending almost all his waking hours in a study or office, writing. The only hobbies recorded by Teachout were music and bricklaying. Mencken's wife, whom he loved dearly, died after five years. Mencken never remarried, and had no children.

He was an autodidact, with all the misplaced confidence and all the astonishing gaps that characterize that breed. Not many of us would venture to write a book about democracy without ever having read de Tocqueville, nor embark on a translation of Nietzsche with only a sketchy knowledge of German.

What redeems Mencken is the same thing that redeemed Yeats in Auden's great obituary poem: "Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and innocent / … Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives …" The man was a writer all through. He kept clarity and wit well-tuned across a colossal volume of output, inspiring awe in anyone who writes for a living.

He loved words. In The American Language he fairly caresses them. This is one of those books with a fan club; and when you meet a fellow fan, his eyes light up as he tells you his favorite parts, often quoting from memory. For myself, I have always cherished the section that deals with those pidgin dialects developed by immigrants. An American-Hungarian who wants to know if the plumber fixed the sink will, according to Mencken, ask: "Megfixolta a ploma a sinket?"

In our present straits, though, it is Mencken's loathing and contempt for our political classes that should most appeal. Mencken loved liberty and perceived that any politician more active than Coolidge — which is to say, wellnigh any politician at all — seeks to take liberty away from us, either in pursuit of some mad ideology, or, more often, just from the desire to be seen always busy at something. Public adoration of wonder-worker politicians like FDR excited Mencken's fiercest diatribes. He called FDR "the Führer," "the greatest president since Hoover," etc.

There is nothing more American than this cold-eyed distrust of office-holders, and nothing we are more in need of today. Like the reminders of mortality whispered by a slave to the Roman general in his triumph, Mencken's 1931 essay "Imperial Purple" should be ceremonially read aloud to every incoming president when first he sits down in the Oval Office, to impress on him, in rhythms that would not disgrace a poet, the vacuity and mediocrity among which presidential power mainly dwells.

All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to bores and quacks … It takes four days' hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere … The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.