Your Weekly Mencken: Republican Presidential Debate Edition
The first Republican presidential debate is set for Thursday night. Fox News on Tuesday announced the lineup, which includes the top 10 of 17 GOP contenders based on an average of national polls.
In: Donald Trump; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Out: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham; former New York Gov. George Pataki; and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
What to make of this motley crew? H. L. Mencken made an art of skewering politicians. Although he would describe himself over the years as an “enlightened tory,” an “extreme libertarian,” a “reactionary,” and a “whig,” he was a lifelong Democrat who revered Grover Cleveland and hated Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And although Mencken judged practically every president after George Washington as inferior to the task, he directed some of his best barbs at the presidency itself. Here’s what he had to say about the sort of men who seek the Oval Office ahead of the 1924 election:
Let us turn from such specially bred men [as kings] to the sort of fellows who constitute the common run of Presidents under democracy — the Franklin Pierces, Tafts, Eberts, Poincares, Chester A. Arthurs, Benjamin Harrisons, John Tylers, Rutherford B. Hayes and so on — mainly ninth-rate politicians, petty and puerile men, strangers to anything resembling honor. It is my contention that even such preposterous worms, if they were turned into kings, would make relatively honest and competent administrators — that, at worst, they would be better than any Presidents save a miraculous few. . . . The point is that . . . [their] good qualities are now under constant adverse pressure — that they can be given free play only by heroic efforts, too often beyond the man’s strength. If he were absolutely free, as the responsible head of a great state ought to be — if he could devote his whole energies to administering the government according to his best skill and judgment, instead of spending nine-tenths of his time engaging in obscene devices to enchant the mob or humiliating bargainings with villainous politicians — then the chances are that he would run the state . . . competently . . . and so give us a government a great deal better than any democracy deserves, or will ever get. His job does not require genius; it requires only industry, honesty, courage and common sense. But how can a man harbor such qualities and at the same time make votes? What chance has he got against the nearest mountebank? (The Baltimore Evening Sun, April 2, 1923)
Three years earlier, as the Age of Wilson was winding down, Mencken famously wrote:
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go . . . to mediocre men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. (The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 26, 1920)
The reader is left to judge whether Mencken’s sobriquet applies to any of the current crop of candidates, Republican or Democrat.