As I’ve recently been re-enjoying the writings of the great Henry Louis Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore – yes, there was a time when Baltimore not only had a Sage but actually produced its own! – I thought it might be appropriate, in this time of troubles, to share a slice from one of the more pungent ones with my Gentle Readers. It comes from a period during which Mencken was traveling with a campaigning presidential candidate, whom he does not name:
One night out in the Bible country, after the hullabaloo of the day was over, I went into his private car along with another newspaper reporter, and we sat down to gabble with him. This other reporter, a faithful member of the candidate’s own party, began to upbraid him, at first very gently, for letting off so much hokum. What did he mean by making promises that no human being on this earth, and not many of the angels in Heaven, could ever hope to carry out? In particular, what was his idea in trying to work off all those preposterous bile-beans and snake-oils on the poor farmers, a class of men who had been fooled and rooked by every fresh wave of politicians since Apostolic times? Did he really believe that the Utopia he had begun so fervently to preach would ever come to pass? Did he honestly think that farmers, as a body, would ever see all their rosy dreams come true, or that the sharecroppers in their lower ranks would ever be more than a hop, skip, and jump from starvation?
The candidate thought awhile, took a long swallow of the coffin-varnish he carried with him, and then replied that the answer in every case was no. He was well aware, he said, that the plight of the farmers was intrinsically hopeless, and would probably continue so, despite doles from the treasury, for centuries to come. He had no notion that anything could be done about it by merely human means, and certainly not by political means: it would take a new Moses, and a whole series of miracles. “But you forget, Mr. Blank,” he concluded sadly, “That our agreement in the premises must remain purely personal. You are not a candidate for President of the United States. I am.”
As we left him, his interlocutor, a gentleman grown gray in Washington and long ago lost to every decency, pointed the moral of the episode. “In politics,” he said, “man must learn to rise above principle.” Then he drove it in with another: “When the water reaches the upper deck,” he said, “follow the rats.”
[Found in A Mencken Chrestomathy. Originally delivered as a lecture to the Institute of Arts and Sciences of Columbia University, January 4, 1940.]
H. L. Mencken remains the gold standard for penetration and probity in American journalism. I fear that we will not see his like again.