A Carnival of Buncombe

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/February 9, 1920

All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form. This is to say, they are all extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job; the necessary equipment of unescapable issues, immutable principles and soaring ideals can wait until it becomes more certain which way the mob will be whooping. Of the whole crowd at present in the ring, it is probable that only Hoover would make a respectable president. General Wood is a simple-minded old dodo with a delusion of persecution; Palmer is a political mountebank of the first water; Harding is a second-rate provincial; Johnson is allowing himself to be lost in the shuffle; Borah is steadily diminishing in size as he gets closer to the fight; Gerard and the rest are simply bad jokes. Only Hoover stands out as a man of any genuine sense or dignity. He lacks an intelligible platform and is even without a definite party, but he at least shows a strong personality and a great deal of elemental competence. But can he be elected? I doubt it.

What will fetch him in the end, it seems to me, is know-nothing­ism in all its new and lovely forms. He is altogether too much the foreigner to be swallowed by the great masses of the plain people. They will listen, for a while, to his sweet words; they will hear his protestations of undying loyalty to the flag and to the inspired maxims of Andrew Jackson; but in the long run they will remember that he fled from the republic as a youngster and became, to all intents and purposes, an Englishman, and they will remember, too, that his boom, in its early stages, showed a suspiciously English cast of countenance. Was it actually launched by Viscount Grey? Well, what are the odds? The accusation will be quite as potent as the proof. In such matters one does not need convincing evidence; one merely needs an effective charge.

William Randolph Hearst, a politician of large and delicate gifts, has already raised the issue, and in his journals of public education, with their 5,000,000 circulation, he devotes himself daily to pumping it up. Hoover, it appears by these Hearstian blasts, is actually no more than a pussyfoot sent out by Lloyd George, Sir George Paish and company to insinuate himself into the confidence of innocent Americans, seduce them into voting for him, to hoist himself into the White House—and then hand over the country to the unholy English. His ultimate aim, like that of young Pulitzer, young Reid, the Pierpont Morgan partners, Ladies’ Home Journal Curtis and other such Anglomaniacs, is to restore the United States to its old place as a loyal British colony, and unload upon it the goat’s share of Great Britain’s war debt.

Thus Hearst. The Irish-American weeklies go even further. The very mention of Hoover’s name lifts them to frenzies. Imagine him president—and taking orders from the Colonial Office! It is a dream more terrible than that of the League of Nations. In all these fears, of course, one discerns a certain exaggeration. It is probably untrue that Dr. Hoover is being financed by English money, or that he’d rather be the premier of a British colony than president of a free nation, or that he has visions of being promoted from the White House to the House of Lords. In such notions there is a pervasive unlikelihood. But under even the most grotesque of them there remains a sediment of sense, and this sediment of sense takes the form of the doctrine that the interests of England and of the United States, since the close of the war, have begun to diverge sharply, and that it would thus be somewhat unsafe to entrust the interests of the United States to a man so long schooled in promoting the interests of England.

This feeling, it seems to me, is growing very rapidly, and it will be strong enough in the end to eliminate Hoover. It shows itself in many current phenomena—for example, in the acrimonious newspaper duel now going on between the two countries and in the revival of the old sport of pulling the lion’s tail on the floor of Congress. The English, usually so skillful at leading the Yankee by the nose, now show a distressing lack of form. Their papers begin to go on at a furious rate, denouncing everything American as dishonest and disgusting. The doctrine that Americans won the war—a very tender point—is laughed at. American rapacity is blamed for the present demoralization of exchange. There is more or less open talk of repudiating England’s American debt. Even Lord Grey’s very discreet letter has not much improved the situation, for what he has gained by his mollifying words he has lost by his blow to the extreme wing of League of Nations advocates, most of whom are more English than the English, and now feel themselves repudiated and deserted.

In brief, one begins to hear hymns of hate in the offing, and Dr. Hoover will be lucky indeed if they do not drown out his self­sacrificing offer to serve the state. If he speaks against them, then Hearst and the Irish will have all the proof that is needed, speaking politically, to convict him of being a British spy. And if he essays to join in, then even the persons who are now friendly to him will begin to suspect him of a dark and treacherous hypocrisy. The times, in other words, are unfavorable to a candidate bearing his marks. England and the United States are fast drifting apart and the inner causes of that separation will produce important effects upon American domestic politics. The thing that holds up the peace treaty is not any notion that it is dishonest and unjust, or any desire to kick the corpse of Woodrow. It is suspicion of England, pure and simple, as anyone may quickly discover by reading the debates in the Senate, and the harangues of the anti­treaty missionaries on the stump.

Palmer is even weaker than Hoover, if only because he is a man of much inferior ability and of infinitely less intrinsic honesty. His medieval attempts to get into the White House by pumping up the Bolshevik issue have had the actual effect of greatly diminishing his chances. The American people, as a general thing, enjoy the public pursuit of criminals. They esteem and respect a prosecuting officer who entertains them with gaudy raids and is on the first pages of the newspapers every morning. To provide such sport for them is the surest way to get on in politics: every intelligent district attorney prays every night for a Shaw, a Becker or an O’Leary, that he may follow in the illustrious footsteps of Folk, Haney, Whitman and Hughes. But Palmer went a bit too far. He carried the farce to such lengths that the plain people began to sympathize with his victims, nine-tenths of whom were palpably innocent of any worse crime than folly. Today he faces a public conviction that he is a silly fellow, despotic and without sense. That conviction does little violence to the truth.

Aside from his efforts to scare the boobery with Bolshevist bugaboos, Palmer seems to· put most reliance in his fidelity to Dr. Wilson’s so-called ideals. Here he simply straps himself to a cadaver. These ideals, for two years the marvel of Christendom, are now seen to have been mere buncombe. Dr. Wilson himself never made any actual effort to give them force and effect. On the contrary, it is now evident, by the testimony of all who were privy to the facts, that he heaved them overboard as so much rubbish at the first opportunity. Palmer does not actually believe in them. He has probably done more than any other one man, save only Mr. Wilson himself, to break down democratic self-government in America and substitute a Cossack despotism, unintelligent and dishonest. His final appeal for votes is with the affecting slogan: “Equal rights for all; special privileges to none.” And this from the creator of the Chemical Foundation!

In brief, the fellow is a hollow charlatan. Wood is more honest. He is the simple-minded dragon, viewing all human phenomena from the standpoint of the barrack-room. His remedy for all ills and evils is force. Turn out the guard, and let them have a whiff of grape! One somehow warms to the old boy. He is archaic, but transparent. He indulges himself in no pishposh about ideals. He has no opinions upon any public question save the primary one of protecting property. His is a policeman’s philosophy, and hence a good deal more respectable than that of Palmer, which is a detective’s. But what chance has he got? I can’t see much. There is no emotional push in his candidacy. The Red issue is dying fast; it will be forgotten before election. And the issue of Americanism is being murdered by idiots. Day by day its exponents pile up proofs that to be an American, as they conceive it, is to be a poltroon and an ass.

Two issues show some likelihood of surviving. One is the issue of national independence—what is now visible as the anti-English issue. The other is the issue of personal freedom. Between Wilson and his brigades of informers, spies, volunteer detectives, perjurers and complaisant judges, and the Prohibitionists and their messianic delusion, the liberty of the citizen has pretty well vanished in America. In two or three years, if the thing goes on, every third American will be a spy upon his fellow-citizens. But is it going on? I begin to doubt that it is. I begin to see signs that, deep down in their hearts, the American people are growing tired of government by fiat and denunciation. Once they reach the limit of endurance, there will be a chance again for the sort of Americanism that civilized men can be proud of, and that sort of Americanism will make an issue of a thousand times as vital as the imitations put forward by the Prohibitionists, the Palmer White Guard, the Wilson mail openers and the press agents of the American Legion.

Well, imagine Hoover or Palmer nominated by the Democrats, and Wood or some other glorified gendarme nominated by the Republicans. What then? In the offing lurks William Jennings Bryan. I have a suspicion that Bryan is a better politician than any of them. He must see, as every impartial man must see, that both the great parties are sick unto death—that both are thinking in terms of 1914. And he must see, too, the vast body of miscellaneous malcontents in the middle ground, all sore, all eager to strike, all waiting to be led. There are, to begin with, probably a million Socialists; Palmerism in state and nation has been manufacturing them by whole brigades and army corps. There are I.W.W.’s and their like—extravagant fanatics, fools ready to believe anything, but hard used, evilly done out of their common rights. There are racial groups, each with its bitter grievances. There are the revolutionary yokels out in the Northwest, marching like the Bolsheviki. There are the Irish, ready to repudiate Tammany, and the blacks, eager to punish the Republican party. There are, finally, the growing thousands of plain men, who tire of government by Burlesons, Palmers, Lusk committees, profiteers and newspapers, and begin to long for a restoration of peace, freedom and common decency.

Jennings is an oily fellow, an adept opportunist. His specialty is capitalizing grievances. Prohibition, at the moment, rather handicaps him, but he will know how to get rid of it if necessary. He is at home where men groan under atrocities and are beset by devils. He has the soft words that soothe the fevered brow. He can weep. Already one of his legs is over the side of the Democratic ark. Suppose he takes a bold header into the wild waters of miscellaneous radicalism? Suppose he sets out to round up all who have scalded necks, and despair in their hearts, and a great yearning to raise blue hell? The chance is there—and there, perhaps, stands the statesman foreordained—there stands the super-Debs, the white Touissant L’Overture. Spartacus come back to earth. He, too, has suffered. He lost his job because he wasn’t English enough. He is a laborer, a farmer, an Irish patriot, an oppressed war veteran, a poor coon.

Given his health, there is fun ahead for Jennings.

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.