It’s All in Wilson’s Hands, Mencken Concludes After Looking Around at Frisco

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/June 29, 1920

San Francisco, June 29.—In Chicago the one permanently active force in the convention, constantly felt and borne in mind, was a sick man at the end of 1,000 miles of telephone wire. In San Francisco there is a different sick man and a much longer wire, but the effect is almost precisely the same.

The personality of President Wilson so heavily dominates the whole scene that all lesser egos shrink to nothing. He can get whatever he wants, provided only he names it plainly. He can veto anything that offends him, whether it be the actual nomination of a candidate or a trivial slip upon some point of etiquette, honor or literary style. No delegate not liquored beyond all that is seemly would dare to flout him. For he is “the cook and the captain bold, and the mate of the Nancy brig, and the midshipmate and the bosun tight, and the crew of the captain’s gig.”

Yesterday’s opening session resolved itself almost instantly into a gaudy Wilson feast, with no one save a few Irish volunteers to disturb the loud harmony. The Palmer delegates tried to capitalize the enthusiasm on tap by setting up yells and songs for their darling, but immediately the first Wilson rocket was set off the Pennsylvanian was forgotten, and the net result is that he begins the second day a good deal further down the pole than he was the first day. The high point came when a huge American flag that hung over the platform was lifted up, and there appeared behind it a large oil painting of the President, showing him wearing a blue mail-order suit, a purple necktie and a Camp Meade haircut. The thing itself was hideous, but the spirit behind it was inspiring, and so the crowd began whooping like mad, and all the demonstrations planned for the nomination day were given a preliminary airing.

Homer S. Cummings’ keynote speech, as delivered, was devoted almost entirely to praise and defense of the president. The text given to the press associations, I suppose, showed an elaborate discussion of other issues. Homer himself, in fact, assured one of the Irish volunteers who interrupted him that he had something soft and suave to say about the woes of Erin. But he never got to it. Practically the whole of his hour and a half was devoted to an extremely effective defense of the League of Nations and of the President’s doings at the peace table—in truth, to the most persuasive defense that I have ever heard. Homer is no orator. His voice lacks resonance. He is tall, bald and unimpressive. But for all that he delivered his arguments with fine force, and they exploded torpedoes all over the hall.

Altogether it was an extremely lively opening session. The weather was almost perfect—cool and yet not chilly; bright overhead and yet without glare. Through the opening doors at the back of the hall one glimpsed the fronds of swaying palms, a spectacle so unheard of at national conventions that it enchanted the delegates instantly. The hall itself is small, but very well arranged and even beautiful. Behind the speaker’s platform is a large pipe organ and to either side of it there is a gallery, one for the band and the other for a choir. Overhead hangs a gigantic canopy, so huge that it conceals the whole roof. The seats are roomy. The attendants are polite. Outside, in the convention building, there is a clean lunchroom. The acoustics are perfect.

The contrast with Chicago constantly obtrudes itself. There the hall was hot and unlovely, the sets were small and cramped, the aisles were constantly blocked by the inefficient police, and when a delegate sneaked out to refresh himself with a sandwich or a bottle of pop he had to descend to a dirty cellar and stand up to his meager and disgusting meal. The dirtiest man that I have ever seen in my life was in charge of the sandwich counter at Chicago.

In San Francisco the business is in charge of women in clean white uniforms and the sandwiches are large and appetizing, and there are chairs to sit down on while devouring them. The difference is enormous and important. It is easy for a delegate to be happy when he is decently housed and fed.

The simple fact is that San Francisco is doing the thing in the grand manner and making a colossal impression on the visitors. One goes to a national convention expecting to live for a week or 10 days, like a hog in a sty. Here things are not only comfortable; they are almost luxurious. The oldest frequenters of conventions remember no such hall, no such smooth and admirable arrangements, no such attentive and unobtrusive hospitality. The town is scarcely more than a fifth the size of Chicago, and yet its hotels have swallowed the convention crowd without straining, and there is not the slightest breakdown or confusion. If one rings for a bellboy he comes. If one falls over and smashes a chair or a dressing table a new one is put in at once. If one complains that a delegate next door is drunk and noisy an anaesthetist or a mental healer is sent for to silence him.

As I have said, the Palmer delegates, chiefly those from Pennsylvania, tried to capture the opening session, but when the hymn to Woodrow was turned on by Cummings, they quickly subsided and were heard of no more. My private notion is that they discharged their whoops too soon, and so diminished the effectiveness that they will have when they are more sorely needed—to wit, when the ground begins to heave and rock beneath the fighting Quaker and the time has come for heroic measures. Their piece de resistance was and is a song running, “Palmer, Palmer, Pennsylvania,” to the tune of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” They have some good voices in their crowd and their singing is very caressing to the ear. Now and then a fat woman in blue leaps up from the interior of the delegation and lets off a falsetto cheer. In the intervals of song a cheer leader directs a raucous rah, rah, rah.

So much for the Palmer music. By the time it was shut off by roars for the Cummings doctrine—said to have been okayed with blue exclamation points by the White House itself—that the learned doctor is immortal, it had pumped most of the air out of the Palmeristas, and they were all, save the buxom gal in blue, somewhat limp. The official music of the convention then swung grandly into the Woodrowiad. It was led by a brass band, supported by the pipe organ, and graced and embellished by a quartet and a choir. The choir sang through megaphones and quickly got out of time, but the thing was thrilling for all that. “The Star­Spangled Banner” went off with a bang, and, what is more, with unaccustomed dignity. And the marches and battle ballads that followed every time a speaker stopped for breath were given heartily and stirringly.

The genial dampness continues. No honest delegate need go unkissed by stimulants, provided he has a good nose and is not full of fears that every side street is peopled by highwaymen. Simultaneously, the wets give up all hope of getting a ringing declaration for beer and light wines into the platform. They declare that they will be able to knock out Bryan’s dry plank on the floor, but that is as far as they go. In this hope there is probably some substance. The convention is pre-eminently a Wilson gathering and not a Bryan one. Bryan, I believe, gives away his uneasiness about his dry plank by leaping into the ring with a League of Nations plank, coupled to a characteristic demand for an amendment to the Constitution. What he obviously plans to do is to conceal a decisive defeat under a vague and inconclusive battle.

The convention, as I have said, is overwhelmingly for Wilson, not for Bryan. Wilson will have whatever platform he wants, down to and including the punctuation thereof. He can name the candidate if he wants to. Not one of the current aspirants would have a ghost of a show against his active opposition. But that he desires to exercise this last power is anything but clear. He may exercise it to break a hopeless deadlock or to prevent the leaderless convention running amuck. But it is difficult to imagine so shrewd a politician taking the open responsibility of naming his own successor and then running the risk of finding himself with a Taft on his hands.

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