Mencken Says All’s Set to Put “Young William” Over if Wilson Gives the Word

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/July 1, 1920

San Francisco, July 1.—Barring acts of God and the public enemy, it would seem to be Son-in-Law McAdoo. He is the favorite this morning by odds of at least 2 to 1.

Both the Palmer boom and the Cox boom came to grisly ends in the convention hall yesterday afternoon, the first coming down with paralysis at 2 P.M. and the other drowning in a mixture of light wines, beer and well-water an hour later. Thus, while the two corpses were being hauled out by the catchpods, the Rev. Burris Jenkins, of Kansas City, got upon his legs, made a modest little speech for the Crown Prince, and instantly set off a volcano.

The McAdoo demonstration that followed was not only longer and louder than either that for Palmer or that for Cox, it was also incomparably more hearty and spontaneous. All that is needed to put young William over with a bang is a single wink from the White House. Everything is apparently set to nominate him. All he wants is the imprimatur.

It was a session full of thrills, surprises and buffooneries, and also a session strangely full of charm. The crowd stuck almost solidly from 11 A.M. until after 6, hugely enjoying every minute of the show. The first whoop was generated by the governor of Arkansas when he rose to second the nomination of Senator Owen. He is a sad-looking man, with a Chauncey M. Depew nose and brilliant bald head, and no one expected him to make any use of the seltzer siphon. But in his first sentence he loosed a pun worthy of Weber and Fields.

“Arkansas,” he said, “is the only state mentioned in the Bible. Turn to the book of Genesis. There you will find the immortal and prophetic words, “And Noah looked out the ark and saw.”

Higher flights of wit, of course, are imaginable, but it somehow tickled the crowd, and the rest of the governor’s speech brought forth storms of yells.

On his heels came a fair suffragist of Massachusetts, Mrs. Susan W. Fitzgerald. Mrs. Fitzgerald has dignified gray hair and carries herself like a professor at Vassar, but when she stepped to the front of the platform and the leader of the band searched hurriedly for some tune to greet her, he hit upon “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.”

The crowd roared, Chairman Robinson nervously concealed a snicker in the water pitcher, and Mrs. Fitzgerald herself smiled good-humoredly. Her speech was a bad one, but her bearing in this somewhat trying situation pleased everybody, and so she was applauded mightily, and when she sat down there was a tumult.

After that whoop followed whoop. All the girls who rose to second nominations were given receptions fit for Lillian Russell, in the last century, and when Mrs. Lillian R. Sire spoke for Governor Smith, of New York, one delegate grew so giddy with joy that he rushed out of the hall, lifted a wreath from a passing hearse, and then fought his way to the platform to present it to her.

Both the Palmer demonstration and the uproar for Cox were helped by this general disposition to be happy, but all the same they showed a feebleness that revealed the collapse of hopes behind them. The delegates were polite, but not enthusiastic.

Of the two, the Palmer demonstration was the better staged. It rested principally upon music. Instantly the name of the eminent foe of anarchy was mentioned, the band burst into the Palmer song, “Palmer, Palmer, Pennsylvania,” to the tune of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

This was precisely at 11:43. Thereafter, save for two breaks of one minute each, the chorus was played continuously until 2:07. It took four seconds to get through it. I thus figure that it was done 95 times—enough to last me until the next war.

The “Palmeristas” bawled the song through megaphones and tramped around the hall as they bawled, but when the music stopped at last they were done for. The singing seemed to exhaust their ingenuity. The best they could provide in the way of comedy was a red-haired youth, who leaped upon the chair and swung his arms about him in the manner of a Russian dancer doing the ballet, “The Czar is down with smallpox! Hurrah, hurrah!” They had no banners, and their marching quickly got them tied into knots. Finally they grabbed a pretty girl, hoisted her high in the air and so attempted to revive enthusiasm; but the demonstration plainly lacked grip and substance. It went on for 34 minutes, but after the tenth minute it was purely artificial.

The Cox hullabaloo was even less spontaneous. The efforts of the Cox leaders to seduce the drys have shaken the faith of the wets, and the result is that the Ohioan is regarded with suspicion on all sides, and his nomination seems, at this writing, to be impossible without a miracle. His whoopers had a band of their own in one of the galleries and it tore the air for 20 minutes running with the Cox song, which uses the tune of “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble.” Once this song was worn out, the demonstration was done, though Chairman Robinson let it struggle and gasp along until it had outlived the Palmer demonstration by one minute. The Coxites sent a college cheer leader to the platform to inflame the crowd, but he failed miserably. It was obvious, as the pumped-up tumult died, that Cox was fading with it.

What followed was unexpected and a vast success and next to the McAdoo demonstration, the most hearty uproar of the whole day. It came when Bourke Cocoran, the silver-tongued, appeared on the platform to pay New York’s formal tribute to Gov. Alfred E. Smith.

Bourke was in poor form, his speech was childish, and Smith was not regarded seriously as a candidate, but on the heels of the light applause the band swung into “Tammany” and then into “The Sidewalks of New York,” and then into “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” and then into a whole series of £ the sentimental songs of a yesteryear, and bit by bit, without the slightest intent or pre­arrangement there grew up a demonstration that made the other two seem silly. It had no leaders and it had no plan, but it came from the heart and when it subsided at last a few electric cantos of rhetoric might have set off such a Smith boom that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would have been needed to scotch it. That rhetoric, unluckily for Smith, was not poured out. The man sent up to second Cocoran’s speech was young Franklin D. Roosevelt, and young Franklin D. Roosevelt botched and butchered the thing for two minutes. What was demanded by that golden opportunity was a flash of genuine eloquence, a ringing appeal to the delegates to turn from the cadavers of Palmer and Cox and cast their votes for Alfred. But all that Roosevelt had on tap was a line of puerile and ineffective bosh about the great achievements of the navy. As the delegates listened all their enthusiasms oozed out of them. Thus the Smith boom died in the hour of its birth and it will take strong medicine to revive it.

But while the thing lasted it made the most charming episode of this most delightful of all conventions. Ten thousand men and women, carried away by the homely music of those bedraggled old songs, sang with the band, danced around the hall and yielded themselves unashamed to a debauch of sentiment.

In the Maryland delegation J. Walter Lord was the first to succumb. He resisted “After the Ball” and he resisted “The Bowery,” but when the band got to “Two Little Girls in Blue” he gave a low moan, clutched the Maryland standard to his heart and leaped into the dance. Governor Ritchie was the next to fall. He was knocked out by “A Bicycle Built for Two.” Then Mrs. Lord, who was sitting with the delegation, followed her husband. Then Robert Crain fell for “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” Then John J. Mahon, too proud to sing or even to stand up, began to blow his nose romantically.

All over the hall were singing delegates, alternates, guests, newspaper reporters, policemen and firemen. A row of elderly suffragettes, stored for safety in the organ loft, converted themselves into a choir. The Cox band joined the regular convention band, a Palmer cornetist helped with fearful blasts. The very magnificoes on the platform began to buzz and sway. In the midst of the sweet saturnalia a lady delegate from the West was so softly overcome that she tried to kiss the Hon. Daniel J. Loden. “Dan” was willing, but an usher hauled her off. Telling about it later on, “Dan” courteously reduced her age from 47 to 32. This morning he is telling everyone that he will start a boom for her for the Vice­Presidency.

A fine piece of musical psychology was hidden in this pretty score. The “Tammany” song, which came immediately after Cocoran’s speech, left the crowd cold, but the moment the band dropped into “The Sidewalks of New York” singing began all over the hall. The explanation is simple. “The Sidewalks of New York” is in three-four time, which is to say, the waltz time, and waltz spells sentiment all over the world. “After the Ball” is in the same time, so is “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” So is “Two Little Girls in Blue.” So is every other song that the 10,000 whooped and hummed. Instantly the band went back to “Tammany” in common time and the show was over. The march beat thrills, but it cannot mellow.

The crowd will go home delighted with San Francisco. There will be another convention here four years hence, if the delegates and alternates have to hock their false teeth to pay the fare. San Francisco has simply knocked them out. There is an air here that is simply unmatchable in the East and it is social as well as atmospheric. One notices at once a touch of spaciousness and freedom. The town is genuinely gay. There is a touch of the exotic in its life, almost a touch of the Asiatic. One gets a sense of deliverance from the oppressive Puritanism of the East.

Do not misunderstand me here. There is no sign of debauchery. Nothing gross and hoggish. But when I rode along the shores of the Pacific last night, with the moon shining over the waters and a good dinner filling me with optimistic reflections, when I bounced along in a comfortable night hack and saw a thousand young fellows in other night hacks happily sailing by, each innocently hugging his girl and the cops looking on as if there were no laws against honest joy, it somehow made me glad that I had traveled the desert and renewed acquaintance with civilization.

The hospitality of San Francisco, in some of its manifestations, almost verges upon low cunning. Imagine a town in which every hotel keeper starts off every morning by sending every one of his guests a basket of fruit or a box of flowers. The women visitors are tickled half to death. In all other convention cities the delegates are herded into their pens by ward heelers schooled in the art at iron molders’ picnics and on cheap excursion boats. Here the ushering in is done by pretty girls in white. Instead of clubs, they employ smiles. Imagine what good order there is. Imagine how the delegates are delighted.

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