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History Repeats Itself: Mencken on Obama and McCain

DateCBS News - Headline:  Obama Seen As Different Kind of Politician 27 April 2009 

H.L. Mencken - 9 November 1936

H.L. Mencken, a famous columnist for the Baltimore Sun in the early 1900's, penned below words in 1936 after the defeat of Alf Landon by incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Landon ran against FDR’s New Deal, but in the end lost the argument against social engineering and central planning. 

"Coroner's Inquest"

The Hon. Mr. Roosevelt’s colossal victory in last Tuesday’s plebiscite gave him plenty of excuse to leap and exult, but if he is really the smart politician that he seems to be he must be entertaining certain stealthy pizzicato qualms today.  He now carries all the burdens of omnipotence.  There is no one to say nay__that is, no one he is bound to heed.  He has in his hands a blank check from and upon the American people, authorizing him to dispose of all their goods and liberties precisely as he listeth. 

In brief, he has become a sort of chartered libertine, and it will be interesting to note how he reacts to his franchise.  The great majority of his lieges believe firmly in the Utopia that he has been preaching since 1933, and they will now expect him to bring it in at last.  He can no longer make the excuse that wicked men are hindering him, nor can he plead that he is navigating unmapped waters and must proceed cautiously…

What everyone will look for now is full steam ahead.  Either we must soon see the glorious shores of Utopia or the whole argosy will be wrecked…

Against his success in this great moral enterprise stand two inconvenient facts.  The first is the fact that many, and perhaps indeed most of the woes and malaises aforesaid appear to be inherently incurable.  The second is the fact that people in the mass are very mercurial, and especially the sort of people who believe in miracles.  They are all with him today, but that is no assurance that they will be with him tomorrow.  On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that they will turn on him, soon or late, as they have turned on all popular messiahs since the dawn of history… 

But it is not to be forgotten that 16 million Americans voted against him.  These may be trusted to stay put, and millions of those who voted for him may be trusted to begin suffering the pangs of Katzenjammer very shortly.

The immense improbability of Hon. Mr. Landon’s election was manifest from the day he made his first speech.  It was, as such things go, a pretty good speech, and it was followed by many even better ones, but there was nothing in any of them to lift and frenzy multitudes, and there was nothing in the hon. Gentleman’s delivery of them to compensate for their ineffectiveness.  He turned out, indeed, to be one of the worst public speakers recorded in the archives of faunal zoology.  Over and over again, facing an eagerly friendly audience, he scotched its nascent whoops and reduced it to scratching itself…

Worse, the content of his speeches was often as ineffective as their manner of delivery.  There was only one way to beat Roosevelt, and that was to attack him with horse, foot and dragoons, denouncing his mountebankeries in a voice of brass and allowing him no virtue whatever.  Above the level of the dole-birds, at the start of the campaign, there was a great deal of doubt about the New Deal, and if the opposition candidate had belabored its Father Divine in the grand manner, keeping him constantly on the defensive, there might have been a different tale to tell last Tuesday.

But the honorable Mr. Landon, it quickly appeared, was quite incapable of that sort of war.  He was too mild a fellow for it, and, perhaps I should add, too candid, too conscientious.   He conceived it to be his high duty, not to flog and flay Roosevelt, but to submit his own ideas to the country, and the more he submitted them the more it became evident that some of them, and not the least important, were indistinguishable from the fundamental hallucinations of the new New Deal.  When he came out for the bailout of Wall Street and over-mortgaged homeowners he simple surrendered to the enemy, and from that time on his campaign was dead.

In a word, Republicans nominated the wrong candidate.  They got an honest man, and one who, if he had gone to the White House, would have made a diligent, reliable and courageous President, but the majority of them took him unwillingly, and never agreed with the notions he expounded so laboriously and so futilely.  In short, he was nominated by default.

Landon is now an afterthought, Roosevelt a national hero.  Since the New Deal, government has grown more powerful and Conservative thought has fallen deeper.   In 1936 Mencken and his philosophical counterparts faced a similar problem as Conservatives today.  His remedy is still pertinent:

The question before the house is, When and by whom will a forthright attack upon it (big government) be made?  And will the foreordained revolutionist, if he ever appears, be realist enough to see that the only remedy that will really work is to make government weak, and to keep it weak?[1]


H.L. Mencken, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe, (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).


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Reader Comments (2)

The truth is that history repeats itself if we do not learn from it. Menchen's writing fits the election between McCain and Obama to a tee.

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElaine

There's more to come Elaine. There really is nothing new under the sun.

November 1, 2009 | Registered CommenterJohn Prothro

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