“What are all these people crying about?” I imagine someone unfamiliar with our extraordinary national talent for hypocrisy asking while watching the conventions. It might even cross the mind of such a person that nowhere on this poor old earth of ours have there ever been people so caring of each other’s feelings as today’s Americans. Either the television networks had some kind of device on their cameras able to instantly locate tearful faces in a vast crowd of delegates, or they had nothing else to show, since there seemed not a dry eye in the house. The speakers choked up when mentioning their immigrant grandparents, their own supposed humble beginnings, their wonderful families sitting right there in the audience, whose adoring faces were then shown with eyes growing moist.
I’m old enough to remember the time when conventions were rowdy, whooping, and free-wheeling affairs shown live on TV from late morning to long past midnight of the following day, but I do not recall any weeping on camera. Today, media consultants are undoubtedly heavily involved, advising every heartless creep with a long record in Congress of never giving a hoot for the millions of Americans losing their jobs and being without health insurance to shed more tears and show that they care.
One night, watching the Republicans with growing panic for the deteriorating state of my mental health, I remembered H.L. Mencken, who covered every national convention of both political parties from 1904 to 1948 for The Baltimore Sun. After locating The Impossible Mencken on my shelf, I sat down to read and learn how they were conducted in the past, and even more importantly how the quality of the speeches and the character and qualifications of various candidates has changed. I wasn’t disappointed. As an analysis of the type of men who run for public office in the United States, and their motives, these pieces are not only still right on the mark; they are lots of fun to read too. “Consider the matter of the so-called keynote speech,” Mencken writes in 1924. “Some hollow party hack is put up to rant and snort for an hour and a half, and when he is finished it is discovered that he has said precisely nothing.” Sure, there are exceptions. Obama gave a pretty good one in 2004. But as a rule, as Mencken points out, they consist of several thousands words of puerile platitudes and drivel, the very worst among them managing to be both instantly forgettable and enduringly irritating.
Though our political system is now unimaginably more corrupt than it ever was in the past, and our conventions are becoming carefully scripted, usually foreclosing any possibility of delegates’ choosing how they are conducted, many of the forces that have made it so today have been working on rigging the game for a long time. Here, for instance, is Mencken, again in 1924, describing Big Business’s support for the candidacy of Honorable Calvin Coolidge:
Big Business, in America, is almost whole devoid of anything even poetically describable as public spirit. It is frankly on the make, day in and day out, and hence for the sort of politician who gives it the best chance. In order to get that chance it is willing to make any conceivable sacrifice of common sense and the common decencies. Big Business was in favor of Prohibition, believing that a sober workman would make a better slave than the one with a few drinks in him. It was in favor of gross robberies and extortions that went on during the war, and profited by all of them. It was in favor of the crude throttling of free speech that was then undertaken in the name of patriotism, and is still in favor of it.
If you are thinking Mencken was a leftist, you are wrong. He loathed Franklin Roosevelt, and was a conservative on most matters. What he witnessed and what today’s reporters witness too, but are not allowed to describe as bluntly as he did, is that a great many men and women Americans elect to office are frauds, with no interest in helping anyone but themselves, but who know to never lose sight of who their masters are and how to serve them. They also have the good fortune of a trusting herd of mentally lazy or downright ignorant voters, who cannot tell the difference between a crook and an honest person and who return them to office again and again, seemingly unperturbed by the incumbent’s repeatedly lying to them and demonstrating a total lack of moral character.
Despite all that, Mencken admits that he enjoyed many of the conventions, confessing that there was something about them as fascinating as a revival meeting or a public hanging. They were vulgar, ugly, stupid, tedious, hard on both the higher cerebral centers and one’s rear end, and yet they could be charming. One would find oneself sitting through the long sessions, he said, wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell—when suddenly there would come something so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lived a gorgeous year in an hour. (Clint Eastwood’s incoherent scolding of an empty chair this year may fit the bill.) “Herein” he claimed, “lies the chief merit of democracy, when all is said and done; it may be clumsy, it may be swinish, it may be unutterably incompetent and dishonest, but it is never dismal—its processes, even when they irritate, never actually bore.”
In that spirit of absurdity, exhilaration, and preposterousness, I leave you with this picture from my neck of the woods: A rusty old station wagon with wheels gone in a yard choked with weeds and other partially dismantled vehicles outside a house in need of paint and overall repair. There is a plastic sheet draped over one of the windows of the house where a beer bottle went through—or was it a gunshot the neighbors heard one night? The police inquiry, as you may guess, has been proceeding at a snail’s pace. In the meantime, the gray-haired owner, who wears a ponytail and has the upper body of a former weight-lifter over a huge belly, got rid of the chickens and the rooster he had pecking in the yard and acquired instead a bad-tempered black and white mutt, whose main purpose seems to be to guard the man’s junk, keep his ROMNEY Believe in America sign company, and bark at nosy people like me who slow down to take a closer look and make sure their eyes are not deceiving them.