The man in the White House
I reproduce this without comment.
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
– H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, 26 July 1920, article "Bayard vs. Lionheart" (reprinted in On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe).
I’m only surprised that Mencken didn’t mention that succesful presidential candidates had to be church-goers of simple, unquestioning, and preferably Biblical-literalist Protestant faith. Perhaps he did, in another passage.
During my 16 years in Oregon there would be the occasional letter in the local paper complaining that Christianity was a persecuted faith, endangered and marginalised by godless atheists, humanists, and evolutionists.
The true situation was exemplified by a moment in a Bush-Gore debate in 2000, when Dubya was asked which philosopher – philosopher, not quasi-historical religious figure – had most influenced him. ‘Socrates, Spinosa, Hegel, Hume?’? I wondered. ‘Oh,’ said Bush, ‘Jesus is my guide’, while all those present said Amen, and millions cheered, and I felt distinctly queasy.
Many thanks for the wonderful Mencken creed. I find myself enthusiastically agreeing with every word of it — except that I persist in believing, despite all the indications to the contrary, that government can be a force for good: indeed, that enlightened and imaginative government activity is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for radical and beneficial change to society and for the enlargement and protection of liberty.
However, Tim, your American experience and that Bush anecdote cast a distinct chill over my dogged optimism!
Government may be good or bad, efficient or inefficient, liberal or dictatorial, but the one thing that it will never be is non-existent and to think that it can be is to follow the head-in-sand attitude of Arthur C Clarke claiming that no person who wants to be a politician should ever be allowed to become one.
There will always be politics because it is no more than the way power plays out in normal human relations (why do people talk of office politics, theatre club politics and so on?) adn there will always be government of some sort because there will always be people who want to govern and others who want to be governed. When it comes to deciding where the rubbish tips are to be located in Catalonia, or what should be done about the health service, I expect to be allowed to express my opinion and to have it heard and respected, but I really have better things to do than actually run the show myself — I delegate that in other people, and people who, I hope, know more about it than I do. To that extent I want a government and am glad that I have one, however politically ridiculous it may be just now (I refer to Catalonia).
You seem to have cracked the problem. My previous post was written in the box on your site. Congratulations!
Brian writes: Not yet, I’m afraid. Website guru Owen is on the job (again). Watch this space — or rather keep writing in it!
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln (esp. him), T. Roosevelt, FD Roosevelt, Truman, and, yes, Reagan.
Not a bad roll call for non-mediocracy. Has the UK has as much luck with PMs? Do corperations do as well with CEOs?
Presidents must deal with the times they live in and the opportunities that they are presented with. Mediocracy can attain at least near greatness presented with the right challenges. The career of Harry Truman is hard to explain otherwise. FDR has been famously characterized as a second class intellect coupled with a first class personality.
Unfortunately, the role presidents play is one that contemporaries are ill-suited to judge. Lincoln, Jackson, FDR, TR, and in my memory Truman were all viciously savaged while in office often for the very conduct which would immortalize them. For that matter, iirc, Menken famously savaged FDR.
As a final point about mediocracy, ask your children, who among them has read anything by Menken, or even heard of him?
Carl L/LA currently in Moab, UT
Carl: good to hear from you again, as always. It’s even enjoyable to have you wind me up: you do it so expertly.
Yes, my ‘children’ (all now on their way to middle age, all a lot cleverer than me, two of the three currently living in the US, one an American citizen) have all read lots of the immortal H L Mencken (sic). I’m sure that yours regularly dip into J S Mill, Paine, Swift (OK, Irish), Shaw (ditto), Oakeshott, Keynes and Tawney. Next question?
Oh, matching our PMs to your presidents:
Walpole, Pitt the Younger, Disraeli, Gladstone, Asquith, Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee, and if you include Reagan then I’m entitled to include Wellington, Baldwin, Wilson [Harold], Thatcher and let’s face it, Blair.
Like ’em or loathe ’em, they made big dents in history.
But this is futile stuff, for I didn’t make or even imply any comparisons between your lot and our lot. Populism and television are probably debasing the currency on both sides of the ditch, although your top jobs are becoming family dynasties faster than ours. But what really disturbs me about your comment is that you seem to imply a possibility that George W Bush might at some future date be elevated by future historians to take his place up there in your indisputably magnificent pantheon. Come off it, Carl. He must be by a longish chalk the worst president since — oh, Coolidge? Harding? Nixon? (And compared with GWB, Nixon did some good things — which no-one, surely, could accuse George W. of having done?) I readily agree that Blair has been an active collaborator in some of Bush’s malign policies, or some of them, and make absolutely no claims or excuses for him, but at least his fiscal and general economic policies — or Brown’s with his acquiescence — have been broadly liberal and progressive (and successful).
Anyway, all I did was quote HLM, and if the cap fits… Moreover, I never even mentioned G W Bush. Nor, of course, did you.
PS: I really don’t think Reagan qualifies for a place in your list (the idea that he personally “won” the cold war is obviously unsustainable); and I have no doubt in my mind that Kennedy should have been in there: as well, arguably, as LBJ. Wilson (Woodrow, as well as our Harold) must be a candidate as well, wouldn’t you say?
Incidentally, whatever are you doing in Utah? In Moab???
Update: Uh-oh. Just had a look at http://www.discovermoab.com/. Apologies to Moab.
IFAICS Menken is read today largely as a curiousity — a phenomenon of the 20s and 30s. My thirty somenthing kid is in the process of reading Steinbeck – for amusement. I who was grilled on him in university, stand amazed.
No comparison of UK vs. US intended, tho I worded clumsily. I was trying to point out that the American mass electorate can turn up some remarkable people for the White House. Furthermore, Menken was dead wrong about the process culling out remarkable people. It is trial by fire of the ability to marshal mass support — not a bad criteria for a national leader.
A President is a leader not a doer. He requires intellect but character and sense of purpose are probably more important (see FDR). Reagan did not defeat the USSR. What Reagan did was promote the forces that DID defeat the USSR. He scrapped detente refocused on the Cold War (which had certainly not gone away), rebuilt the US military forces after the debacle of the 70s, and raised the ante on the Kremlin. While Britain and western Europe may regard the man with some distaste, he gets far higher kudos in places like Poland.
Ah Moab. Utah has got to be one of the most gorgeous places on the face of the earth. Driving thru it, a person is confronted by spectacular landscapes and views one after another — the state tosses around beauty like confetti.
Oddly enough few Brits seem to come here. Droves of Germans do in tours, groups, and individually. They even see the land by rents medium sized motor homes and stiking out on their own. An excellent way to see the land. I would encourage Brits to find out what they are missing.
The state is the Mormon homeland and they run it quite well — sort of a distillate of American small town communalism. Service is cheerful and fast, facilities are well run and tidy. (A general statement of course.