Quote of the Day
Great H.L. Mencken Quote, via the Interesting People List
When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the
most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack, or count himself lost. His one aim is to disarm suspicion, to arouse confidence in his orthodoxy, to avoid challenge. If he is a man of convictions, of enthusiasm, or self-respect, it is cruelly hard…
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 a mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second or 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 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 hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
— H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
November 18, 2004 10:27am
I try not to presume any more than I have to. If the quote you posted was cryptic vis-à-vis the complexities of your heart, I can only read what I see. Obviously, something important was lost in the interpretation.
It remains though, that the first half of the first paragraph you reproduce essentially casts voters as a mob of fools. Too many people will see that quote, and agree with relish that “those damned Bush voters are a bunch of ignorants,” or even going further, that fraud or deceit simply *must* have been involved.
I share (what I presume to be) your disillusionment with elected leaders, and am also tired of choosing between the less-crappy of two choices. What seems new and disgusting to me in this past election is that the supporters of the man-who-didn’t-win (avoiding the term “loser,” since I don’t think it fairly describes Kerry) turned on him after he put in a strong effort in a tough, close race.
Additionally, I have seen whining turn to second-guessing turned to dismissal of and contempt for just over the half of the voters in this country pulling for “the other guy,” as if their being more politically active and ultimately successful was some sort of character flaw, like gluttony or deceit.
I mistook your quote for that kind of backbiting, and am wrong. It still exists, albeit elsewhere, and it still pisses me off. I guess that’s my point. I envision an ideal about this country, being filled with reasonable people I can argue with without scorching the earth they stand on. I see that ideal disintegrating and failing, and I hate it.
November 17, 2004 6:36pm
I have not “researched” the quote, it came my way in email, and I reposted it because I think that its central thesis — that running for national office tends to encourage a kind of populism that does not result in thoughtfulness — is one I agree with.
Four years ago I was rooting for Ralph Nader — basically saying that in the choice between Gush and Bore, that neither man was a man I felt I could be proud of as President, both of them telling people what their polls and focus-groups wanted them to say. Whereas Nader was a man with a real vision, and I was proud to vote for him.
And I’ve been nothing but respectful toward Bush on this blog and in my public statements. It’s also true that he has a history of dissembling and misleading the public and that I disagree forcefully with his policies.
The Mencken quote came my way, and it made me think, and also made me chuckle at perhaps how prescient it was. Is Bush a moron? Well, I can’t say — having seen speeches of him from his days running for Governor of Texas, he seemed to have been a man with quite a good head on his shoulders, and a definite vision for how to do things, if not having the answers on specifics and details. The man I see now seems to have drifted toward incoherence. My impression of the man is that something has changed — perhaps it’s the stress of the job or something else — but I don’t have confidence in the man. That’s why I voted against him.
The Mencken quote made me think of President Clinton, a man whose philandering and lying made him an embarassment to the office. Again, a man with good “core values” — but did he really follow through on them? A case could be made that Clinton was good at saying what people wanted to hear, and personifies the Mencken quote, perhaps even better than Bush does.
I’m troubled that we don’t seem to get thoughtful men of principle in the White House, what we get are people who cultivate constituencies with a charisma based in our worst qualities, rather than our best.
Tom, I know you’re a long-time reader, and I value your opinion; but please don’t presume to know the complexities of my heart based on a link I put up, or a quote I put up. I’m actually much more interesting than even this elaborate website can convey. Perhaps that’s the failing of this site. Heh.
November 17, 2004 5:13pm
I wonder – if Kerry had won, would you still have researched and posted this quote about “a mob of men … incapable of weighing ideas,” etc.? I doubt it. It’s disturbing and alarming that people who rooted for the loser have come to demonize not only the winning candidate, but those who voted for him, as dolts.
Maybe respectful discourse is just dead in this country, and I should just mourn it, rather than keep a hopeful eye out for it. Soon, we’ll stop voting for President and just beat the hell out of each other, the camp of the last remaining rioters having won the office.
See you at the polls.