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In Brief

H.L. Mencken, Scourge of Politicians and Political Parties

23 May 2012

Close-up of H.L. Mencken, circa 1945 (AP Images)

Journalist and pundit H.L. Mencken (1880–1956), who used his cynical wit to skewer the politicians of his era, faithfully attended political conventions and found them an irresistible source of comedy.

“All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form. That is to say, they are all extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job; the necessary equipment of inescapable issues, immutable principles and soaring ideals can wait until it becomes more certain which way the mob will be whooping.”

Those words, written in 1920 by H.L. (Henry Louis) Mencken, display the irreverent wit that made Mencken one of the most celebrated American writers of the early 20th century.

A journalist and social critic known as “the sage of Baltimore,” Mencken (1880–1956) used heaping doses of cynical humor to expose the follies and pretensions of politicians and political parties. He was a regular presence at presidential nominating conventions, which he described as “carnivals” that offered incomparable entertainment.

In 1930, anticipating the next round of political conventions, he wrote: “I love to see the clans gather and to watch them at their monkeyshines.”

If Mencken were alive today, it’s a safe bet that no prominent political figure would escape his scrutiny. He was typically at his funniest when tormenting politicians, as demonstrated by this classic Mencken quote: “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”