My downstairs bathroom reading is the book Deadline Artists, a collection of America's greatest newspaper columns. Yesterday I read a hilarious one by H. L. Mencken lampooning Warren G. Harding's inaugural address. The column is entitled "Gamalielese" and was published in the Baltimore Sun on March 7, 1921.
He makes fun of Hardings atrocious use of the English language--his bad word choices, his grammar, his lack of any meaning in the phrases that are strung together, his delivery. The column resonates with the more serious column of George Orwells entitled "Politics and the English Language," and is, if anything, even more appropriate in this day when so much political speech lacks substance. I highly recommend the column.
Here is one sentence of Harding's which Mencken delights in analyzing. "I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved."
Like I said, he goes into a thorough analysis of this sentence and all of its myriad problems, but I love how he opens, "I assume you have read it. I also assume that you set it down as idiotic--a series of words without sense." I wish we had a little more of that in our political coverage today.
Mencken's main objection to the inaugural address is that was a stump speech, and he has no high opinion of stump speech. A little aside, I once read a book on the history of American sermons which argued that the inaugural address had become a national sermon of our civil religion. Maybe one aspect of Harding's failure was he delivered a stump speech and not a sermon?
My favourite paragraph is when Mencken lampoons the listeners. I can't imagine a newspaper columnist daring this today. Maybe Bill Maher.
Such imbeciles do not want ideas--that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention. What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of treadbare phrases terrifically repeated, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures. As I say, they can't understand many words of more than two syllables, but that is not saying that they do not esteem such words. On the contrary, they like them and demand them. The roll of incomprehensible polysyllables enchants them. They like phrases which thunder like salvos of artillery. Let that thunder sound, and they take all the rest on trust. If a sentence begins furiously and then peters out into fatuity, they are still satisfied. If a phrase has a punch in it, they do not ask that it also have a meaning. If a word slips off the tongue like a ship going down the ways, they are content and applaud it and wait for the next.
This reminds me of that classic, brilliant, episode of The Family Guy when Lois runs for public office and learns very quickly during the public debate that reasoned arguments about real ideas is not working, but if she simply repeats "9/11" over and over the crowd will rise in rousing applause.