I’ve gotten very familiar with the Urban Legend Reference Pages. I often get emails from close friends or family of supposed news stories and quotes that a quick search on the site demonstrate are false. Today, I hit one of the rarer “true” pages on the site. I received a quote in email by H. L. Mencken that has apparently been making the rounds on the political blogs that I am not currently reading due to my personal media blackout. The quote making the rounds is:
As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. 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
Mencken actually did say this, though the above quote is cut down and taken slightly out of context. Here’s a larger version of the quote:
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.
[Henry Louis Mencken, “Bayard vs. Lionheart”, Baltimore Evening Sun, 26 July 1920. Quoted from Snopes.com]
I like the longer version much better. The cutdown quote reads like an indictment of “the plain folks of the land”. The longer quote is more a cynical commentary on the process itself. He still predicts (accurately IMO) the election of a moron to the White House, but Mencken seems to lay the blame more on having to campaign “second and third hand” than on the people who elect said moron. Either way, you still have a moron, but the longer quote gives much more insight on how to deal with the issue going forward.
I wonder what Mencklen would have thought of the modern media?