H. L. Mencken? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: For many years H. L. Mencken was an influential and acerbic commentator with a national reputation in the U.S. His sharp witted and ferocious columns appeared in either “The Evening Sun” or “The Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland. Mencken’s low opinion of the general populace led him to predict that one day a “downright moron” would be elected President of the United States. This prophecy has periodically been highlighted by individuals who supported losing candidates. Would you please locate a precise citation?
Quote Investigator: On July 26, 1920 H. L. Mencken published a column in “The Evening Sun” of Baltimore titled “Bayard vs. Lionheart”. In the final two paragraphs of his essay Mencken elaborated on misgivings about the democratic process. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
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 the 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 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.
“The Evening Sun” has not yet been digitized, and QI wholeheartedly thanks the librarians of the “Enoch Pratt Free Library” in Baltimore who accessed Mencken’s article on microfilm.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1956 “The Johns Hopkins Press” released an important compilation of essays by H. L. Mencken under the title “A Carnival of Buncombe” edited by Malcolm Moos. The full column “Bayard vs. Lionheart” was reprinted. 2
In 1975 a columnist of “The Brazil Daily Times” of Brazil, Indiana discussed Mencken’s article and reprinted the quotation: 3
He described the election of 1920 as a contest between “the blank cartridge who has no convictions at all and is willing to accept anything to make votes, and . . . the mountebank who is willing to conceal and disguise what he actually believes, according as the wind blows hot or cold.” He concluded that “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.”
In February 1988 Ronald Reagan was President, and a letter writer in “The Capital Times” of Madison, Wisconsin asked if Mencken’s prognostication had been fulfilled: 4
Have Mencken’s words come true?
In 1920 the perspicacious H.L. Mencken wrote: “As democracy is perfected, the presidency 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.”
In November 2000 shortly before the presidential election, syndicated columnist Sandy Grady applied a slightly altered version of the quotation to George W. Bush. The words “at last” and “downright” were omitted: 5
Bush? I’ll admit it’s overkill to repeat H.L. Mencken: “On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire, and the White House will be adorned by a moron.”
Just say Dubya is an amiable charmer (baseball, banter and barbecue) who’ll need a smart presidential staff.
In conclusion, H. L. Mencken may properly be credited with the words he wrote in the 1920 citation. The quotation has been applied to multiple political figures over the years.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Daria Phair, Allan Holtzman, and the staff of Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. Thanks also to discussants Donna Halper and S. M. Colowick.)
- 1920 July 26, The Evening Sun (Baltimore Evening Sun), Bayard vs. Lionheart, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Enoch Pratt Free Library) ↩
- 1956, A Carnival of Buncombe by H. L. Mencken, Edited by Malcolm Moos, Bayard vs. Lionheart by H. L. Mencken, (“Baltimore Evening Sun” article dated July 26, 1920), Start Page 15, Quote Page 18 and 19, Published by Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified on paper in 1956 book) ↩
- 1975 June 7, The Brazil Daily Times, The Double Standard by Robert S. Kendall, Quote Page 7, Column 7, Brazil, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1988 February 4, The Capital Times (Madison Capital Times), Voice of the People, Letter Title: Have Mencken’s words come true?, Letter From: Andy Gaylor, Madison, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2000 November 7, Arizona Daily Star, We deserve better than this race by Sandy Grady, Quote Page B7, Column 2, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩