“There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging.”
Here, eighty years ago this month, is H.L. Mencken, author of the observation above, hard at work in Cleveland, Ohio, covering the Republican National Convention, which nominated Alf Landon, the governor of Kansas, as the party’s challenger to Franklin Roosevelt. Mencken liked Landon and famously detested FDR (“Roosevelt II”), who won a second term that year in a landslide. Mencken loved political conventions for the same reason people follow professional wrestling – for the lurid spectacle. Of the 1924 Democratic convention in New York City, during which the delegates took seventeen days and 103 ballots to nominate the forgotten John W. Davis, Mencken writes:
“It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell -- and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”
Today, my youngest son and I are flying to Cleveland, my home town, to visit my brother. Our mother and father were born there, and were ages sixteen and fifteen, respectively, when Mencken came to town. Both were FDR-style Democrats, and I suspect neither ever heard of Mencken. I only wish he were around to cover next month’s Republican National Convention, to be held once again in Cleveland. Recall that no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio since Lincoln’s first term. The last candidate of either party to win without Ohio was Kennedy in 1960.
Later in the summer of 1936, after covering the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Mencken returned to Cleveland to cover the convention of Father Charles E. Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice. Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest based at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich., whose weekly radio show was listened to by millions. Coughlin, who Mencken called “a fraud of the first order,” was an unapologetic anti-Semite who hated Roosevelt even more than Mencken, and expressed admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. In a letter to Joseph Hergesheimer, Mencken wrote of Coughlin’s convention in Cleveland: “Imagine 20,000 morons penned in one hall, and belabored for eight hours a day by the most magnificent rabble rousers on earth . . . a small sacrifice to lay on the altar of God and country.”
In Heathen Days (1943), the third volume of his memoirs, Mencken writes of Coughlin: “He has a velvet voice, and is thus very effective on the radio, but like his great rival on the air, Roosevelt II, he is much less effective face to face . . . After the convention of his half-wits in Cleveland in 1936 a report was circulated that he was experimenting with a mike fixed to his shoulders by a stout framework, so that he could gesture normally without any risk of roaring futilely into space, but if he ever actually used it I was not present, and so cannot tell you about it.” Mencken doesn’t say so, but Coughlin had lost his radio show in 1940, less than a year after the start of World War II.