Every political convention should pause to honor the greatest conventioneer of them all, H. L. Mencken. No one gloried in attending them more, and no one brought more enjoyment of them to the populace at large. Not that the politicians appreciated his savage wit. Mencken once penned a mock interview with himself.
Q. If you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here?
A. Why do men go to zoos?
He viewed conventions as, well, if not quite zoos, at least carnivals. They were, to use one of his favorite words, an occasion for buncombe on a national scale -- vacuous, windy forums produced to gain applause and please constituents only, anything for the mere dumb show. (Mencken, for all his sardonic views, was quite a scholar. The original source for buncombe came from a certain Congressman Walker of North Carolina, who served in the 16th Congress beginning in 1819, and whose district embraced Buncombe County. His colleagues quickly tired of Walker's florid, empty oratory and tried to cut him off by repeatedly calling for the "question," that ancient parliamentary device to still debate. But Walker always continued, shamelessly replying from the floor that the people of his district expected him to speak, no matter how valid the substance, and that he was bound "to make a speech for Buncombe."
Now, as the Republicans inaugurate conventions for the 1980s here, the idea has taken hold that this one is the most insignificant of all, a television spectacular robbed of suspense and political meaning. That belief could not be farther from the truth. This GOP convention promises to be quite revealing -- not for what it does, but what it represents.
The news from Detroit these past days has been dominated by the supposed takeover by the right wing; the moderate Republicans have been crushed by the zealots. Women's rights lie trampled in the dust, and the barbarians reign.
Certainly the Republicans have handed the Democrats -- and independent John Anderson -- and issue ready-made for exploitation. They have been seen to dismiss cavalierly the struggle of women to achieve equality, and to turn their backs on a position their party has endorsed for 40 years. And all this in the face of what probably has been the single greatest change in American society over the past decade -- the movement of women into the ranks of the professions, with its subsequent, profound affects on marriages, families and personal lives.
In this, as in so many other things these days, perception seems more important than reality. The Equal Rights Amendment battle is not a burning issue to a majority of American women, but the belief that any group is unsympathetic to women in general is bound to stir anger and quite likely, produce a political reaction.
That doesn't mean the Republicans really are setting out to banish women back to the kitchen, of course, nor that their delegates assembling here are locked in mortal ideological combat. Many of the Republicans, including the Reagan top echelon, think they're being moderate. In this convention, a conservative cast of mind applies to almost everyone. Differences that exist are measured in inches, not miles. No great ideological fracturing is taking place because there are no real differences on ideology here.
This convention stands as the most united in memory. The beliefs that bind the GOP are shared by the overwhelming majority of the delegates. What's most interesting about the GOP now is that their views would seem to fly against political logic and the needs of the public. They are not effectively reaching out to women, blacks, and Hispanics -- demographically, three critical factions, each of whom will become more important politically in the years ahead.
And yet they are convening with almost supreme confidence that their approach is correct.
The GOP message, as personified by the person they so clearly want to lead them, is almost startlingly simple. America isn't working, they say. We will make it right. The problem lies in Washington and nearly 50 years of Democratic rule. We will restore the power to the people. We will free America from its political bondage.
To the terrible complexities of the times, they offer breathtaking simplicities. We can be great and strong again. Trust in us. They faithfully echo Ronald Reagan when he speaks, as he has been doing all these years, of the glories of Plymouth Rock and building "the shining city on the hill."
If the voting public accepts these views as propounded by a party representing little more than one out of every five citizens, an extraordinary political change will have occured indeed. For then it will be Reagan's fate to grapple with the realities of governance. They are certain to become more complex and critical in the immediate next few years, despite all the present yearning for simple solutions. That prospect alone is reason enough to watch closely the scene unfolding from Detroit. It might tell us what we are in for.
A personal aside: Since Mencken no longer enlivens our political contemplations, I offer, courtesy of Eugene McCarthy, the thoughts of another superb observer, whose words seen appropriate now. The author is Yeats: A statesman is an easy man, He tells his lies by rote; A journalist makes up his lies And takes you by the throat; So stay at home and drink your beer And let the neighbors vote.