H. L. Mencken, the famed "Sage of Baltimore" who was born 100 years ago in a presidential election year, said that politics was "ratty, raffish, sordid, obscene and low-down," but he loved national political conventions and reported on them all from 1904 and 1948. Although he lived until 1956, Menchen did not attend the 1952 and 1956 conventions because a massive stroke ended his working career in 1949.
However, as late as 1948 the conventions still fascinated him and he not only attended the Democratic and Republican assemblages in Philadelphia but he reported the splinter conventions also. The Progressive Party, which put forward Henry Wallace that year, brought out some typical Mencken bombast. He said that Wallace's supporters in the new party had come to believe that the former vice president had "semi-celestial" qualities and that "if, when he is nominated today, he suddenly sprouts wings and begins flapping about the hall, no one will be surprised."
It was unfortunate for Mencken that he suffered greatly from heat throughout his life and often complained of the "infernal Baltimore weather." So it was doubly unfortunate that most of Mencken's conventions took place before the advent of air conditioning, but the gaudy shows that he witnessed every four years more than made up for the discomfort. However, the heat did make Mancken keenly aware of the sweating habits of those around him.
"In this world of sin and sorrow," he wrote, "there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican." But to make sure no one mistook him for a Democrat, he went on to say that he preferred the Democrats "because they are louder and sweat more freely."
Mencken rated the Baltimore Democratic Convention of 1912, which nominated Woodrow Wilson, as the record breaker for its "infernal heat," but he may have sweated more personally at the 1924 convention in New York, which went through 103 ballots before it finally nominated John W. Davis to oppose Coolidge. After 100 ballots had failed to produce a nominee, Mencken wired a lead to The Baltimore Sun that said: "Everything is uncertain in this convention but one thing: John W. Davis will never be nominated."
When, three ballots later, Davis was nominated, Mencken wiped his brow and said to a colleague from The Sun, "I wonder if those idiots in Baltimore will know enough to strike out the negative."
While other assemblages may have rivaled the Baltimore Convention of 1912 and the New York one of 1924 for heat and discomfort, Mencken left no doubt about what was the most pleasant of all his conventions. In his book "Heaten Days," he awarded that title to the Democratic convention of 1920 held in San Francisco. It was, Mencken said, "the most charming in American annals."
San Francisco, in those days, had no trace of smog and the weather provided its own air conditioning. The convention week consisted of, according to Mencken, "a series of days so sunshiny and caressing, so cool and exhilarating that living through them was like rolling in meads of asphodel."
Not only was the weather perfect for that convention, Mencken wrote, but so was the convention hall. Mencken said it was "so luxurious in its comforts and so beautiful in its decorations that the assembled politicos felt like sailors turned loose in the most gorgeous bordellos of Paris." He went on to contrast this beautiful hall with the old armory in Chicago where the Republicans had just held their convention. This armory, Mencken wrote, had been used "but lately for prizefights, dog shows and a third-rate circus and it still smelled of pugs, kennels and elephants."
Finally, even though national prohibition of alcoholic beverages had been in effect for half a year, the delegates at that San Francisco affair of 1920 were provided, free of charge, with a carload of bourbon whiskey by Major James Rolph. It was, Mencken said, "bourbon of the very first chop, bourbon aged in contented barrels of the finest white oak -- old, mellow and full of pungent but delicate tangs."
Mencken went on to say in "Heathen Days" that some political enemies charged Mayor Rolph with having charged off the bourbon to one of the city hospitals, but he refuted them.
"In due time," Mecken reported, "he came up for reelection and they renewed their lying and unChristian attack. As a result, he was reelected almost unanimously and remained in office, as I have noted, until 1931. In that year, as I have also noted, he was promoted by the appreciative people of all California to the highest place within their gift, and there he remained, to the satisfaction of the whole human race, until his lamented death in 1934."
No other politician ever received such unrestricted praise from the Sage of Baltimore. It contrasted sharply with what he had to say in 1932 about Mayor Rolph's fellow Californian, Herbert Hoover, then running for reelection as president.
"He is," said Mencken of Hoover, "the sort of man who, if he had to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm, would make it sound like a search warrant issued under the Volstead Act."
The upcoming Democratic convention may, in spite of modern air conditioning, turn out to be as hot as their 1912 and 1924 affairs, but it is unlikely that any writing as delightful as Mencken's prose will come out of it or that the weather will equal those blissful days in San Francisco. Nor is the bourbon likely to be free and filled with "pungent but delicate tangs" like that stuff provided by the San Francisco mayor who was rewarded for his generosity by being elected governor of California.