Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Imperial Purple

What follows is a portion of a piece by Henry Louis Mencken about the presidency, called Imperial Purple, originally published in The Baltimore Evening Sun on August 17, 1931, and more recently republished in A Mencken Chrestomathy, and in The American Scene: A Reader.

The honors that are heaped upon a President are seldom of the kind to impress and content a civilized man. People send him turkeys, opossums, pieces of wood from the Constitution, goldfish, carved peach kernels, models of the state capitols of Wyoming and Arkansas, and pressed flowers from the Holy Land. Once a year some hunter in Montana or Idaho sends him 20 pounds of bear-steak, usually collect. It arrives in a high state, and has to be fed to the White House dog. He receives 20 or 30 chain-letters every day, and fair copies of 40 or 50 sets of verse. Colored clergymen send him illustrated Bibles, madstones and boxes of lucky powders, usually accompanied by applications for appointment as collector of customs at New Orleans, Mobile or Wilmington, N.C., or as Registrar of the Treasury. His public rewards come in the form of LL.D's from colleges eager for the publicity - and on the same day others precisely like it are given to the champion lawn-tennis player, a banker known to be without heirs of his body, and a general in the army. No one ever thinks to give him any other academic honor; he is never made a Litt.D., a D.D., an S.T.D., a D.D.S., or a J.U.D., but always an LL.D. Dr. Hoover, to date has 30 or 40 such degrees. He apparently knows as little about law as a court catchpoll, but he is more solidly legum doctor than Blacktone or Pufendorf.

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The president has less privacy than any other American. Thousands of persons have the right of access to him, beginning with the British Ambassador and running down to the secretary of the Republican county committee of Ziebach county, South Dakota. Among them are the 96 members of the United States Senate, perhaps the windiest and most tedious group of men in Christendom. If a Senator were denied admission to the White House the whole Senate would rise in indignation. And if the minister from Albania were kicked out even the French and British ambassadors would join in the protesting. Many of these gentlemen drop in, not because they have anything so say, but simply to prove to their employers or customers that they can do it. How long they stay is only partly determined by the President himself. Dr. Coolidge used to get rid of them by falling asleep in their faces, but that device is impossible to Presidents with a more active interest in the visible world. It would not do to have them heaved out by the Secret Service or by the White House police, or to insult and affront them otherwise, for many of them have wicked tongues. On two occasions within historic times Presidents who were irritable with such bores were reported in Washington to be patronizing the jug, and it took a lot of fine work to put down the scandal.

All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to bores and quacks. Anon a secretary rushes in with the news that some prominent movie actor or football coach has died, and the President must seize a pen and write a telegram of condolence to the widow. Once a year he is repaid by receiving a cable on his birthday from King George. Such things are cherished by Presidents, and they leave them, post mortem, to the Lilbrary of Congress. Anon there comes a day of public ceremonial, and a chance to make a speech. Alas, it must be made at the annual banquet of some organization that is discovered, at the last minute, to be made up of gentlemen under indictment, or at the tomb of some statesman who escaped impeachment by a hair. Twenty million voters with IQ's below 60 have their ears glued to the radio; it takes four days' hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck a lady politician built like an overloaded tramp steamer. The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.

I suspect that what was true of the Presidency in 1931 most likely still holds true today.

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