Today's rhetoric? A pillow fight

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2014 - 5:54 PM

Warren Harding’s unearthed love letters are getting better reviews than his speeches sometimes got in the dignified days of yore.

Warren G. Harding’s writing has long been one of the most intriguing things — actually, one of the few intriguing things — about America’s spectacularly mediocre 29th president.

Yet it’s surprising to read news reports and commentary about Harding’s impressively steamy love letters to a pre-presidential mistress — some 1,000 pages of which are set for public release later this month from the Library of Congress.

What’s curious is not that Harding’s breathless outpourings show the seemingly dour small-town Ohio politician stirred by volcanic passions in private life. That’s been known about him for some time.

And it’s not that Harding’s amorous prose is a bit overdramatic and heavy-handed. He began his professional life, after all, as a newspaperman and editorialist.

No, what’s odd is that the excerpts from Harding’s epistles published in recent weeks do not come across as altogether clownish.

On the solemn occasion of his inauguration as president in March 1920, Harding was unforgettably indicted for literary incompetence on an epic, historic scale.

A foolish notion is widely shared today that American politics has never been so rough — nor political commentary so disrespectful — as it is in our time. In earlier, better days, we’re sometimes told, America’s leaders were held in higher esteem and criticized in a more dignified manner.

In fact, today’s politicians have it easy. Their detractors may be rude, but they are seldom rude and brilliant at the same time. That’s what Harding was up against in the person of H.L. Mencken, a staggeringly prolific, immensely popular, frequently profound and relentlessly bare-fisted newspaper columnist in the first half of the 20th century whose genius humbles anyone coming after him and trying to write thoughtfully and entertainingly about American public life.

The not-so-solemn occasion of Harding’s love letter release is a splendid excuse to put today’s supposedly scalding rhetoric in perspective by sampling an outstanding example of Mencken’s gift for insult as artistry.

Analyzing his new president’s inaugural address — or “Dr. Harding’s harangue,” as he put it — Mencken invoked his expertise after 20 years as an editor and declared: “He takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati … . He writes the worst English I have ever encountered … setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters.”

Then he elaborated: The president’s prose, he wrote, “reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

It’s hard to imagine such pugilistic poetry being inspired by what we’ve seen of Harding’s pained tributes to his lover. “I hurt with the insatiate longing,” the future president assured Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend, in 1913, “until I feel that there will never be any relief until I take a long, deep, wild draught on your lips and then bury my face on your pillowing breasts.”

The Song of Solomon it isn’t. But “stale bean soup” doesn’t quite capture it, either.

Mencken, though, offered evidence from the inaugural “harangue” to prove his charge of felonious vacuity. America’s new leader, he reported, had declared:

“I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved.” (Yes, it’s that way in the official text.)

To read this sentence, Mencken noted, is of course to see that it is “idiotic — a series of words without sense.” But that isn’t the way the typical “stoneheads,” “imbeciles” and “hinds” that, he explained, pass for citizens of our great republic receive such “bosh.”

“Imagine it intoned,” Mencken wrote. “Imagine the slow tempo … the stately unrolling of the first clause, the delicate pause upon the word ‘then’ — and then the loud discharge of the phrases ‘in understanding,’ ‘in mutuality of interest,’ ‘in concern for the common good,’ each with its attendant glare and roll of the eyes … each with its gesture of a blacksmith bringing down his sledge upon an egg — imagine all this, and then ask yourself where you have got.

“You have got, in brief, to a point where you don’t know what it is all about … . And so, when in violation of all sequence and logic, the final phrase, ‘our tasks will be solved,’ assaults you … glad of the assurance … you give a cheer.”

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  • Harding’s prose, H.L. Mencken wrote, “reminds me of a string of wet sponges. … It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

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