One night, watching the Republicans with growing panic for the deteriorating state of my mental health, I remembered H.L. Mencken, who covered every national convention of both political parties from 1904 to 1948 for The Baltimore Sun. After locating The Impossible Mencken on my shelf, I sat down to read and learn how they were conducted in the past, and even more importantly how the quality of the speeches and the character and qualifications of various candidates has changed. I wasn’t disappointed. As an analysis of the type of men who run for public office in the United States, and their motives, these pieces are not only still right on the mark; they are lots of fun to read too. “Consider the matter of the so-called keynote speech,” Mencken writes in 1924. “Some hollow party hack is put up to rant and snort for an hour and a half, and when he is finished it is discovered that he has said precisely nothing.” Sure, there are exceptions. Obama gave a pretty good one in 2004. But as a rule, as Mencken points out, they consist of several thousands words of puerile platitudes and drivel, the very worst among them managing to be both instantly forgettable and enduringly irritating.
more from Charles Simic at the NYRB here.