As H.L. Mencken wrote, “It is the national custom to sentimentalize
the dead.” By now you’ve probably seen Tom Wolfe on Hunter S. Thompson. If you haven’t, you
should. It’s terrific. It was fast. And it doesn’t sentimentalize him. Wolfe makes the apt literary
connection between Thompson and Mark Twain. Here’s a connection — my thanks to Roger
Groening — he didn’t make: Thompson and Mencken.
The sage of Baltimore, right, wrote one of the two best, most devastating obituaries of the
20th century, possibly ever. Thompson wrote the other. Mencken’s flayed William Jennings
Bryan. Thompson’s disposed of Richard M. Nixon. Both obits were merciless, justifiably vicious,
entertaining and, it goes without saying, brilliant.
Richard Nixon is gone now and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing — a
political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand
and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his
family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of
prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told
more than one of his celebrity golf partners that “I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned
I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried
about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better
person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed
a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother
hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us
Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see
Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will
not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and
crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like
Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the
status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is
written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,”
according to one scholar from Duke University.
It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He
was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war
criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all
of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University,
in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the
Go read the whole thing. It ran in
Rolling Stone on June 16, 1994, was written as a memo dated May 1, nine days after Nixon died,
and goes on for nearly 3,000 inimitable words.
Here’s the way Mencken’s begins, recalling the Scopes trial:
It was plain to everyone, when Bryan came to Dayton, that his great days
were behind him — that he was now definitely an old man, and headed at last for silence. There
was a vague, unpleasant manginess about his appearance; he somehow seemed dirty, though a
close glance showed him carefully shaved, and clad in immaculate linen. All the hair was gone
from the dome of his head, and it had begun to fall out, too, behind his ears, like that of the late
Samuel Gompers. The old resonance had departed from his voice: what was once a bugle blast
had become reedy and quavering. Who knows that, like Demosthenes, he had a lisp? In his prime,
under the magic of his eloquence, no one noticed it. But when he spoke at Dayton it was always
When I first encountered him, on the sidewalk in front of the Hicks brothers law office, the
trial was yet to begin, and so he was still expansive and amiable. I had printed in the Nation, a
week or so before, an article arguing that the anti-evolution law, whatever its unwisdom, was at
least constitutional — that policing school teachers was certainly not putting down free speech.
The old boy professed to be delighted with the argument, and gave the gaping bystanders to
understand that I was a talented publicist. In turn I admired the curious shirt he wore — sleeveless
and with the neck cut very low. We parted in the manner of two Spanish ambassadors.
But that was the last touch of affability that I was destined to see in Bryan. The next day the
battle joined and his face became hard. By the end of the first week he was simply a walking
malignancy. Hour by hour he grew more bitter. What the Christian Scientists call malicious animal
magnetism seemed to radiate from him like heat from a stove. From my place in the court-room,
standing upon a table, I looked directly down upon him, sweating horribly and pumping his
palm-leaf fan. His eyes fascinated me: I watched them all day long. They were blazing points of
hatred. They glittered like occult and sinister gems. Now and then they wandered to me, and I got
my share. It was like coming under fire.
And here’s the way it ends:
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant,
bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him in contact with the first men
of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him
at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a
high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish
theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine
and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you
have imagined everything that he was not.
Go read the whole thing. It ran in The Baltimore Evening Sun, July
27, 1925, the day after Bryan died, and goes on for roughly 1,600 gorgeous words.
Mencken and Thompson: So different from each other in personality, yet so close in spirit.