AMONG my increasingly-few remaining heroes is HL Mencken, who was known as "the sage of Baltimore".
Mencken was the kind of journalist whom few journalists read these days, not least perhaps because he was as tough on his so-called peers as he was on everyone else.
His lifelong subject, as Gore Vidal, another of his fans, noted, was "nothing less than Freedom's land and Bravery's home, the (not so very) United States". Writing in 1932, in the midst of the Depression, Mencken opined: "We have all been on a bust. Every American, high and low, has been blowing money like a drunken sailor. We have fallen into the folly of mistaking luxuries for necessities." Four years later, he had this to say about banks: "What is to be done about crooked banks, nitwit banks, bad banks in general? The problem seems to be beyond the capacities of American legislators, for every solution that they have arrived at in the past has turned out, in the light of experience to be no solution at all."
Mencken's best ire, however, was reserved for politicians, many of whom he regarded with bilious contempt and pilloried with fabulous hyperbole. One such was Franklin D Roosevelt who, he conceded, was good on the radio and smiled a lot. With "eye-rolling solemnity", Roosevelt promised to keep America out of the war, a promise he had no hesitation in breaking after a gullible electorate extended his tenancy of the White House for an unprecedented third term.
I've often wondered what Mencken would have made of Barack Obama. Like FDR, he smiles broadly, talks well and promises much, often invoking hope, about which he likes to refer as the forty-niners did in respect of the prospect of gold in California. My gut tells me that it is unlikely Mencken would have been swayed by Mr Obama's rhetoric, his frequent appeals for common sense and national consensus ("That's how we build this country – together") and his premature receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize – about which even he appeared to be embarrassed – while sanctioning the use of drones.
As America swelters and burns, Mr Obama is engaged in a gloves-off defence of his title as heavyweight champion of the Free World. His Republican opponent is Mitt Romney, a Mormon and a multi-millionaire, both of which may be liabilities come November. Even among his own party Mr Romney is regarded with much scepticism. Initially, this was because he was seen as Republican-lite; now it's because of his reluctance to disclose his tax returns and the full extent of his wealth, which may be even more than the $250m that's commonly quoted. What is not in doubt is that Mr Romney is rich and doesn't appear to mind who knows it. In the past, in a land where even fat cats like Donald Trump were feted, this wouldn't have mattered a whit. But things are different today. When layoffs and repossessions are commonplace, and crime is rising in inner cities that have become ghost towns, only a fool flaunts his wealth. Yet Mr Romney, who endured a bruising and exhausting campaign to win the Republican nomination, is happy to be photographed at his holiday home in New Hampshire, sitting by his pool or taking his grandkids for a hurl in one of his speedboats.
Against such a feckless rival Mr Obama ought to be a shoo-in. While Mr Romney vegetates, he is out in the rain, sleeves rolled up, addressing crowds, sharing their pain, as if he were Bruce Springsteen on tour with his blue-collar cri de coeur album Wrecking Ball. Four years after he was elected on a bandwagon of optimism, Mr Obama has cast off his rookie status and has no need to tell people who he is. Familiarity, though, has brought with it its sidekick, contempt. Any President seeking re-election should by rights be campaigning on his record but Mr Obama's is patchy at best and wretched at worst. Sure, he pushed through Obamacare, but a recent poll showed that 73% of independent voters are against the law. Moreover, Mr Romney says that if he's elected he'll repeal it the first day he's in office, arguing that Mr Obama has broken his promise not to raise taxes for middle-class voters.
The President's response has been equally dismaying. Like David Cameron, Mr Obama said he was eager to embrace a new, mature kind of politics, in which policy ruled over personality, argument over insult. But desperate men are driven to desperate measures. Aware that Mr Romney has a bigger war chest than he has, Mr Obama has resorted to mudslinging, using in an advert footage of his rival making a hash of singing America the Beautiful while simultaneously showing clips about his business and personal finances. It is highly effective and doubtless deeply damaging but in declaring that "Mitt Romney's not the solution, he's the problem" Mr Obama is also suggesting that he knows that he's in a fight that's presently too close to call.
Nor is he wrong. The latest poll has Mr Romney a couple of points behind with four feverish months to go. In the interim, Mr Obama will be praying that the economy picks up, convincing voters that however aimless he appeared in his first term he deserves to extend his lease because he has a plan which – to paraphrase Springsteen – will reassure them he is capable of taking care of his own.
But it is a gamble and one that few are ready to take with much confidence. As the weeks march past, Mr Obama will remind the doubters that it was on his watch that Osama bin Laden was finally killed, that the troops were largely recalled from Afghanistan and Iraq and that, when Wall Street crashed, a few bodies were pulled alive from the rubble. Will it be enough for him to win? Ought it? While you ponder, let's give the last word to Mencken, who never looked upon a politician without cynicism or suspecting a fraud: "People constantly speak of 'the government' doing this or that, as they might speak of God doing it. But the government is really nothing but a group of men, and usually they are very inferior men. They may have some better man working for them, but they themselves are seldom worthy of respect."
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