JAMES A. REED OF MISSOURI

Editorial--By H. L. Mencken (American Mercury, April, 1929)


To be a fraud is safer and happier in Washington today than it has been since March 4, 1911. For James A. Reed, after eighteen years in the Senate, has hung up his sword and gone home to Missouri. His achievements, I suspect, are mainly writ in water. The cozeners and quicksalvers, thumbing their noses at his back, emerge from their dark retreats and prepare for an open season for gulls; there are deep, patriotic belches of relief in the very cloakrooms of the Senate itself. But let us not ask for too much. So were Grover Cleveland's achievements writ in water, and so, mainly, were Thomas Jefferson's. It is surely not unusual, under democracy, for a first rate man to fail.


The stature of such a man as Reed is not to be counted by his successes. The important thing is that he fights. Were there greater gladiators in the Senate in the Golden Age? I presume to doubt it. There were, perhaps, more lordly ones, more dramatic ones, more statuesque and Roman ones, but certainly there was never a more effective one. The forensic talents of the man are really almost unparalleled. He is, for our time, the supreme artist in assault, as his erstwhile colleague Borah is the supreme artist in evasion and escape. His skill is founded upon a profound and penetrating intelligence, and informed by what amounts to a great aesthetic passion. There are subtleties in the art he practices, as in any other, and he is the master of all of them. The stone ax is not his weapon, but the rapier; and he knows how to make it go through stone and steel.


On the evening of March 3, 1921, wandering about Washington, I happened into the Senate press gallery. The immortal Harding, with the death sign of the Jesuits already upon him, was to be inaugurated twenty-ninth President of the United States the next day. Wilson was going out; so were many Senators; the Senate chamber was crowded. At nine o'clock or thereabout, Reed caught the Vice-President's eye and stepped into the aisle. It was plain at a glance that he was in good form. His shoulders were thrown back, his eyes flashed; his fine head was carried superbly; his voice, when he began, was bell-like in its tone. There ensued one of the most terrific speeches it has ever been my fortune to hear. It was short, but it was genuinely stupendous. I hung on it like a yokel fascinated by a Methodist Bishop. At the end of it there was a silence as eloquent as the trumps of doom.


The subject was the Wilson "idealism," that shabby sham, by Calvinism out of McGuffey's Fourth Reader. The speech, in form, was a funeral oration upon that "idealism," going out to make way for the even viler brand of Harding and the Elks. The roar of noble music was in it, and the shattering blast of machine-guns. It was a phillipic of austere and classical cut. There was no easy gloating and no maudlin mourning. Reed exposed no wounds, complained of no atrocities, showed no feeling. The thing was simply a masterpiece of corrosive logic. In half an hour, the Wilson flummery was turned inside out, exposed in all its flatulent fraudulence, and kicked out of the house. Was this, too, writ in water? I am fond enough to think not. The speech got no notice in the newspapers next day, for Harding, as I have said, was to be inaugurated, and their space was all given over to this bridal flutterings. But the doctrine in it was sound doctrine, and in the long run (so, at least, one may hope) it will prevail.


Was all this the mere flogging of a dead lion? Obviously, it was not. Reed himself had brought that lion down and the carcass was his to use as he pleased. He had surely shown no fear of it in the days when it could still roar and grind its teeth. He was, in those days, in the very forefront of the fray, and the fact deserves to be remembered. The decay of Wilson as a universal fee-faw-fum has been helped, of late, by the incautious babbling of his flatterers, but the beginning of the process is to be laid to Reed, and not only the beginning but also a great part of what came thereaafter. He was the first to make head-long assault, openly, relentlessly, and with all arms. He was saying back in 1920 what the historians will probably be saying a century hence, and he was saying it in far more brilliant and scorching words than they will ever muster. Leadership fell into his hands from the moment the great battle in the Senate began; Lodge and the rest, for all their howling, were simply followers. No wonder Wilson died hating him! There are other charlatans, still living, who hate him even more.


II

The reward of such a man is bound to be a sort of ill fame. Frauds hate him, and dullards find him disquieting. In the midst of a democracy based upon false pretenses, his instinct for the harsh and horrible fact is essentially anti-social. They will be remembering him in Washington as a killer, and shuddering over the memory, long after they have forgotten what mountebanks he fought and laid low. It is the habit of the town--its prevailing attitude of mind. Nowhere else, not even in New York, is the pervasive humbuggery of American life so plainly visible, or so complacently accepted. When a quack is chased up an alley the whole fabric of capital life is menaced.


I suspect that the fact offers an explanation of Reed's long neglect by the Washington correspondents, those laborious but somewhat ingenuous men. They were years discovering him, though all the while he was before their noses, and they had to be helped out in the end by the Liberal weeklies they distrust and dislike. Officially, by Wilson's bull, he was damned, and so he was damned for them. They could see him only as a blasphemer who flouted Omnipotence--the Omnipotence that they had to stand in awe of, lest their access to it cease to have worth, and their honor pass from them. A Washington correspondent, save when the Devil enters into possession of him, is always a King's man. The whole town is a court, and even the press-gallery is no more than one of its ante-chambers. Thus a regicide gets no countenance at either end of Pennsylvania avenue. And thus Reed had to wait a long while before the gentlemen of the press, and their customers after them, became cognizant that it took more than mere naughty brawling to track down, attack and unhorse the greatest Christian hero since St. Louis, or at all events since Dwight L. Moody.


It seems to me that, even after their awakening, they steadily underrated his abilities, and were blind to some of his most distinguished achievements. There were times, of course, when he staggered and fetched them by sheer forensic brilliance. One such time was when he horned into a Senate investigation that was none of his business and rescued the quaking Hearst from a gang of professional patriots who were butchering him to make a job seekers' holiday. Another was when, by a series of strokes unmatched for boldness in Senate history, he forced an investigation of the elections in Pennsylvania and Illinois. These great virtuoso pieces made even the press-gallery buzz, and after each, for a space, the correspondents were almost as appreciative of Reed as they were of Coolidge and Andy Mellon. But not for long. In the main, they found him enigmatical and hence dubious. He didn't fit into the patterns that they were used to. His forays often puzzled them; they could see no political sense in many of his manoeuvres. They wrote down his presidential candidacy as hopeless long before it was so in fact, and they showed a frank relief when it came to nothing at Houston.


Here, perhaps, I do them an injustice. Maybe they were right. There is, indeed, something inherently improbable and even preposterous about such a man ever becoming President of the United States. The office and its august honors are reserved for the Cagliostros he has spent his life putting to the torture. He would laugh himself to death in the White House. Worse, he would come to despise himself. It is not a place for realists. The wonder is that he survived so long in the Senate. The miracle is surely not to be ascribed to any extraordinary acumen in his fellow Missourians: they show the normal American weakness for charlatans, and have sent a Prohibitionist to Washington to succeed him. The thing must be laid to something in the man himself--some peculiar quirk and combination of his singular abilities. He, too, has his wiles.


III

Inevitably, his passing is bringing forth banal homilies upon the immorality of tearing down without building up. He was, it appears, a purely destructive force, and left no mark upon the uplifting, forward-looking, sin-scotching legislation of his time. Thanks to Rotary and the allied conspiracies against sense, this imbecility has now become a cardinal article of the American code, and the full peer of its brother that it is better to hope for the best than to find out the truth. Reed's career offers refreshing proof that there are still Americans, even in public life, who are too intelligent to succumb to either. No idiot statute to save us all bears his name. He goes out as the complete and perfect anti-Volstead. If his record is one of decrying and uprooting, then nothing that he decried was worthy the respect of any rational man, and nothing that he uprooted was fit to stand. One thing, at least, he fought for and not against, and that was the Bill of Rights. And another: common sense. And yet another: common decency.


It is a great pity that there are not more like him. The country could use a thousand, and even so, each of the thousand would find a thousand mountebanks in front of him. The process of government among us becomes a process of pillage and extortion. The executive power is in the hands of a gang of bureaucrats without responsibility, led by charlatans without conscience. The courts, succumbing to such agencies as the Anti-Saloon League, reduce the constitutional guarantees to vanity and nullity. The legislative machine is operated by nonentities, with frauds and fanatics flogging them. In all that vast and obscene mob there are few men of any solid ability, and fewer still of any intellectual integrity. Reed was one. He had both.


He will be missed in the Senate, but I don't think he will be greatly regretted. His departure makes life easier for the Jim Watsons and Professor Fesses, the Indiana Robinsons and bellowing Tom Heflins, the adding-machine Smoots and sobbing Borahs--for all the rabble of demagogues and soothsayers. Hoover without him will be far more comfortable than Hoover with him, and so will all the rogues who gather 'round the throne. Nor is there any sign of public mourning. The American people have got so used to quacks in high office that they have come to feel uneasy in the presence of honest men. They will be annoyed, I suspect, by very few of that kidney hereafter. Reed struck back into an earlier and more spacious time. He was an anachronistic and disquieting reminder of the days when a Senator of the United States stood on his own legs and was his own man.
H. L. M.





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