FDR tackles HL Mencken for a loss at the 1934 Gridiron Dinner!
(Only 76 years ago this December)
November 24, 2010
Richard J. Garfunkel
Upon FDR’s return to the District from his Thanksgiving holiday at his Warm Springs retreat, known as “The Little White House,” he was to be the featured guest at the Gridiron Dinner, which was hosted by the press corps which covered the White House and all the action that abounded within the political scope of the Congress.
FDR understood that the host of this annual event was HL Mencken, whose diaries later revealed his dark side. When the diaries were made public, his racism and anti-Semitism, not to mention his deep anti-democratic sentiments came to the surface. Innately he had little concern for people and for sure almost no compassion for the needy. But most of this was certainly hinted about in his lifetime. Mencken relished his reputation and his friends and apologists, thought of him as an eccentric contrarian, but in truth he was basically a chronic, dissatisfied complainer. But, all in all, he was more venal and self-absorbed, and his vehemence showed more and more to FDR as his initial support for the president quickly waned.
At the December, 1934 event, the sponsors seemed to be inspiring mischief and therefore were looking for “blood in the water,” Mencken was well known for venting his spleen and he was expected to reveal his true venom as the Roast Master. Maybe it was because of the President’s presence at the event, that the so-called “Sage of Baltimore” was a bit more cautious and reserved or possibly it was because FDR represented the “home team” and would speak last
Mencken opened with welcoming, “fellow subjects of the Reich,” and he said, “Every day in this great country is April Fool’s Day,” He started out relating his support for the President, but quickly launched into a diatribe about him being a “slippery posturer.”
When FDR’s turn came to speak, he opened with what Mencken called his “Christian Science smile,” and referred to “my old friend Henry Mencken, “ and then in a room filled with the members of each level of the press, he began a rancorous denunciation against their whole profession. He attacked the “stupidity, cowardice and Philistinism of the working newspapermen.” FDR continued with a look of piety only that he could do, and to the laughter of almost all who were there, he claimed that those assembled did not know what a “symphony is or a streptococcus” and then described their industry as “pathetically feeble and vulgar, and so disreputable.” Of course, the audience became quite frosty and strangely silenced. But his words eventually became crystal clear to many of the old-timers. FDR had taken it all from an editorial called “Journalism in America,” written by Mencken himself, ten years before in his own publication, The American Mercury. Eventually FDR, with a large smile finally revealed to all the true source of such venom.
Mencken, incredibly embarrassed, boiled over and said, “I’ll get the son of a bitch. I’ll dig the skeletons out of his closet.” As he was fulminating and trying get out a retort, FDR moved passed him at the conclusion of his response, as the audience reverberated with laughter when the true author was revealed. FDR had turned the tables on Mencken, got in the last word, and as Harold Ickes would write later, “FDR had smeared Mencken all over.”