Franklin Delano Roosevelt: An Obituary

by H.L. Mencken

April 13, 1945

THE BALTIMORE Sun editorial on Roosevelt this morning begins: “Franklin D. Roosevelt was a great man.” There are heavy black dashes above and below it. The argument, in brief, is that all his skullduggeries and imbecilities were wiped out when “he took an inert and profoundly isolationist people and brought them to support a necessary war on a scale never before imagined.” In other words, his greatest fraud was his greatest glory, and sufficient excuse for all his other frauds. It is astonishing how far the Sun has gone in this nonsense. When the English fetched Patterson and John Owens they certainly did an all-out job. I know of no paper in the United States, not even the New York Herald Tribune, that croons for them more assiduously.

Roosevelt’s unparallelled luck held out to the end. He died an easy death, and he did so just in time to escape burying his own dead horse. This business now falls to Truman, a third-rate Middle Western politician on the order of Harding. He is fundamentally against the New Deal wizards, and he will probably make an earnest effort to turn them out of power, but I have some doubt that he will succeed. They have dug in deeply and they may be expected to fight to the bitter end, for once they are out they will be nothing and they know it. The case of La Eleanor is not without its humors. Only yesterday she was the most influential female ever recorded in American history, but tomorrow she will begin to fade, and by this time next year she may be wholly out of the picture. I wonder how many newspapers will go on printing her “My Day.” Probably not many.

It seems to me to be very likely that Roosevelt will take a high place in American popular history — maybe even alongside Washington and Lincoln. It will be to the interest of all his heirs and assigns to whoop him up, and they will probably succeed in swamping his critics. If the war drags on it is possible, of course, that there may be a reaction against him, and there may be another and worse after war is over at last, but the chances, I think, run the other way. He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes. Thus a demigod seems to be in the making, and in a little while we may see a grandiose memorial under way in Washington, comparable to those to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. In it, I suppose, Eleanor will have a niche, but probably not a conspicuous one. The majority of Americans, I believe, distrust and dislike her, and all her glories have been only reflections from Franklin.

The Baltimore Hearst paper, the News-Post, handled the great news with typical cynicism. Hearst is one of the most violent enemies of Roosevelt, and all his papers have been reviling the New Deal, and even propagating doubts about the war. But the whole first page of the News-Post is given over this afternoon to a large portrait of Roosevelt flanked by two flags in color and headed “Nation Mourns.” The editorial page is filled with an editorial saying, among other things, “The work and name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt will live on, not only today or tomorrow, but in all the annals of recorded time.” This, as I have noted, is probably a fact, but it is certainly not a fact that tickles Hearst. He is, however, an expert in mob psychology, and does not expect much. The Sun is in a far less rational position. It certifies to Roosevelt’s greatness in all seriousness.

April 15

All the saloons and major restaurants of Baltimore were closed last night as a mark of respect to the dead Roosevelt, whose body passed through the city at midnight. It was silly, but it gave a lot of Dogberries a chance to annoy their betters, and so it was ordained. As a result, the Saturday Night Club missed its usual post-music beer-party for the first time in forty years. All during Prohibition the club found accommodations in the homes of its members, but last night no member was prepared, so the usual programme had to be abandoned. August and I came home, had a couple of high-balls, and then went to bed.

Roosevelt, if he had lived, would probably have been unbeatable, despite the inevitable reaction against the war. He was so expert a demagogue that it would have been easy for him to divert the popular discontent to some other object. He could have been beaten only by a demagogue even worse than he was himself, and his opponents showed no sign of being able to flush out such a marvel. The best they could produce was such timorous compromisers as Willkie and Dewey, who were as impotent before Roosevelt as sheep before Behemoth. When the call was for a headlong attack they backed and filled. It thus became impossible, at the close of their campaigns, to distinguish them from mild New Dealers — in other words, inferior Roosevelts. He was always a mile ahead of them, finding new victims to loot and new followers to reward, flouting common sense and boldly denying its existence, demonstrating by his anti-logic that two and two made five, promising larger and larger slices of the moon. His career will greatly engage historians, if any good ones ever appear in America, but it will be of even more interest to psychologists. He was the first American to penetrate to the real depths of vulgar stupidity. He never made the mistake of overestimating the intelligence of the American mob. He was its unparallelled professor.

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