Jesse Helms, good by and good riddance

It may be impossible to speak too poorly of the late and unlamented bigot. The only one who can do him justice is Mencken. His obituary for William Jennings Bryan is a thing of venomous beauty and nails Helms and his ilk for all time.

But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice. … In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.

Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into 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.

In the obituaries much was made of Helms’ late-life conversion on several issues. Further proof, “the issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice.”

*Bryan testified against evolution and against the idea that man was a mammal at the famed Scopes Monkey Trial held in Dayton. Mencken’s coverage of the trial is some of the best reporting/commentary ever written and can be found in several of the collections of his writing.

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