I sometimes play poker with Mssrs. Mencken, Clemens, Thompson, and Franklin. And after my last go-round with Franklin – well, the less said about Baltimore the better. But as this poker game went, there was the usual talk that occurs when the liquor flows freely. Mencken and Thompson were up, Clemons and I were down, Franklin was holding the middle – and a large snifter of brandy.
Clemons had the deal, but started bitching anyway. “You know, I’ve reported on politics before, but what y’all got going is worse than anything that Frenchie fella, Verne, could ever dream up.”
“Nah. That nutjob, Orwell, got him beat in spades.”, Mencken spat out. “Or maybe, Sinclair. He’s a real throat cutter if you let him get started.”
The deal finished, we looked at our cards. Everyone checked. Franklin was up, but he took a few seconds before asking for three. Thompson took two, Mencken three. I had total rubbish for a hand: J,7,4,3,2. I folded before I could throw more money away. Dealer took two, but he sort of looked like he wanted three. ‘He, who hesitates, is lost’, I thought.
Franklin spoke up. “What I’m bothered about, mostly, is the complete and utter disregard the populace has given to our collective writings. We’ve all recounted the foibles of the human condition when involved with politics. Yet, the situation is more dire than ever.” He checked again. Probably stuck with a small pair.
Thompson took a pull from his ever-present bottle of Wild Turkey. None of us had ever seen him fetch a new bottle, but the one he kept nearby never emptied.
“The problem is, you guys keep thinking this is an issue solvable by intelligent discourse. It’s not an issue, it’s a disease! A disease of the body politic. Trust me. I’m a Doctor.” He opened for twenty.
Mencken stayed in and looked at me. “You have to pay to play. Right?” I looked back; disgust and despondency took turns. He was the last person I would expect to utter that phrase. Clemens tossed his cards in. “Too rich for me.”, he said. Ben set the pot right.
“Ski,”, Franklin said, “you’re the most knowledgable person with regard to these technologies the candidates are using. How can we (he gestured at our assembly) get our ideas and opinions out there to educate the masses? In my time, we either posted bills in the town square, or we’d write articles for the papers. Then, word of mouth would do the rest.”
Thompson smacked the table and glared at Ben. “You’re holding up the game.”, he said threateningly. I took a chance and dropped a couple of Seconal into Hunter’s bottle while he focused on Ben. I hoped it would balance him out for awhile.
Ben ignored the outburst. Like us all, we adapted to each other’s symptoms and peccadilloes as needed. He dropped ten into the pot, ignoring Mencken and peacefully looking at Thompson.
Hank (We were probably the only four humans alive that could call Henry this. Not from his generousity; we simply wore him down, ignoring every complaint he issued.) looked at Ben, then checked his cards. He saw Ben’s ten and added forty. A touch of a smirk rose from Hank’s face. We saw it as a full blown, Cheshire Cat grin.
“While you ponder that bet, allow me the attempt at an answer. I wrote a piece for the Sun awhile back and with your permission, I’d like to repeat it here.” He paused, expecting argument and got none.
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
[Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920]
“Given that there is a bonafide moron, representing the GOP no less; and on the other side, we have an exemplar of deceit and shallowness. The plain folk I spoke of should, at the least, be threatened with prosecution for casting a vote for either idiotic candidate.”
We jointly began dissecting his screed, but Sam blustered out a half-baked idea.
“Wait a second. You had something there in the beginning. Large mobs and second-hand fights. We all know that with a mob, you either rule it, or you skeedattle right quick. We’ve got two (or more) country-wide mobs being run by second hand controllers. And no matter what, we’ll still have a moron for President?”
Mencken didn’t have a chance to reply before Hunter babbled in. The pills were just starting to kick in.
“Waitaminute! Big mobs, big power. Second-hand morons herding cattle. Perfect democracy has a soul. The soul of the mob! Dark. Souls. Must…kill…..soul”
His head dropped onto the table, a death grip on his bottle which never moved. I reached over to check for a pulse – still there. So it was one pill to many. Not like it never happened before.
I slid Thompson’s cards to the center. “He’s out.” In more ways than one, I thought.
While we were talking, Franklin had assembled a large stack of bill on the table. He looked like he was going all in, but he stopped. He sat back and took a large sip from his glass.
“The lad made a good, if stunted, point. All that lives has some kind of soul, good or bad. But he leaves two questions unanswered. First, how do you kill a soul? To my understanding, that is left to God, and God alone. If anyone can answer that, then they probably would be able to separate the good souls from the bad. But who among humans can judge the good from the bad?”
“Annnnd, we’re back to where we started. Except it’s your bet, Ben.” I figured this would be the last hand, after the deep philosophical pondering a shared.
Ben took the stack of bills, fanned his face for a moment, then set it back down. Taking a single bill, he tossed it in. “Call.”
Sam and I sat back, surprised. I knew Ben was the best bluffer this side of the World Poker Tour. Mencken is very much into scientific discipline: the prove it to my face. He flipped his cards: J,J,Q,Q,6.
“Nice.”, Sam said.
Ben had his cards stacked. He started flipping them, one at a time: K,2,2, …and paused.
“Well? What are you waiting for?, snapped Mencken.
“Think of this hand as the election. You’ve shown your hand; not great, but not too bad. But between us, we’ve muscled all other opponents out of the way. Now it’s my hand, showing a little at a time. I came out strong with a king, then a weak pair. But my possibilities are tremendous. Another king or a two and it’s over. Or a seven and eight for garbage.”
“Play. Your. Cards.”, Hank growled.
“Soon, soon.” Ben said calmly. “But ask yourself; how far would I go to win this game? Lie? Cheat? Steal?” He paused. “Murder?”
“It’s just a card game, Franklin! Finish it!”, Mencken shouted.
“I am.” He flipped the fourth card, an Ace.
“My hand is looking pretty good to the mob right now. But you sit there, the question brewing in your mind. Did I cheat? What are the odds of my having multiple winning positions? Sam was dealing. Is he in on the conspiracy too? Now assume that the voting mobs have watched this entire game. They see your so-so hand, and they want you to win. Others see my hand and want me to win, desperately. And they are not bothered if I stacked the deck in my favor. What does a voter do?”