October 17, 2008

America's Worst Writer (Who Also Happens to Be President)

Since time immemorial, savants have picked the winners of presidential elections based on Amazon.com’s bestseller rankings. Currently, Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope is ranked #52, while John McCain’s family memoir, Faith of My Fathers comes in at #2,822.

For the sake of non-argument, let’s assume that both of these candidates can write well. But who was the worst writer of any American president? Warren Harding is generally thought to be the worst president of the twentieth century. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote of him, “No other such complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history.” But was Harding's writing as bad as his administration? Mencken thought so, maintaining that it was “so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”

Of course, it was hardly Harding’s fault if he was a bad writer. First, his middle name was “Gamaliel.” Second, his mother nicknamed him “Winnie.” And thus Harding’s doom was assured.

What is odd is that Harding was a former journalist and newspaper owner who should have known his way around a prepositional phrase. To his credit, Harding wrote his own speeches. To his discredit, the results could sound like this: "I would like the government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved."

Mencken again:
“He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. . . . It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”
You’d think that would be the final word, but when Harding died, E. E. Cummings snarkily lamented, “The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead.” Man, that's cold. (My sources are here.)

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