Bill Moyers
November 22, 2002
Bill Moyers Essay: On H.L. Mencken and Politics

I've been reading a new biography of the late great curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. During his long career as journalist, editor, and critic, Mencken butchered more sacred cows than the Chicago Stockyards.

He began his career as a police reporter. And his time on the crime beat served him well when he turned to writing about politics, the biggest crime scene of all.

Today, Mencken wouldn't spend much time reporting the speeches in Congress, he would be prowling the den of thieves on K Street, lobbyist row, where the crimes are hatched and the money stashed until the payoff on Capitol Hill.

Mencken would read the Homeland Security Bill passed by Congress this week the way he read the police blotter. And he would discover in the fine print skullduggery worthy of Jay Gould and the robber barons. One corporate giveaway after another was added to the bill.

Remember how outraged the public was last summer at runaway corporations that had set up sham post office boxes overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes? The House of Representatives pulled up its socks and cracked the scoundrels across the knuckles. Skip out on your country, the House said, and there won't be any more government contracts.

Well, this week Congress took it back. Quietly in the name of Homeland Security, Congress undid what it had done this summer. It took the rascals off the hook.

The pharmaceutical industry turned the bill into an orgy of looting. So now if you or your child dies from a bad small pox vaccine, don't expect the negligent company to be accountable. Congress has relieved the industry of liability. Eli Lilly, a big pharma giant, got off with such a heist it put Jesse James to shame. Over and over this week, the big contributors got their money back. Like burglaries in old movies, these took place in the dark of the night, while we slept, with not a fingerprint to be found on the window sill.

So put Terry Teachout's new biography about H.L. Mencken side by side with the Homeland Security Bill and read them together. Mencken was not a nice man, and his own bias could blind him. But if there were a few more Menckens around, we'd find out a lot sooner how democracy gets burglarized in the name of patriotism. It was Mencken the crime reporter who said that when you hear some men talk about their love of country, it's a sign they expect to be paid for it.

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