George Jean Nathan, The Autobiography of an Attitude (London: Knopf, 1926), pp. 32-37.
When I am charged with not taking a sufficiently serious interest in politics, in the doings of the crowd of low thieves and mountebanks down at Washington — a parcel of men almost wholly devoid of truth, decency and honor — it is precisely as if I were asked to take a serious interest in the doings of a union of piano-movers over in Long Island City. I decline to pollute my mind with such obscenities. Even the consideration of politics as a species of buffoonery does not hold any enchantment for me. […]
I am told that my complete disinterestedness in politics causes me to miss a lot. What do I miss? I miss a lot of imbecile statements mouthed by a lot of blockheads in behalf of a candidate who is generally a lot more of a blockhead than they are. I miss reading a lot of tripe about a lot of fourth-rate micks busying themselves with the noble enterprise of getting a third-rate job for a second-rate mick. I miss seeing democracy behind the scenes in its dressing-room, clad only in its chemise. I have no taste for such vulgarity. I prefer a good dog fight, or a burlesque show. […] The clowns of politics are no whit more real than the clowns of the stage: a senator, or even a President, and Herman Krausmeyer are brothers under their skin; both are equally mummers. The slapstick that lands to the rear of a politician, however eminent, and the one that lands to the rear of a stage pantaloon are, to me, one and the same, and the respective seats upon which the slapsticks land are no less one and the same. And when it is argued that politics provides the greater and lewder show because in the theatre one has to pretend that the slapstické is someone of dignity and consequence in order properly to appreciate the humors of his embarrassment consequent upon the receipt of the wallop, I argue in turn that one has to pretend exactly the same thing in the case of politics. Thus, if in the pursuit of ribald jocosity I have to imagine for the time being that some burlesque show ham is the Count de Roquefort, owner of the Deauville Casino, the lover of politics in turn has to imagine that some erstwhile shyster lawyer […] is a purple toga’d Mark Antony with a liberal soupçon of Roman in him. The buffoons of politics, in good truth, are less real than the buffoons of the stage. Which, for example, is the more convincing: William H. Crane’s United States senator or J. Thomas Heflin’s? If the essence of humor lies in the sharp contrast between dignity and importance on the one hand and sudden disaster and ignominy on the other, one may inquire as to the dignity and importance of the politician. That dignity and importance exist simply in the mind of the spectator, through a voluntary remission of judgment, exactly as in the case of a good stage actor. If, in order to pave the way for a good loud belly-laugh, I have to pretend to myself that Louis Mann, say, is a millionaire steel magnate, a lover of rare books and a powerful thinker, the devotee of politics has to prove to himself that a United States ambassador to a great European capital is a sagacious statesman and diplomat, and not — as he more often actually is — merely an American who can wear a silk hat without looking like a French hack driver, who can stand on a polished hard-wood floor without slipping, and who has learned how to say “This soup is delicious” in two foreign languages.
As it is pretty well agreed, even by the most enthusiastic followers of political phenomena, that about ninety-five per cent of politicians are idiots, I cannot quite grasp the pleasure that these followers derive from watching them swell up and explode. In Matteawan perhaps ninety-five per cent of the incarcerated idiots imagine themselves to be senators, ambassadors, governors and even Presidents. I might thus get the same degree of amusement contemplating these poor fellows as I can get contemplating those of their brothers who are still at large. The circumstance that a politician is gravely accepted by three or four hundred thousand dinkelspiels for the sage he pretends to be, and that he deceives himself in the same direction, surely does not make him any better for a cultivated man’s risibilities than a mere stage anticker. There were just as many dolts who believed that Woodrow Wilson was a Gladstone and Bismarck. […] Carrying out to its logical conclusion the contention that the humor of politics lies entirely in the accepted eminence of politicians and the consequent relatively more emphatic report that issues from the collision of their seats with the pavement, it might be said that Elihu Root, whom hundreds of thousands of Americans soberly consider a Socrates, is by that fact, and that fact solely, a droller dill-pickle than Al Jolson, whom the same number of Americans frankly consider a clown. Therefore, in conclusion, I fear that it would be silly for me to waste years trying to acquire a talent for laughing at politicians. The thing would be just as insane as for Beethoven to have given up music and to have devoted ten or twenty years to learning how to paint on china.