Bierce on Politics


Col 1

Exclusive! Ambrose Bierce on Politics
His Own Words on the 2000 Election

interviewed by Don Swaim

SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, it's been nearly ninety years since you mysteriously vanished in Pancho Villa's Mexico, and I'm sorely tempted to ask you about the circumstances.

BIERCE: (clears his throat)

SWAIM: Of course, I'm aware of your conditions for this interview. No questions about your disappearance.

BIERCE: I will only say this, sir. Why would I have wanted to remain in a country that was on the eve of prohibition and woman's suffrage?

SWAIM: Some would say that, at your advanced age, your going to Mexico at the height of the revolution was little more than suicidal.

BIERCE: The following persons, and some others, are justified in removing themselves. One afflicted with a painful or loathsome disease. One who is a heavy burden upon his friends, with no prospect of their relief. One threatened with permanent insanity. One irreclaimably addicted to drunkenness or some similarly destructive or offensive habit. One without friends, property, employment or hope. One who had disgraced himself. All the men I hate.

SWAIM: And which applies to you?

BIERCE: (clears his throat)

SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, the presidential election of 2000 ended after weeks of acrimony and bitterness.

BIERCE: Thank heaven it is over, and may we never have any more of it! May the man who was elected remain president during the term of his natural life, and may God spare him to a great age. It matters not how he retain his office, so it be not by reelection.

SWAIM: Al Gore, the loser, conceded, no doubt embittered in the belief that had the votes in that one critical electoral state been recounted and certified he would have won. On the other hand, George W. Bush, who was spurned by the majority of the voters, enjoys no mandate, and will forever be haunted by the thought that he was named president by judicial fiat, in other words through the split decision of a partisan Supreme Court.

BIERCE: Supreme Court? No country in the world has or at any time has had so vile a judiciary as ours. Of our judges who are not morally vile, most are vile intellectually.

SWAIM: Before we continue, I should ask you about your own politics. Are you a Republican or a Democrat?

BIERCE: I am neither Democrat nor Republican. I never was. For various reasons I really do not care a straw which party won the contest.

SWAIM: Don't care?

BIERCE: Yes, Mr. Swaim. Two of these reasons I have no objection to making known. First, I have no important personal interests that in my judgment would be either materially furthered or materially injured by the results of the election, while one that is very precious to me -- the clarity of my understanding, such as it is -- would be imperiled by taking either side. Second, I have so profound a reverence for the wisdom and goodness of my countrymen that I am forbidden to entertain a doubt of their deciding all questions at issue in a way that will be good enough for me and them.

SWAIM: I have a feeling you're joking about the wisdom and goodness of your fellow countrymen, Mr. Bierce.

BIERCE: (clears his throat)

SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, haven't you, in a way, disenfranchised yourself from the political system?

BIERCE: I like to fancy -- perhaps erroneously -- that my position as a looker-on enables me to see more of the game than the players do; that my indifference to the result makes me a better critic, that my freedom from political sympathies and antipathies gives my judgment an intrinsic worth superior to its current value.

SWAIM: I find it astonishing that you don't care which party is in power.

BIERCE: I can afford to live under any kind of government which a majority of my countrymen is likely to afflict me with, but I cannot afford to have a muddled brain and an evil heart. I want those organs clear and clean. I need them in my business.

SWAIM: As a looker-on, do you observe any fundamental differences between the Republicans and the Democrats?

BIERCE: Mr. Swaim, a Democrat is a progressive individual who believes in regenerating the national government by inaugurating a system of wholesale plunder in place of the policy which now obtains. A Republican is a conservative person who favors leaving matters as they are.

SWAIM: I can't remember when it hasn't been that way.

BIERCE: You're still a young man -- compared to me. Further, a Democrat is one who believes the Republicans will ruin the country, while a Republican believes the Democrats have ruined the country.

SWAIM: The election ended badly for both sides, with Gore so close, perhaps the real winner, and then conceding to Bush so late.

BIERCE: Human nature is worse than anyone thinks it. In the recent political contest I do not recollect a single notable instance of magnanimity. Not one signal example of justice to an opposing candidate or party of record. Not once did a great journal or prominent politician attest a noble scorn of mean advantage, or a prevision unaffected by personal preference. Not an aspirant lifted a hand in deprecation of the libels that his party heaped upon his opponent.

SWAIM: Gore was, well, simply unlucky. He did, however, make a number of mistakes, especially during his early debates with Bush.

BIERCE: There was never a year in which the party in power and the party out of power did not make bad mistakes -- mistakes which, unlike eggs and fish, seem always worse when freshest.

SWAIM: The news media weren't of much help either, particularly when they blew the call in Florida. You were a Hearst man, and I remember your own scathing criticism of the newspapers.

BIERCE: Conducted by rogues and dunces for dunces and rogues, they are faithful to nothing but the follies and vices of our system, strenuously opposing every intelligent attempt at their elimination. They fetter the feet of wisdom and stiffen the prejudices of the ignorant. They are sycophants to the mob, tyrants to the individual.

SWAIM: Despite it all, Mr. Bierce, I've heard it said, jokingly I presume, that Bush stole the election fair and square:

BIERCE: And with grudging and reluctant acceptance, the beaten candidate acquiesced in the result only after crying fraud. Nor even then had he the grace to congratulate his successful antagonist. To this day the victors insult the slain, the vanquished calumniate the victors, or with a coarse and servile sycophancy flex their corrigible backs to fawn for gain. No touch of light illuminates the somber picture; no golden star of greatness flames in the murky firmament to spender the black billows of this boundless and fathomless depravity.

SWAIM: I almost want to laugh.


SWAIM: Your language. I love it, but, well, sometime I want to laugh.

BIERCE: Mr. Swaim, laughter is an interior convulsion, producing a distortion of the features and accompanied by inarticulate noises. It is infectious and, though intermittent, incurable.

SWAIM: Bush has been characterized as a man with few credentials, barely qualified for the job -- if at all -- lacking stature, and without the intelligence, acuity, or wisdom to achieve in high office. His vacant stare, the pursed mouth...

BIERCE: I hold that under our political system it is very rarely that a man of brains, honor, and good manners gets into public life. In most instances the man who holds an office is a rogue, a vulgarian or an ignoramus. Commonly he is all three. I say that it is impossible for any observer whose eyes are not servitors of his prejudices to draw any conclusion other than that our political activity is mainly directed to be bestowed upon rascals and dunces.

SWAIM: I have a feeling, Mr. Bierce, that if you were around today you'd give George Junior a hard time.

BIERCE: When I see an idiot in high station I will add such terrors to his elevation as I can. I will put as many thorns in his crown as the leisure that I can snatch from the pressure of other pleasures will permit me to weave in. And neither the deprecation of his friends nor his own retaliatory lies shall stop the good work.

SWAIM: The Republicans are in the majority. While the GOP lost its edge in the Senate, it still has -- barely -- a majority in the House.

BIERCE: Majorities rule, when they do rule, not because they ought, but because they can. We vote in order to learn without fighting which party is stronger; it is less disagreeable to learn it that way than the other way. Sometimes the party that is numerically the weaker is by possession of the government actually the stronger, and could maintain itself in power by an appeal to arms, but the habit of submitting when outvoted is hard to break.

SWAIM: Each side seems to firmly believe in the righteousness of its cause.

BIERCE: (harumphs) That one's cause will succeed because it ought to succeed is perhaps the most general and invincible folly affecting the human judgment. Politics is a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.

SWAIM: There's talk of compromise and coming together and reconciliation and all that, but I don't believe it. Even though they lost the popular vote, the Republicans on Capitol Hill are likely to have their way over four years of a Bush presidency.

BIERCE: Do you recall my definition of a quorum, Mr. Swaim? Probably not. A quorum is a sufficient number of members of a deliberative body to have their own way and their own way of having it. In the United States Senate a quorum consists of the chairman of the Committee on Finance and a messenger from the White House; in the House of Representatives, of the Speaker and the devil.

SWAIM: It's all politics, I guess.

BIERCE: A politician is an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.

SWAIM: The Democrats complained that many voters in Florida made errors in the voting booth, mistakenly casting ballots for the wrong candidate, voting twice on the presidential line, failing to fully punch the card, leaving a so-called dimpled or hanging chad. Jeeze, is there such a thing as an intelligent voter, Mr. Bierce?

BIERCE; Yes. One who knows beans when the bag is open.

SWAIM: Is there anything an intelligent voter doesn't know that he should?

BIERCE: He does not know enough to take the beans.

SWAIM: Still, Mr. Bierce, you must admit that our system allows the voters to vote their convictions.

BIERCE: What naked and unabashed bosh when we talk about our political convictions, Mr. Swaim. Among the voters of the whole country there is not one in ten thousand who has any convictions with regard to questions of national importance.

SWAIM: You obviously have a poor opinion of us American voters.

BIERCE: Do you know, John Voter, that you are a dope?


BIERCE: Of course, you. Does it penetrate your poor understanding that every time you throw off the top of your head to give tongue for the man of another man's choice the worthy persons who keep the table in the little game of politics are affected with merriment in the cuffs of them? Have you ever a dawnlight of suspicion that in the service of their purpose your wage is their derision, your pension their silent contempt?

SWAIM: Some of us believe in principle, Mr. Bierce -- and vote accordingly.

BIERCE: Oh, you will uphold a principle, will you, you hearty? You will stand in to avert the quadrennial peril to the country. You will assist in repelling the treasonable attempt of one half its inhabitants who interest lies in its destruction. You will be a Republican or a Democrat. You will be it diligently, loudly, and like the devil. Pray so. And when you have processioned your feet sore and your teeth loose, and been a spectacular extravaganza to the filling of your ambition's belly, may it comfort you to know you have been a Tool. Fine friend, I am mortally indisposed of you. For the love of heaven, take yourself out of my thoughts.

SWAIM: You may depreciate those of us you call Johnny Voter, Mr. Bierce. But for us, election day comes every four years, whether you like it or not.

BIERCE: Then, Johnny Voter, choose ye this day whom ye will be served up for. Brethren, you are invited to take sides, making selection of masters and spoilers. Go get yourselves into similar habiliments and draw the length of your perspiring line through all manner of streets, larding the cobbles with the unpleasant utterances of your pores. Tickle your tympans with braying brass and hee-haw hurrahs. Darken the sunshine with ascending flights of greasy head-gear, and by nightlight an illumination of reeking oils and transparencies that make unwell. Drink whisky.



SWAIM: I like my martinis. Dry.

BIERCE; Drink your gin, Mr. Swaim. Incur contagions in hired halls by breathing the riddances of one another's lungs while brainless orators bespatter you with spittle. Make of yourselves asses of superior assinity. The important thing is to be an ass.

SWAIM: Wow, such contempt for the average man.

BIERCE: Mr. Swaim, sir, the average man is very much of a fool, and something of a rogue as well. He has only a smattering of education, knows virtually nothing of political history, nor history of any kind, is incapable of logical, that is to say clear, thinking, is subject to the persuasion of base and silly prejudices, and selfish beyond expression.

SWAIM: Public opinion does count, Mr. Bierce.

BIERCE: Tauri excretio, if you'll excuse the Latin, Mr. Swaim. In any matter of which the public has imperfect knowledge, public opinion is as likely to be erroneous as is the opinion of an individual equally uninformed. To hold otherwise is to hold that wisdom can be got by combining many ignorances. A man who knows nothing of algebra can not be assisted in the solution of an algebraic problem by calling in a neighbor who knows no more than himself, and the solution approved by the unanimous vote of a million such men would count for nothing against that of a competent mathematician.

SWAIM: I've heard it said, Mr. Bierce, that the voice of the people is the voice of God.

BIERCE: (harumphs) That saying is so respectably old that it comes to us in the Latin. But does anyone really believe it? Let's see. In my day, during the years between 1859 and 1885 the national Democratic party was defeated six times in succession. The voice of the people pronounced it in error and unfit to govern. Yet after each overthrow it came back into the field gravely reaffirming its faith in the principles that God had condemned. Then God reversed Himself, and the Republicans set about beating Him with as firm a confidence of success as they had known in their years of prosperity.

SWAIM: You are such a cynic, Mr. Bierce. I can't believe it. Or perhaps I can.

BIERCE: A cynic being a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

SWAIM: I know you're anxious to return to your hiding place, Mr. Bierce, so one last question. Now that the Republicans are in power for the duration, do you have any final words?

BIERCE: Yes, Mr. Swaim. Listen well but do not laugh. Here lies the body of the Republican Party / Corrupt, and generally speaking, hearty.

(Note: These actual comments by Ambrose Bierce were culled from his COLLECTED WORKS and other source material, and in a few instances were minimally edited for form only. The questions were my own.)

© 2000 by Don Swaim

Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

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