What would Mencken say about this figgy pudding?

By Martin F. Nolan, 12/14/2000

WASHINGTON -- AT UNION STATION here, a short, middle-aged man says to his companion, ''Welcome to your nation's capital, Cain, home of 100,000 miserable botches of ninth-rate clerks.'' The travelers are the novelist, James M. Cain, and his mentor, the sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken. Both are fictional sleuths, ferreting out mischief during the Harding administration, in ''Our Man in Washington,'' a wry and rollicking novel by Roy Hoopes.

Cain and Mencken are unlikely characters. Equally difficult to imagine upon the scorched tundra of today's Washington are Republicans who might say a kind word for Al Gore. I found none. Democrats willing to cough up a similar sentiment for George W. Bush are less rare. I found two. Both have been out of politics for decades, but their reputations for probity and sagacity are intact.

Thomas Ludlow Ashley, a Democrat who represented his Ohio district in Congress with distinction for 25 years, first met George H. W. Bush at Yale, which they attended together after serving in World War II.

''Every election leaves hard feelings,'' Ashley says. ''But this is an inside-Washington thing. They're not rioting in Dubuque.'' Nor in Toledo, his home town. ''The media set the tone, and people don't rely on the Toledo Blade or the Columbus Dispatch like they used to, so they go to the talking heads on television, where there's too much venom.''

''Today's acrimonious dialogue has to stop,'' he says, and the new president should offer ''an agenda acceptable to a bipartisan majority.'' Lud Ashley's eyes twinkle when he notes that George W. Bush ''is really a combination of the parents. Barbara, as you know, can be pretty feisty. I played football against her brothers. They were tough and couldn't be pushed around.'' He's confident that if ''George W. is not confrontational, he can prove that clashes of ideas don't have to be based on venom and destruction.''

Another Democrat here is a dealmaker in what has become a city of dealbreakers. Robert Schwartz Strauss, his party's former chairman and treasurer, is a friend of the Bush family from his Dallas days and was ambassador to Russia during the Bush administration.

''I've known George W. since he was a young man,'' he says, recalling ''early in the campaign when I called his father and said, `Mr. President, despite our close friendship over the years, I cannot support George W.' He said, `Bob, it would be foolish to even consider at this stage of your life supporting George. Don't give it another thought.' Then he laughed and said `You can be nice to him anytime you like.'''

Strauss, 82, is a friend of both Don Evans, the Bush campaign chairman, and Bill Daley, campaign chairman for Gore. He arranged meetings between the two early in the campaign. ''I'm telling you this story,'' he says in his Dupont Circle law office, ''because that sort of thing isn't done today.''

Strauss agrees with his friend Ashley on the venom count: ''The difficulties are not exaggerated. This town can get awfully mean, and the climate was bad before the campaign started. This town is about as sour as I've ever seen it.''

Strauss, who backed Gore's presidential candidacy in 1988, says D.C. wisdom is wrong about Bush. ''The people who dismiss him as not being smart enough sell him short,'' his fellow Texan insists. ''He's smart enough. He's limited in experience and background, but he's not limited in gray matter. And he has, I can tell you, an exceedingly winning manner. Some of those qualities will come in very handy.''

As the District of Columbia staggers through this figgy pudding of an election, what would H. L. Mencken think?

In the Hoopes novel, after Mencken voices ''grave doubts about democracy,'' Cain asks him why he has not become a 1920s expatriate in Europe like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. ''Why do I stay in America?'' Mencken cackles in reply. ''Why do men go to zoos?''

Martin F. Nolan's column appears regularly in the Globe.