Larry Lansburgh: A conversation with Ambrose Bierce |

Larry Lansburgh: A conversation with Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce and I settled into comfortable chairs on my deck to discuss the upcoming presidential election. I knew he could not tolerate opinions other than his own, but he was going to hear some from me.

Bierce had light blue eyes, and it almost seemed his gaze could punch holes in steel. He was about 6 feet tall, slender, with a clear complexion, and clean-shaven except for a bristling mustache. He was impeccably dressed in wool trousers and coat, his vest framing a dark tie precisely arranged in a starched collar. In spite of his civilian clothes, he had an unmistakable military bearing.

We lit good cigars and poured expensive single-malt Scotch whiskey into crystal tumblers (no ice, of course).

Lansburgh: Mr. Bierce, many people have a low opinion of both candidates in this election. I just hope the majority of voters choose the right candidate.

I was going to respond to Bierce’s advice by saying I’ll vote the same way I’d choose a surgeon: I’ll trust experience, not television sound bites.

Bierce: Majorities, embracing as they do the most ignorant, seldom think rightly.

L: I have more faith in the majority than you do.

B: Faith is belief without evidence.

L: Speaking of evidence, let me describe the candidates. One has a well-documented record of bankruptcies whose purpose was to avoid paying contractors. He admires the current Russian dictator. And get this: he says he wants to run our country the same way he has run his businesses. To say the least, he’s an eccentric.

B: Eccentricity is a method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity.

L: The other candidate has extensive experience in national government, but some questionable dealings in the past. However, she’s good at politics, which is an important skill for a president.

B: Politics is a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles — the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

L: You’re known as a cynic, but cynicism about this election, simply grumbling from the sidelines, will get us nowhere. So much will be in the hands of the average voter, who …

B: … 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 suasion of base and silly prejudices, and selfish beyond expression.

L: I don’t think voters are selfish. No matter their preference, I believe voters put their country first. But it seems the candidates agree with you, which is why they spend so much on television ads that pander to mindless emotion. And all the while, they continue to collect enormous sums of money from corporations.

B: A corporation is an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

L: Individual responsibility is also what’s lacking in cynics, who are always against everything. You call yourself a cynic, so tell me this: What are you in favor of?

B: I favor war, famine, pestilence — anything that will stop the people from cheating and confine that practice to contractors and statesmen.

L: Be serious for a moment, Mr. Bierce. What is your practical advice to voters in this election?

B: Don’t believe without evidence. Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And, finally, most important of all, endeavor to see thing as they are, not as they ought to be.

I turned to put another splash of whiskey into my glass. I was going to respond to Bierce’s advice by saying I’ll vote the same way I’d choose a surgeon: I’ll trust experience, not television sound bites.

But when I turned back to continue the conversation, Bierce was gone. His glass was empty. In the ashtray, a frail wisp of smoke rose from the remains of his cigar, and then vanished.

Larry Lansburgh lives in Nevada City. He is the author of “The Simple Key to Great Presentations” and “The World’s Greatest Snappy Comebacks.” Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) was an author and journalist famous for his bitter commentary on human frailty. All of his words here are quotations from his works, especially “The Devil’s Dictionary,” “A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography,” and his writing in the “San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser.”

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