Warren Harding: The Least Appreciated President
Warren Harding is not regarded as one of our most successful presidents. He’s more likely to be remembered for his scandals than his accomplishments. But given the problems he had to confront — massive war debt, high unemployment, and skyrocketing inflation — is this harsh appraisal fair? Renowned historian Amity Shlaes takes a fresh look at our 29th president.
Sometimes a president who appears pathetic is actually just plain tragic. And because he is a president, his tragedy is also the nation’s.
That was the case of Warren Harding, the 29th president of the United States.
Harding was perhaps the most misunderstood and least appreciated of all America's chief executives.
Born in 1865 in a small Ohio town halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, Harding was a brave and unusual politician.
He didn't start as a politician. He spent most of his life as the editor and publisher of an Ohio newspaper, the Marion Star. Harding ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1910 and then successfully for senator in 1914.
In the presidential election year of 1920, Harding was considered a dark horse at best. but he emerged after 10 ballots as the Republicans’ choice. He certainly looked and even acted the part. tall, with thick white hair and deep, penetrating eyes, Harding was as genial as he was handsome. To know him was to like him.
And Americans did like him. He won the 1920 election in a landslide, garnering an astonishing 60% of the popular vote.
The country that Warren Harding and his running mate Calvin Coolidge inherited faced multiple crises.
To win World War I, the government had taken over large sectors of the economy.
But what works in war, doesn’t always work in peace.
There was an inflation crisis:
Prices for basic necessities like milk and butter rose at alarming rates. Prices that businesses paid for materials doubled.
There was a tax crisis: Corporate taxes were so heavy that businesses couldn’t expand.
There was a labor crisis: Tens of thousands of Americans, many disabled, returned from Europe to find a stagnant economy short of jobs.
Angry workers mounted violent strikes.
And, there was a government debt crisis, a result of war spending.
By 1920, it seemed that life in crisis was the new normal.
Absolutely not, said Harding.
Harding vowed to end the war laws and rules, to let the country go back to the way things were before the war.
He wanted commonsense life, the kind that had enabled Henry Ford to start his auto business.
“America's present need,” Harding said, “is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy...”
“Normalcy” was the motto Harding and Coolidge gave their campaign.
The Harding plans for normalcy were simple:
Let the Federal Reserve tighten money to wring inflation out of the economy.
Cut spending so that the government can pay off the war debt.
Cut tax rates to free business and encourage hiring.
Block new entitlement payments, even to veterans. Instead build veterans hospitals.
Return those industries that wartime government had taken over back to private hands.
In short, give the economy and individuals the freedom to find their own way.
After taking office, Harding made all the right moves. He named a tough cabinet, including the nation’s great master of debt, the banker Andrew Mellon, to the Treasury post.
Harding coaxed Congress into giving the president the executive power he needed to analyze and stop excess spending through the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.
Finally, Harding pushed through tax cuts for individuals and businesses. And for the veterans he funded special hospitals, the origin of the VA.
All the pieces were in place for a return to the old normal that Harding had promised.
For the first time in a while, America's future looked bright.
But here is Harding's tragedy: the man lacked discipline. He planned well but executed poorly.
For example, when it came to those hospitals for veterans, the men Harding put in charge of construction took kickbacks and did shoddy work.
When it came to the promised privatization of government oil reserves, Harding looked away when friends leased reserves to their friends. The scandal would be known as Teapot Dome.
Harding besmirched the very principles he was advancing.
The pressure on Harding kept mounting. He could handle attacks from his enemies, he told a journalist. it was his friends, his “damn friends,” who kept him awake at night.
In the summer of 1923, Harding traveled west. While at the palace hotel in San Francisco, Harding passed away suddenly — doubtless due to the pressure of mounting scandal. The new president, Calvin Coolidge, was left to clean up.
In the years that followed the country rose again – in part because Coolidge marshaled the discipline Harding lacked.
But also because of those Harding policies with the quirky name, normalcy.
Yet Harding was not around to see his own success. Over the decades salacious stories about his scandals obscured his impressive achievements.
That's Harding's real tragedy. And our own.
I’m Amity Shlaes, chairman of the Coolidge Foundation, for Prager University.