The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding
About twenty years ago, I was struck by two large framed photographs of Coolidge and Harding in the window of an antique shop in Washington. For a reason I can no longer remember—perhaps because they suggested some important moral to me—I had long wanted photographs of these two presidents for my office, and I naively Imagined that they could be had at some discount. When the proprietor, a beady-eyed man in his sixties, told me that Harding was $35 and Coolidge $20, I was less disappointed than curious. Why, I asked, since the pictures were alike in size and quality, was the Harding so much more expensive? He fixed me with a look of scorn. “Why? Why?” he repeated—and his voice soared—“Because Harding was more popular—that’s why!”
The shopkeeper may have been a bit daft, but he was right. Although Harding represents to many of us the nadir of the presidency, his popularity during his lifetime was enormous. “On his death,” Mr. Sinclair tells us, “he was mourned more than any President since Lincoln.” Certainly there was a great and spontaneous outpouring of grief. It may be no surprise that his Postmaster General said that Harding’s passing was “a loss to the world the magnitude of which cannot be overestimated,” or even that Jewish leaders compared him with Moses, dying before he reached the Promised Land. But the depth of the public response is better suggested by the reaction of Meyer London, the Socialist Congressman from New York, who might have had some reservations about the President, but who saw in his death “a calamity.”
Quite aside from his failure as a president, our disdain for Harding rests in good part upon the fact that he stood for absolutely nothing. Millions of his contemporaries did not mind because to them he represented something. He and Coolidge were the last of the small-town presidents, giving the older small-town America its face and voice in the White House at a time when the country was visibly shifting to an urban and cosmopolitan basis, when the immigrant stocks were battering at the gates of the Wasp strongholds and the intellectuals were mounting their assault on Spoon River, Winesburg, and Zenith. As a politician, Harding was a nullity who enjoyed the political game, practiced party regularity, straddled issues wherever possible, and believed that American institutions came as close to perfection as the human race was likely to get. But as a man, he was handsome, benevolent, and devoid of all distracting pretensions to passion or distinction. He embodied to perfection the booster mentality familiar to a thousand towns like Marion, Ohio.
Harding not only looked like a proper president but to many people he sounded like one. Before he entered politics his chief experience was as a newspaper editor, and it must have been in this role that he developed his taste for hollow, resounding generalities. William Allen White once said of him that he had “the …