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 harlot’s voice of the old-time political orator,” and if we listen closely enough we can still hear that preposterously rich and fatladen voice in the lines of his state papers. Long ago H. L. Mencken, in one of his funnier essays, saw that Harding’s main contribution to our politics was a political prose that constituted a perfect reductio ad absurdum of our public discourse. Sentimental, pompous, pseudo-philosophical, sometimes incoherent—the Theodore Dreiser of presidential rhetoricians—Harding concocted a kind of anti-style, hanging not merely on a sure-footed feeling for bad English but on a variety of rhetorical devices rarely found elsewhere. One of the most imposing of these was his frequent use of intransitive verbs with objects (as when he urged his countrymen “to prosper America first”) and of transitive verbs without objects (“Our people must give and take…I would like government to do all it can to mitigate”).
When he was keyed up for a major effort, Harding could spout alliterative bilge like a geyser. Connoisseurs of Americana are familiar with the memorable passage in which he coined the word for his era: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity,” and so on; but we are indebted to Mr. Sinclair for exhuming part of a speech before the Republican convention of 1912, touting Taft as a progressive: “Progression is not proclamation nor palaver. It is not pretense nor play on prejudice. It is not of personal pronouns, nor perennial pronouncement. It is not the perturbation of a people passion-wrought, nor a promise proposed. Progression is everlastingly lifting the standards that marked the end of the world’s march yesterday and planting them on new and advanced heights today.”
Andrew Sinclair, an English novelist and historian who has written a brilliant book on American Prohibition, has here given us not a “definitive” biography—he modestly defers to works in progress by no less than three authors, any one of which might qualify for that title—but an interpretive essay on Harding’s life, a trial balance based on access to Harding papers recently opened. Wisely or not, he has shown extraordinary reticence in making merely passing reference to the gossipy side of Harding’s life as a subject fit only for voyeurs, and has concentrated on an estimation of Harding as a political careerist and as a cultural figure. Harding, as a symbol of political folly, has sunk so low that the only interesting thing one can do with him is to raise him a notch, and this is what Sinclair has done. Inevitably, and perhaps quite rightly, he sees his man with a certain sympathy. (This was, after all, the President who pardoned Debs, of whom only he would have said: “Personally he is of a very clean and lovable character.”)
Sinclair’s main point is that Harding could not have been quite the helpless idiot we take him for, and I think he argues it with some success. It has often been assumed that Harding was managed by his wife, a formidable battle-axe out of the comic strips who did nothing to counter this impression. She was reported to have said to him on one occasion: “Well, Warren Harding, I have got you the Presidency; what are you going to do with it?” Sinclair has evidence that Harding’s independence of his wife was not confined to the arena of amour, and that he kept his own counsel. He suggests, among other things, that Harding often used his wife’s reputation for meanness as an excuse not to do things he had no intention of doing. He confronts the similar notion that Harding was run by his corrupt friend, Harry Daugherty, with evidence that Harding picked his own way through the mazes of American politics, using or disregarding Daugherty when it suited him. Harding’s statement of the strategy by which he played the dark horse role to take the Republican nomination in 1920 shows an eminently sound grasp of politics, and Mr. Sinclair reproduces most of a long, lucidly written, and even moving letter to Harding’s friend Malcolm Jennings, in which he candidly expounded his reactions to his office. “Responsibility,” he testified, “has a strange effect,” and he went on to say: “I do not believe that anyone could come to the Presidency without being imbued with the desire to serve above and beyond most selfish aims.”
Harding’s tragedy was that he had learned well the devices by which to arrive at power, but that he had not a clue as to what to do with it. What he lacked was neither good will nor a certain rudimentary political skill but, as he became pathetically aware, the qualities of intellect and temperament which might have given him the sense of direction that he suddenly found he needed. Woodrow Wilson hit upon the nub of his difficulty when he asked, after Harding’s election: “How can he lead when he does not know where he is going?” But the definitive comment on Harding as President was made by the man himself when he said in the Senate three years before his election, by way of disavowing his own ambitions: “I think too well of my country to wish one of such incapacity in so exalted a position.”
June 3, 1965