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Warren Harding

Happy President's Day, Mr. Harding

Today is Presidents Day, a holiday I must confess to having some problems with. There is no better illustration of the ineptness of government. We used to have Washington's birthday and Lincoln's birthday in February. Then the federal government made Martin Luther Kings birthday a holiday, which left us with too many holidays. One of them had to go. Instead of making the hard choice between Lincoln and Washington, their days were merged together into a generic holiday for Presidents, as if they were all equally worthy  of remembrance.

But I'm looking at the glass half empty. Instead of thinking of it as a generic holiday, I'll look at it as a holiday for everyone to honor the President of their choice. In my case (as it has been in the past) I will honor the underrated and unfairly maligned Warren G. Harding. 

Sunday the Washington Post ran this piece:

How austerity cured a depression

about how Warren Harding fixed the little known depression of 1920 through basically doing nothing. This wasn't really news to me. Harding's handling of the depression has been chronicled before by conservative historians Paul Johnson and Tom Woods, and later by Glenn Beck. The real news was that this article ran in the Washington Post.

To learn more about Harding (and not just the boilerplate scandal stuff) I strongly recommend John Dean's Warren Harding.

While this book acknowledges Harding's flaws as a man and a president, it also dispels some of the more odious misconceptions about him. Dean handily debunks the notion that Harding committed suicide and that he had an illegitimate daughter. His account of Harding's run for the Republican presidential nomination   is in strong contrast to the common opinion that he was a puppet chosen by machine politicians. Instead, Dean depicts him as a shrewd politician who let his opponents snipe at each other until he was the last man standing.

Dean also sheds light on why Harding has ended up with such a bad historical representation. A lot of it has to do with the circumstances at the time the history was being written. He had the misfortune to have died, and thus not been able to defend himself, at the time of the teapot dome scandal. Also, his wife, for some reason, told historians that she had burned his papers and letters, so they had to do a piecemeal job with what they had, much of which was unfavorable. It turned out later the papers were intact.

Finally, Harding had the enormous misfortune to be an easy target for H.L. Mencken, probably the most enduring and widely read journalist of the 20th century. I can forgive Mencken for losing his temper at Harding's verbal ineptitude. Mencken was a literate,eloquent man in love with the English language, and even Harding's strongest defenders must admit he was not always kind to it.  Although Dean doesn't explicitly point this out, it's easy to conclude that this love of language led Mencken to give too much weight to Harding's clumsy speechifying (a word Mencken probably wouldn't like). The result was a harsher treatment of Harding that was fair.

I recommend Dean's book strongly. He depicts Harding warts and all. Too many historians depict only the warts. 

Even if you don't have the inclination to acquire and read Dean's book, the linked article is a good start to learn more about Harding. He had more depth and competence than is widely believed.