A second look at Harding

This simple truth struck me anew recently with the publication of a new book on Warren G. Harding, the man who succeed Woodrow Wilson at the end of the first World War and preceded Bill Clinton in his admiration of the ladies and inability to avoid scandal.

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When we think of Woodrow Wilson, we think of the League of Nations, the Fourteen Points and the war led by a Princeton intellectual to “make the world safe” for democracy, but Harding’s name conjures up images of Teapot Dome, corruption in high places and a president hailing (boringly) from Marion, Ohio, who is often dismissed as a presidential nonentity.

Many politicians today identify with a “Wilsonian” foreign policy; Princeton has named a school after him and many consider him one of the great presidents of the last century.

Wilson’s many admirers never mention the fact that he was a barely reconstructed racist so offended at the concept of having to use the same restrooms as blacks that once he got to the White House, he ordered government agencies to establish separate “but equal” restroom facilities for whites and blacks.

And few of his devotees mention the fact that as president during the Great War, the notoriously thin-skinned president championed laws that sent newspaper reporters, editors and anyone else who dared criticize his policies to prison.

The real Woodrow Wilson, it turns out, was a far less admirable character than the cardboard hero we learned about in school. In fact, in some ways the boring Midwesterner who succeeded him looks better than him when one compares what the two actually accomplished.

Harding famously said he wanted to restore “normalcy” to a nation on the verge of a breakdown at the end of the Great War and set about working to heal the wounds that divided the nation. During the war, Wilson attacked those he called “hyphenated Americans” as disloyal and set about systematically using his power as president to silence opposition to his policies.

Perhaps the most famous of Wilson’s domestic critics was Eugene Debs, who had run and was to run again for the presidency as a socialist. Debs opposed what author John Dos Passos always referred to as “Mr. Wilson’s War,” and said so. Never one to take criticism lightly, Wilson had Debs arrested, tried for sedition and shipped off to a federal prison for 10 years.

As he was leaving the White House, Wilson’s closest advisers, including Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who is not himself remembered as a great champion of civil liberties, urged the departing president to free Debs. Wilson scowled, grabbed the pardon and scrawled “denied” across it as one final mean-spirited act before turning things over to Harding, whom he dismissed as uncultured, uneducated and hardly fit to be in the same room with him.

As president, Harding unhesitatingly freed Debs and others unfairly persecuted by Wilson; his “normalcy” was, it seems, built on a respect for the Constitution, and while he craved the good opinion of others as much as any politician, he didn’t spend his time dreaming up ways to send his critics to prison.

Also differing from Wilson on questions involving race, the new president headed off to Birmingham, Ala., of all places, to tell a crowd in excess of 25,000 that America would never realize her full potential until blacks and whites could count on equal treatment under the law in a society in which men and women would be judged as individuals rather than on the color of their skin. The crowd that day was divided by a chain-link fence with whites on one side and blacks on the other. When Harding uttered these words, the 10,000 men and women on the “black side” of the fence cheered while the whites stood stonily silent staring at them and the president of whom they’d expected “better.”

That speech is forgotten today, though it would be nearly half a century before national politicians would speak as forthrightly and few would have the courage, even in the ’60s, to say what Harding said in Birmingham.

So things aren’t always as they appear. Historians have always loved Wilson, perhaps because they see him as one of their own: an author, an intellectual and a university president. Harding, on the other hand, was just a regular guy without pretension who tried to do the right thing; not the sort of guy admired by the academic and journalistic elitists who write histories.


Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.