One spring afternoon, as I waited for my federal government class to begin, my professor produced a piece of paper from his bag, adjusted his glasses, and addressed the class by reading a newspaper column lamenting the death of an unnamed president. After he was done soliloquizing, he asked the class to guess which president was the subject of that heartfelt eulogy. Students quickly guessed Kennedy and Lincoln, prompting the professor to shake his head and ask the class to try again. Others proposed McKinley or Garfield, and the professor once again dismissed the guesses. Finally, he revealed the answer: the riveting column was written to mourn none other than Warren G. Harding.
Warren G. Harding scarcely comes to mind as a president whose death would evoke such moving prose. Indeed, today we largely remember him (assuming we remember him at all) for the scandals that marred his administration — we remember Teapot Dome and the corruption that plagued his presidency, the reputational damage exacerbated by his womanizing and his lack of direction. These controversies did not leak from the White House until after his fateful heart attack, but even then, he did not exactly impress the nation as an effective legislator. He was notoriously vague on issues at the center of political discourse in the early 1920s, equivocating on matters such as U.S. membership in the League of Nations, civil rights and labor relations. While he loosely implied support for various causes, he rarely thrust himself behind any political convictions, preferring arbitration and compromise to decisive leadership. To state it succinctly, Harding was a substandard head of government.
The American president, however, is not solely an administrator. When designing the office of the president, the founders vested the moral responsibilities of a head of state into the nation’s chief executive. Thus, the nation’s principal legislator was endowed with the moral responsibilities like those of a monarch. The result is paradoxical. The president provides solace and guidance in times of turbulence and thus attracts the admiration of the American people, while also attracting their ire when assuming his role as a politician. The figure designated as the ceremonial figurehead of the United States, i.e., the head of state, was also assigned a critical role in the policymaking process, entangling him in the unpleasantness of legislative bickering.
Some occupants of the presidency managed to advertise themselves as strong heads of state while focusing less so on their duller obligations as heads of government. Warren G. Harding was among those presidents. He amassed popularity by leading a symbolic “front porch campaign” in which he seldom embarked on campaign trips and oversaw a modest, low-key bid for the nation’s highest office. Beyond general fiscal conservatism, the Harding campaign did not emphasize concrete policy proposals in advocating for its candidate. Its principal promise to the American people was a “return to normalcy” in a world debilitated by World War I. On the road to the White House, a famous speech clearly outlined his objective:
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; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
His pledge to be an idle, disinterested president ironically kindled the electorate’s enthusiasm for his candidacy. The latter half of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was distinguished by unprecedented interventionism in both the foreign and domestic spheres of politics; while progressivism broadened the role of the federal government at home, the Wilson administration sought to secure U.S. leadership in the post-WWI international order. Harding’s election was effectively a referendum against President Wilson’s internationalist doctrine — his victory was clinched on a purely ideological basis. Wilson’s ambitious political paradigm was succeeded by a pronounced lack of ambition.
The timid newspaperman who entered the White House in 1921 was far from an adroit politician. His chief interest lay in the ceremonial aspect of the presidency, but the luster of his prize quickly dissipated. From afar, the office of the chief executive was an alluring mirage, a position characterized by illustrious speeches and grand ceremonies; from inside the Oval Office, immigration bills, colossal labor strikes, tariffs, a strained Treasury, and agitated, underpaid veterans led President Harding to the conclusion that he was “not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Two years into his first term, he collapsed of a (presumably stress-induced) heart attack while on a speaking tour.
Harding’s short tenure in the White House was not inconsequential. His administration passed a substantive tax reduction bill, spurred the growth of America’s highway system, established the Veterans’ Bureau, passed the first major social welfare program in American history and sponsored an anti-lynching bill (which sadly was a bold gesture at the time). However, a significant portion of his administration’s achievements can be attributed to the endeavors of Harding’s Cabinet instead of the president himself. Indeed, Harding approached political leadership with a “hands-off” attitude, relegating many duties to his Cabinet and only intervening wherever deemed necessary. This was a stark departure from Wilson, who was known to play an active, perhaps encroaching, role in the operations of the federal government.
Harding was detached to such a degree that he likely can’t even be implicated in many of the scandals that have come to define his presidency. It is not precisely known how many scandals he was aware of; at worst, he was involved in cover-ups, and historians don’t believe he financially benefited from his self-aggrandizing appointees. The nepotistic Harding once remarked that it was his mischievous friends, not his enemies, that kept him “walking the floors at night.”
Despite his inaction, Warren G. Harding was showered with accolades when news of his death spread the globe. His administration’s international disarmament initiatives, spearheaded by his secretary of state, cultivated his image as a peacemaker. He was a “president” in the literal sense of the word — he presided over his country and the shattered world of the 1920s, his political philosophy underlain by high-browed notions of non-interventionism and laissez-faire republicanism. The American people celebrated Harding precisely because his passivity embodied the stately dignity the president is meant to uphold. Of course, this was merely how his contemporaries perceived him; his posthumous image was soon tarnished by scandals and leaked letters from his numerous extramarital affairs. At the time of his death, however, the name Harding was exalted to the highest echelons of presidential greatness, with Attorney General Harry Daugherty remarking that his deceased boss was a “modern Abraham Lincoln whose name and fame will grow with time.”
Ironically, Lincoln possessed an unprecedented degree of presidential power during his tumultuous time in the White House. Lincoln’s paramount aim was the preservation of the Union, and he wrung every ounce of authority he possibly could from the Constitution to augment his abilities as head of government. Opponents derided him as a tyrant, and Lincoln retorted that the alternative was letting “the government itself go to pieces.”
Lincoln and Harding were both held in high esteem for commanding their administrations under radically different principles with Harding scarcely commanding at all and Lincoln resembling Louis XIV in essentially becoming the state. The president is inextricably linked to the American soul. He is emblematic of national character in a manner entirely unlike a prime minister. Abraham Lincoln was a character wholly resolved to the preservation of the Union, disapproving of the “peculiar institution” of slavery but regrettably open to its maintenance in the name of national unity, in-line with Northern perceptions; Warren Harding was elected by a war-weary people tired of the progressive political paradigm, and proceeded to be a relatively detached commander-in-chief. As H. L. Mencken wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun in the midst of the 1920 presidential election:
As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
That leads us to the question of the prophesized “downright moron” who some would say adorns the White House today. Fundamentally, the president is something of a human flag, hoisted by the people of the United States to serve as the nation’s chief diplomat. And while some liberals take solace in the knowledge that current President Donald Trump was elected by a minority of the population, as an apparent product of “economic anxiety,” the fact that he received a coalition of voters strong enough to propel him, a man undoubtedly devoid of moral integrity, to Washington is a rather damning indictment of the American soul.
Thus, I impel the voters of the United States to strongly consider the role the president plays in shaping the American image. A president is more than a politician — he is, as per the Constitution, our cardinal national ambassador. During the 2016 election, proponents of Donald Trump maintained that he was a hardened dealmaker capable of using his economic intuition and entrepreneurial ruthlessness to navigate the “swamp” of Washington and “shake up” the political establishment. They overlooked his callous comments and immoral character because of his bold campaign promises.
Setting Trump loose on Washington like a rabid dog has, predictably, wrought terrible consequences. In recklessly pursuing his legislative agenda, he has remarkably damaged our international reputation. Indeed, the ceremonial head of the United States has described the press as the “enemy of the people,” bragged about committing sexual assault, expressed open admiration for authoritarians, agitated xenophobic sentiment and is responsible for a slew of reprehensible actions that are far too numerous to list here.
Perhaps these traits are representative of the American soul. Perhaps the wickedness that has haunted America for centuries can be overcome by “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln articulated in his first inaugural address. Americans should vote with their conscience, as the presidency is meant to embody the American spirit as much as it is meant to head the government.
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