We Could Use a Man Like Warren Harding Again

August 12, 2009 | by | Topic: American History & PresidentsPrint Print

The popular 1970s television series “All in the Family” had a cute theme-song sung by Archie and Edith at the beginning of every episode. One lyric was: “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” Well, the show was great fun, but the liberals who created “All in the Family” got their history wrong. Herbert Hoover—who interfered with and ruined the American economy more than any president before him (a distinction he held for only a few years, since FDR soon surpassed Hoover’s folly)—was a presidential disaster.

What we could use today, instead of another Hoover or Roosevelt, is a president like Warren G. Harding (1865-1923). President Harding, who served as president from 1921 until his death in 1923, perennially finishes near the bottom of most historians’ ranking of presidents. According to conventional wisdom, Harding was a corrupt president, an amiable, poker-playing loafer with no notable achievements. That’s an odd characterization of a president whose death triggered the greatest outpouring of national grief since Lincoln’s assassination.

Let’s examine the corruption charge first:

Like several later presidents, Harding’s moral integrity was compromised by an extramarital affair. Unlike his adulterous successors, though, there is no evidence (merely salacious allegations) that he engaged in such behavior while president or that he was a serial adulterer.

But was President Harding a crook? The Harding administration has been permanently tainted by the Teapot Dome scandal. The corruption, though, was not Harding’s. The crooks were two members of his cabinet, Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall. Their insider-dealing violated their fiduciary responsibility to the American people and the trust of the president who had appointed them.

Harding didn’t make a penny from his lieutenants’ thievery, yet he has been condemned as corrupt. Contrast that with later presidents who are fondly remembered despite having knowingly, deliberately rescued congressional allies from IRS probes of tax cheating, or gave pardons in exchange for sizable donations to pet causes. These days, politicians go to Washington and quickly become multimillionaires. Warren Harding is held to a higher ethical standard than later politicians.

Allegation #2: Was the 29th president a lazy dolt? Deeply conscious of his duty to his country, President Harding worked long hours, striving valiantly to master and fulfill honorably his weighty presidential duties. Journalist William H. Crawford (a Democrat) shadowed Harding in 1923, and calculated his work-week to be 84 hours long. Harding literally worked himself to death early in his third year in office. Lazy? Not a chance.

Finally, and most importantly, to claim that Harding accomplished nothing as president requires almost a willful blindness to the historical record. It is necessary and expedient, though, for the left to perpetuate this myth.

Harding was the first president to champion civil rights for blacks. As a senator, he had voted for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1920, and as president, he publicly denounced lynching. That seems unremarkable today, but in 1921 it earned him the undying enmity of southern Democrats, the defenders of that era’s institutionalized racism. As further evidence of his humanity and broad-mindedness, Harding supported women’s right to vote, and as president he released the famous socialist antiwar activist and political prisoner, Eugene Debs—a magnanimous gesture, since Harding was diametrically opposed to Debs’ socialistic beliefs.

Harding’s handling of the Depression of 1920-21 is the primary reason why he is universally denigrated by devotees of Big Government. Upon taking office, Harding inherited an economy that was reeling from dislocations caused by World War I. In a few months, wholesale prices collapsed by more than 40 percent. Production plunged over 20 percent. Unemployment zoomed from under 3 percent to over 11 percent. 1920-21 saw the most rapid, severe economic downturn our country has ever experienced.

Harding’s response was to restrain government and let the free market make the necessary adjustments. He didn’t “do nothing,” as President Obama implied when touting his “stimulus” plan; rather, he cut federal spending in half between 1920 (Woodrow Wilson’s last year) and 1923. Prices were allowed to fall, supply and demand readjusted, and by 1922 the depression was over. During the next few years, unemployment dove while production soared 60 percent. Harding presided over one of the greatest economic success stories in American history.

Harding convincingly demonstrated that government intervention is NOT the solution to economic downturns. His policies were the polar opposite of FDR’s depression-lengthening interventionistic blunders. That is why those who perpetuate the myth of FDR as economic savior also strive to preserve the myth of Harding as failure.

If there is any justice, future historians will acknowledge Warren G. Harding as having arguably the best fiscal and economic record of all 20th century presidents. (Reagan accomplished much, but wasn’t able to curtail government spending.) Warren Harding wasn’t perfect, but at a time of severe economic crisis, his policies turned hardship into booming prosperity.

RIP, Mr. President. You helped your countrymen big-time when it counted most. Mister, we could use a man like Warren Harding again.

Mark W. Hendrickson

Mark W. Hendrickson

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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