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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 85

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This is the grave of Warren Harding.

Warren Harding was an obscurity who stumbled his way into the Oval Office. Born in 1865 in Blooming Grove, Ohio to a middle class family, Harding went to a couple of small Ohio colleges and then became a newspaperman in Marion, Ohio. He was a Republican hack from the time he entered the political world in the mid-1880s, putting party over ideas every time. He won office to be a state senator in 1899. He had a strong skill of no one hating him very much and slowly rose in prominence within state by being able to talk to both sides of the factional divide that split the party in the state. Harding ran for the Senate in 1914 and won a fairly easy election in a good Republican year. In Washington, he was a meaningless junior senator. He really wanted to be president though. Again, he managed to rise because no one hated him. He was young and fashionable. With the U.S. coming out of World War I and Progressivism suddenly in decline, a genial country club Republican seemed appealing. Republicans were sick of strong presidents. They wanted someone who reminded them more of Benjamin Harrison than Theodore Roosevelt so that Congress could rule the roost. Warren Harding was perfect. Given that Democrats ran an equally obscure James Cox against him, welcome to the Oval Office President Harding. On the campaign, his pointless, meaningless word salad speeches inspired H.L. Mencken to write,

..it reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm … of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is balder and dash.

The Harding presidency was a complete disaster. He was stupid and disinterested. A few years ago, there was a sudden progressive reappraisal of Harding. This was based on a couple of things he said about civil rights, even though he didn’t really do anything about the issue. This also came on the back of the progressive Grant reassessment, taking him from shockingly underrated to absurdly overrated in the span of about 12 months. At least Grant actually did care, to some extent, about racial injustice, although he that is highly overrated, with him telling his Cabinet by the end of his second term that he wished the 15th Amendment had never happened and his refusal to send in the military to deal with continued white violence by his second term. Harding doesn’t have any of this.

In response to this ridiculous reassessment of Harding, the historian Kevin Kruse launched a pretty epic tweetstorm letting everyone know just how awful Harding was. I’m going to steal a bunch from this, plus using some other stuff. Like a certain president today, Harding’s response to the election was to disappear for a golf vacation. When he returned, he named one of the most hackish, awful Cabinets in American history. Andrew Mellon, the capitalist’s capitalist, was named Secretary of the Treasury. Will Hays was not corrupt as Postmaster General, but he left to issue the Hays Code on the motion picture industry, purifying the movies for the good people of the United States. Given that this cheap morality was combined with Harding sleeping with any woman who crossed his path, it summed up the moral hypocrisy at the heart of the Republican Party, then and now. Even worse was Senator Albert Fall at Interior, who used his position to engage in one of the biggest scandals of American history and Harry Daugherty at Attorney General. Daughtery’s qualifications consisted of him being friends with Harding. Which, to be fair, makes him more qualified than Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. But Daugherty then proceeded to basically run a criminal operation from his office. For the head of the Federal Reserve, Harding named a friend of his from Marion who had run a small town bank for a few months. The head of the Veterans’ Bureau was literally a guy Harding had met on vacation. There’s no real evidence that Harding himself was personally corrupt. He just didn’t care about what was happening in his own administration and saw politics as a way to reward buddies.

In case you weren’t clear yet on the parallels between Harding and Trump, this campaign image should make them clear.

Harding was completely unprepared for the presidency. He had no real knowledge about policy, domestic or foreign. And he didn’t really care either. He was disinterested and preferred playing golf and going on bike rides than governing. When a reporter asked him about some issues in Europe, Harding responded “I don’t know anything about this European stuff.” His secretary handled those matters. When talking about economic matters, he said, “I listen to one side and they seem right, and then, God!, I talk to the other side and they seem just as right! I know somewhere there is a book that would give me the truth, but hell! I couldn’t read the book.” Warren Harding, my friends. Even in the one speech he gave that supposedly talked about civil rights, he promoted eugenics. He didn’t care about racial injustice anymore than he did any other issue. What good that did come out of his administration came from Charles Evans Hughes in the State Department and Herbert Hoover at Commerce, the two decent Cabinet members that commanded respect throughout the government.

There’s long been rumors that Harding’s wife killed him because of all the affairs, including in a closet in the White House. That almost certainly didn’t happen. A bad heart combined with pneumonia took him out on August 2, 1923, at the age of 57. His wife died a year later.

It’s not as if Harding’s death didn’t upset some people. This is from the Eatonville (WA) Dispatch. I ran across this once while researching. The terrible writing and misspellings are in the original.

The death of President Harding is a personal loss. He loved people. That is why he was loved. Even with the reams of ‘copy’ that have been written on him, one realizes the barrenness of adjectives to describe this man.

A person will follow the even tenor of his way until confronted by an emergency. It is then that the test comes. Warren G. Harding’s elevation to the highest office in the gift of man brought out the where all could see the true character he possessed.

There was a beauty about his life which won every heart. In temperament, he was mild, conciliatory, and candid; and yet remarkable for an uncompromising firmness. His life was an open sesame to the hearts of others. He followed in the footsteps of his Master by letting the sunshine of human sympathy and happiness into the dark places of life.

It is impossible to think of him in death’s cold shroud of sororw and despair, but rather smiling on us from the sunset halo that marks God’s farewell to the day–smiling with all the well remembered grace of his manhood, love and devotion, and saying to us:

“The sunset speaks but feebly of the glories of another day. All is well.”

Sure, why not.

Warren Harding is buried at the Harding Tomb, Marion, Ohio.

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