Worst president ever?

Our two most recent presidents both have been called “the worst president ever” by some of their critics. In doing so, these critics place partisanship well ahead of an understanding of American history. They should read up on the presidency of James Buchanan.

As much as I dislike Barack Obama, I’m not sure he’s even the worst president of my lifetime. You can make a good case that Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson were as bad or worse. And if you reach back to my parents’ lifetime, Woodrow Wilson would rate consideration.

When I first became interested in the presidents, it was Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, who bore the consensus title “worst president ever.” Harding committed the unpardonable sin of stalling the march of history. Liberal historians viewed the period of “normalcy” his 1920 victory ushered in as a wasteland between the golden Progressive Era and the magical New Deal.

Harding’s presidency was the most brief of the three presidencies during this period, but also the easiest target. Calvin Coolidge was beyond personal reproach. Herbert Hoover was a formidable figure with a progressive streak.

Harding seemed to embody the small town American values progressives despised. He was not a man of great distinction. And, most importantly, highly publicized scandals occurred on his watch. They provided a seemingly objective, non-ideological basis for trashing Harding.

Finally, Harding’s wife was believed to have destroyed virtually all of her husband’s papers. Without them, it was difficult for historians to question the conventional view of the Harding administration. Only after a large quantity of Harding papers was discovered did a more balanced version of his presidency — and the man — emerge. Robert K. Murray of Penn State led the way.

An easy (but I hope not too facile) way to think of Harding is as the John F. Kennedy of his time. The similarities are striking. Both were considered handsome (standards for politicians were lower in the early 20th century). Both gave off an aura of vigor, but actually had serious health problems. Both liked to play golf and apparently were pretty good at it. However, both downplayed their golf game because their predecessors had been criticized for excessive golfing.

Both had extra-marital affairs. Both died during their first term. Harding served for two and a half years; Kennedy for a little less than three.

Harding achieved at least as much as Kennedy did, and I would say he achieved more. What were the three accomplishments that highlighted President Kennedy’s time in office? Probably a tax cut, a nuclear test ban treaty, and a civil rights bill (written but not passed during his tenure).

Harding pushed through a significant tax cut which, I think, gave the economy a big boost and “lifted all boats.” When Harding took office, the economy was in bad shape due in part to displacements caused by World War I and the inability of President Wilson, by then seriously disabled, to help transition the economy to a peace time footing.

Harding succeeded in doing so. Before too long, the economy took off. Steve discussed the success of Harding’s economic policies here.

Like Kennedy, Harding could also claim credit for an arms treaty — the Washington Naval Treaty. It was more consequential, in my view, than Kennedy’s test ban treaty. Supposedly, it is still studied as a model disarmament treaty.

Harding was a breath of fresh air for the civil rights movement of his time. In Birmingham, Alabama, Harding gave a speech in which, as the New York Times reported, he “declared that the Negro is entitled to full economic and political rights as an American citizen.”

Belying his reputation as a politician who, using pompous rhetoric, told people what they wanted to hear, Harding said to his shocked white Alabama audience:

I can say to you people of the South, both white and black, that the time has passed when you are entitled to assume that the problem of races is peculiarly and particularly your problem. It is the problem of democracy everywhere, if we mean the things we say about democracy as the ideal political state. . . .

Whether you like it or not, our democracy is a lie unless you stand for. . .equality.

W.E.B. DuBois said of this speech that Harding made “a braver, clearer utterance than Theodore Roosevelt ever dared to make or than William Taft or William McKinley ever dreamed of.” There was no need to mention Woodrow Wilson, a frightful racist.

In his short time in office, Harding failed to live up to the promise of his Birmingham speech. He supported anti-lynching legislation — the immediate issue of the day — but backed off and moved to other matters once it became clear the Democrats would successfully filibuster it.

Here again, there’s a parallel with Kennedy. He was viewed as a disappointment to the civil rights community until, in his third year, he finally proposed a landmark civil rights act. That legislation was also filibustered, but it passed in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was president.

There are more parallels. Kennedy very much wanted to improve relations with Latin American. To this end, he initiated the Alliance for Progress.

Harding worked to improve Latin American relations. He recognized the government of Mexico, which Wilson stubbornly refused to do, and spoke out against what he viewed as Wilson’s overly aggressive practice of intervening in Latin America.

Harding took a negative view of Wilson’s invasion of Haiti. He took an even dimmer view of the writing of a Haitian constitution by Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and later the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket that Harding trounced in 1920).

Historians say that Harding laid the groundwork for the Good Neighbor Policy that, in a later incarnation, FDR developed.

Kennedy took a big interest in space exploration. Harding took a big interest in highway expansion, developing the merchant marine (here he was unsuccessful with Congress), and aviation. His administration developed air routes, airports, and inspection systems.

Some of Harding’s achievements have no parallel with Kennedy. He instituted the Bureau of the Budget under the extraordinary leadership of Charles Dawes. Almost immediately, it produced big savings.

Under Harding, Congress passed a hugely important immigration bill, one that reversed the liberal policy of the day and set a new course that endured more than 40 years. That legislation is hugely controversial, of course. Without debating its merits, I can safely say it was more consequential than any legislation passed while Kennedy was president.

It was also what Americans wanted.

Unlike Kennedy, Harding had famous scandals. Maybe one day I will write about them. For now, let me say (1) that they were overblown and (2) that there’s no good case that Harding either benefited financially or knew of the wrongdoing before it occurred.

Historian Rosemary Stevens has recently written a book that takes a fresh look at one of the scandals — the one involving the Veterans Administration. Apparently, she argues that Harding’s director of veterans affairs, Charles Forbes, was not guilty of stealing or fraud, as has always been thought. Along the way, according to her publisher, Stevens “illuminates President Harding’s efforts to bring business efficiency to government” and shows that he “doesn’t deserve the reputation he has carried for 100 years.”

Harding did err badly in making certain cabinet appointments. In one case, that of Henry Daugherty, the error is difficult to excuse.

However, Harding also made some brilliant appointments. I discussed his cabinet here.

Warren Harding is far from our worst president. I believe he should be ranked near John Kennedy.

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