Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Finding the Praiseworthy in Warren Harding

In last Saturday's print edition of the Washington Post, an op-ed column by conservative commentator Michael Gerson offered a critique of President Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention.

One paragraph, in particular, caught my eye:

Washington Post, print edition, September 12, 2012
Obama made almost no mention of the continuing jobs crisis. He offered nothing new or creative on a fiscal and debt crisis that undermines economic confidence. Much of Obama’s agenda — lowering tuition costs, recruiting math and science teachers, “long-lasting batteries” — sounded like a seventh-year State of the Union address, a collection of policy leavings and leftovers. One of Obama’s more ardent defenders called this a “return to normalcy after a long period of emergency.” And so Obama has gone in four years from being compared to Abraham Lincoln to carrying forward the legacy of Warren Harding.
It was the dig at President Harding that ruffled my feathers a bit, because I have over the last few months become familiar with the work of historians and economists who have been trying to rehabilitate Harding's reputation.

I specifically remembered an article from The Freeman by Burton W. Folsom with the title, "The Strange Presidency of Warren G. Harding," which begins:
Who is the worst president in U.S. history? The answer is Warren G. Harding if you believe most presidential polls. For example, in the prestigious Arthur Schlesinger poll, conducted in 1948, 1962, and 1996, the participating historians ranked Harding each time as the worst U.S. president ever.

Should we trust the judgment of these historians? No, we should not. Actually, Harding was often a successful president, and his actions helped trigger a decade of prosperity for America.
I also recalled seeing an opinion column by Amity Schlaes (which I can't seem to dig up today), similar to one she co-wrote with Ryan Cole for National Review called "Reassessing Warren G. Harding."

With a few statistics in mind, I left the newspaper lying on the floor and rushed to my keyboard to write a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which the editors accepted and published on line earlier this evening, intended for tomorrow's print editions.

The Post headlined the letter "Mr. Obama could do worse than follow Warren Harding’s lead" and it reads in part:
Harding was elected during the “panic” (depression) of 1920, when unemployment grew from 4 percent to 11.7 percent, the gross domestic product fell by 24 percent, and the production of goods and services dropped by 21 percent...

Under Harding’s leadership, federal spending was cut in half by 1922 and, unlike Herbert Hoover and Barack Obama, he did not seek nor implement a stimulus policy. With these policies in place, the post-World War I depression ended by the summer of 1921. The unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent in 1922 and then to an astonishing 2.4 percent in 1923...
Consider this as a small contribution to the effort to renew interest in the presidents of the 1920s, including my previous column on Calvin Coolidge.

Update:  The Post published a letter in response to mine under the headline, "Giving Warren Harding undue credit." It was written by Richard S. Smith of Triangle, Virginia, who is otherwise unidentified, although a little digging came up with FEC documents showing that someone with that name in that town gave $2,500 to the Democratic National Committee in 2010.  The response was published on September 18, 2012.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Roaring Twenties. According to Wikipedia, the twenties were 'a period of sustained economic prosperity', there was 'unprecedented industrial growth'.

Warren Gamaliel Harding was President from 1921-1923, Calvin Coolidge was in between 1923-1929. Also from Wikipedia, 'The nation's unemployment rate dropped by half during Harding's administration'. Harding has been described as the worst President America ever had. Coolidge's economic policy has also been criticized. Economic success is one of the key concerns of voters, so who's complaining? Harding cut government spending in half, Coolidge kept cutting. The voters seemed happy, it was the roaring twenties.

Problems due to conflicts of interest that economically conservative politicians face include: Disgruntled government employees fearing losing their jobs who might forward more than the usual amount of reports of problems with the economically conservative administration. Poorly investigated reports of problems from those who are pro-spending. Disgruntled campaign contributors, special interest groups, government employees and other politicians can all be a source of problems. Outright corruption, and more than the normal amount of assistance with those who support attack ad like strategies.
One of the more interesting discrepancies that can be witnessed is the number of people repeating statement along the lines of Harding being 'indecisive' and 'ineffectual'. He ran on a fiscally conservative platform and got the job done.
So was Harding the worst President America ever had? Or the best? HE STARTED THE ROARING TWENTIES!
As a separate issue, I'm not at all convinced that Tanya Harding was even guilty, for reasons that are difficult to prove in court.

Warren Clayton Harding