WARREN GAMALIEL HARDING
President of the United States; b. Corsica, Morrow Co., O., Nov. 2, 1865; Educ. student of Ohio Central Coll. (now defunct), Iberia, 1879-82; engaged in newspaper business at Marion, O., since 1884; pres. Harding Pub. Co., pubs. Star (daily); mem. Ohio Senate, 1900-4; It.-gov. of Ohio, 1904-6; Rep. nominee for gov. of Ohio, 1910 (defeated); mem. U. S. Senate, from Ohio, 1915-21; Baptist; President of the United States, 1921. . . .
EVERY time we elect a new President we learn what a various creature is the Typical American.
When Mr. Roosevelt was in the White House the Typical American was gay, robustious, full of the joy of living, an expansive spirit from the frontier, a picaresque twentieth century middle class Cavalier. He hit the line hard and did not flinch. And his laugh shook the skies.
Came Wilson. And the Typical American was troubled about his soul. Rooted firmly in the church-going past, he carried the banner of the Lord, Democracy, idealistic, bent on perfecting that old incorrigible Man, he cuts off the right hand that offends him and votes for prohibition and woman suffrage, a Round Head in a Ford.
Eight years and we have the perfectly typical American, Warren Gamaliel Harding of the modern type, the Square Head, typical of that America whose artistic taste is the movies, who reads and finds mental satisfaction in the vague inanities of the small town newspaper, who has faith in America, who is for liberty, virtue, happiness, prosperity, law and order and all the standard generalities and holds them a perfect creed; who distrusts anything new except mechanical inventions, the standardized product of the syndicate which supplies his nursing bottle, his school books, his information, his humor in a strip, his art on a screen, with a quantity production mind, cautious, uniformly hating divergence from uniformity, jailing it in troublous times, prosperous, who has his car and his bank account and can sell a bill of goods as well as the best of them.
People who insist upon having their politics logical demand to know the why of Harding. Why was a man of so undistinguished a record as he first chosen as a candidate for President and then elected President?
As a legislator he had left no mark on legislation. If he had retired from Congress at the end of his term his name would have existed only in the old Congressional directories, like that of a thousand others. As a public speaker he had said nothing that anybody could remember. He had passed through a Great War and left no mark on it. He had shared in a fierce debate upon the peace that followed the war but though you can recall small persons like McCumber and Kellogg and Moses and McCormick in that discussion you do not recall Harding. To be sure he made a speech in that debate which he himself says was a great speech but no newspaper thought fit to publish it because of its quality, or felt impelled to publish it in spite of its quality because it had been made by Harding.
He neither compelled attention by what he said nor by his personality. Why, then, without fireworks, without distinction of any sort, without catching the public eye, or especially deserving to catch it, was Warren Harding elected President of the United States?
One plausible reason why he was nominated was that given by Senator Brandegee at Chicago, where he had a great deal to do with the nomination. "There ain't any first raters this year. This ain't any 1880 or any 1904. We haven't any John Shermans or Theodore Roosevelts. We've got a lot of second raters and Warren Harding is the best of the second raters."
Once nominated as a Republican his election of course inevitably followed. But to accept Mr. Brandegee's plea in avoidance is to agree to the eternal poverty of American political life, for most our presidents have been precisely like Warren G. Harding, first-class second raters.
Mrs. Harding, a woman of sound sense and much energy, had an excellent instructive answer to the "why." The pictures of the house in Marion, the celebrated front porch, herself and her husband were taken to be exhibited by cinema all over the land. She said, "I want the people to see these pictures so that they will know we are just folks like themselves."
Warren Harding is "just folks." A witty woman said of him, alluding to the small town novel which was popular at the time of his inauguration, "Main Street has arrived in the White House."
The Average Man has risen up and by seven million majority elected an Average Man President. His defects were his virtues. He was chosen rather for what he wasn't than for what he was,--the inconspicuousness of his achievements. The "just folks" level of his mind, his small town man's caution, his sense of the security of the past, his average hopes and fears and practicality, his standardized Americanism which would enable a people who wanted for a season to do so to take themselves politically for granted.
The country was tired of the high thinking and rather plain spiritual living of Woodrow Wilson. It desired the man in the White House to cause it no more moral overstrain than does the man you meet in the Pullman smoking compartment or the man who writes the captions for the movies who employs a sort of Inaugural style, freed from the inhibitions of statesmanship. It was in a mood similar to that of Mr. Harding himself when after his election he took Senators Freylinghuysen, Hale, and Elkins with him on his trip to Texas. Senator Knox observing his choice is reported to have said, "I think he is taking those three along because he wanted complete mental relaxation." All his life Mr. Harding has shown a predilection for companions who give him complete mental relaxation, though duty compels him to associate with the Hughes and the Hoovers. The conflict between duty and complete mental relaxation establishes a strong bond of sympathy between him and the average American.
The "why" of Harding is the democratic passion for equality. We are standardized, turned out like Fords by the hundred million, and we cannot endure for long anyone who is not standardized. Such an one casts reflections upon us; why should we by our votes unnecessarily asperse ourselves? Occasionally we may indulge nationally, as men do individually, in the romantic belief that we are somebody else, that we are like Roosevelt or Wilson--and they become typical of what we would be--but always we come back to the knowledge that we are nationally like Harding, who is typical of what we are. "Just folks" Kuppenheimered, movieized, associated pressed folks.
Men debate whether or not Mr. Wilson was a great man and they will keep on doing so until the last of those passes away whose judgment of him is clouded by the sense of his personality. But men will never debate about the greatness of Mr. Harding himself. He is modest. He has only two vanities, his vanity about his personal appearance and his vanity about his literary style.
The inhibitions of a presidential candidate, bound to speak and say nothing, irked him.
"Of course I could make better speeches than these" he told a friend during the campaign, "but I have to be so careful."
In his inaugural address he let himself go, as much as it is possible for a man so cautious as he is to let himself go. It was a great speech, an inaugural to place alongside the inaugurals of Lincoln and Washington, written in his most capable English, Harding at his best. It is hard for a man to move Marion for years with big editorials, to receive the daily compliments of Dick Cressinger and Jim Prendergast, without becoming vain of the power of his pen. It is his chief vanity and it is one that it is hard for him who speaks or writes to escape. He has none of that egotism which makes a self-confident man think himself the favorite of fortune.
He said after his nomination at Chicago, "We drew to a pair of deuces and filled." He did not say it boastfully as a man who likes to draw to a pair of deuces and who always expects to fill. He said it with surprise and relief. He does not like to hold a pair of deuces and be forced to draw to them. He has not a large way of regarding losing and winning as all a part of the game. He hates to lose. He hated to lose even a friendly game of billiards in the Marion Club with his old friend Colonel Christian, father of his secretary, though the stake was only a cigar.
When he was urged to seek the Republican nomination for the Presidency he is reported to have said, "Why should I. My chances of winning are not good. If I let you use my name I shall probably in the end lose the nomination for the Senate. (His term was expiring.) If I don't run for the Presidency I can stay in the Senate all my life. I like the Senate. It is a very pleasant place."
The Senate is like Marion, Ohio, a very pleasant place, for a certain temperament. And Mr. Harding stayed in Marion all his life until force--a vis exterior; there is nothing inside Mr. Harding that urges him on and on--until force of circumstances, of politics, of other men's ambitions, took him out of Marion and set him down in Washington, in the Senate.
The process of uprooting him from the pleasant place of Marion is reported to have been thus described by his political transplanter, the present Attorney General, Mr. Daugherty: "When it came to running for the Senate I found him, sunning himself in Florida, like a turtle on a log and I had to push him into the water and make him swim."
And a similar thing happened when it came to running for the Presidency. It is a definite type of man who suns himself on a log, who is seduced by pleasant places like Marion, Ohio, whom the big town does not draw into its magnetic field, whose heart is not excited by the larger chances of life. Is he lazy? Is he lacking in imagination? Does he hate to lose? Does he want self-confidence? Is he over modest? Has he no love for life, life as a great adventure? Whatever he is, Mr. Harding is that kind of man, that kind of man to start out with.
But this is only the point of departure, that choice to remain in a pleasant place like Marion, not to risk what you have, your sure place in society as the son of one of the better families, the reasonable prospect that the growth of your small town will bring some accretion to your own fortunes, the decision not to hazard greatly in New York or Chicago or on the frontier. Life asks little of you in those pleasant places like Marion and in return for that little gives generously, especially if you are, to begin with, well placed, if you are ingratiatingly handsome, if your personality is agreeable--"The best fellow in the world to play poker with all Saturday night," as a Marionite feelingly described the President to me, and if you have a gift of words as handsome and abundant as your looks.
Mr. Harding is a handsome man, endowed with the gifts that reinforce the charm of his exterior, a fine voice, a winning smile, a fluency of which his inaugural is the best instance; an ample man, you might say. But he is too handsome, too endowed, for his own good, his own spiritual good. The slight stoop of his shoulders, the soft figure, the heaviness under the eyes betray in some measure perhaps the consequences of nature's excessive generosity. Given all these things you take, it may be, too much for granted. There is not much to stiffen the mental, moral, and physical fibers.
Given such good looks, such favor from nature, and an environment in which the struggle is not sharp and existence is a species of mildly purposeful flanerie. You lounge a bit stoop-shoulderedly forward to success. There is nothing hard about the President. I once described him in somewhat this fashion to a banker in New York who was interested in knowing what kind of a President we had.
"You agree," he said, "with a friend of Harding's who came in to see me a few days ago. This friend said to me 'Warren is the best fellow in the world. He has wonderful tact. He knows how to make men work with him and how to get the best out of them. He is politically adroit. He is conscientious. He has a keen sense of his responsibilities. He has unusual common sense.' And he named other similar virtues, 'Well,' I asked him, 'What is his defect?' 'Oh,' he replied, 'the only trouble with Warren is that he lacks mentality.'"
The story, like most stories, exaggerates. The President has the average man's virtues of common sense and conscientiousness with rather more than the average man's political skill and the average man's industry or lack of industry. His mentality is not lacking; it is undisciplined, especially in its higher ranges, by hard effort. There is a certain softness about him mentally. It is not an accident that his favorite companions are the least intellectual members of that house of average intelligence, the Senate. They remind him of the mental surroundings of Marion, the pleasant but unstimulating mental atmosphere of the Marion Club, with its successful small town business men, its local storekeepers, its banker whose mental horizon is bounded by Marion County, the value of whose farm lands for mortgages he knows to a penny, the lumber dealer whose eye rests on the forests of Kentucky and West Virginia.
The President has never felt the sharpening of competition. He was a local pundit because he was the editor. He was the editor because he owned the Republican paper of Marion. There was no effective rival. No strong intelligence challenged his and made him fight for his place. He never studied hard or thought deeply on public questions. A man who stays where he is put by birth tends to accept authority, and authority is strong in small places. The acceptance of authority implies few risks. It is like staying in Marion instead of going to New York or even Cleveland. It is easier, and often more profitable than studying hard or thinking deeply or inquiring too much.
And Mr. Harding's is a mind that bows to authority. What his party says is enough for Mr. Harding. His party is for protection and Mr. Harding is for protection; the arguments for protection may be readily assimilated from the editorials of one good big city newspaper and from a few campaign addresses. His party is for the remission of tolls on American shipping in the Panama Canal and Mr. Harding is for the remission of tolls. Mr. Root broke with his party on tolls and Mr. Harding is as much shocked at Mr. Root's deviation as the matrons of Marion would be over the public disregard of the Seventh Commandment by one of their number. His party became somehow for the payment of Colombia's Panama claims and Mr. Harding was for their payment.
A story tells just how Senator Kellogg went to the President to oppose the Colombia treaty. After hearing Mr. Kellogg Mr. Harding remarked, "Well, Frank, you have something on me. You've evidently read the treaty. I haven't."
A mind accepting authority favors certain general policies. It is not sufficiently inquiring to trouble itself with the details. Mr. Harding is for all sorts of things but is content to be merely for them. A curious illustration developed in Marion, during the visits of the best minds. He said to the newspaper men there one day, "I am for voluntary military training."
"What would you train, Mr. President," asked one of the journalists, "officers or men?"
The President hesitated. At last he said, "I haven't thought of that." "But," said one of his interlocutors, "the colleges are training a lot of officers now."
This brought no response.
Another who had experience in the Great War remarked, "In the last war we were lacking in trained non-coms; it would be a good idea to train a lot of them."
"Yes," rejoined Mr. Harding eagerly, "That would be a good idea."
A more inquiring mind would have gone further than to be "for voluntary military training." A quicker, less cautious, if no more thorough mind would have answered the first question, "What would you train, officers or men?" by answering instantly "Both."
In that colloquy you have revealed all the mental habits of Mr. Harding. He was asked once, after he had had several conferences with Senator McCumber, Senator Smoot, Representative Fordney, and others who would be responsible for financial legislation, "Have you worked out the larger details of your taxation policy?"
"Naturally not!" was his reply. That "naturally" sprang I suppose from his habit of believing that somewhere there is authority. Somewhere there would be authority to determine what the larger details of the party's financial policy should be.
Now, this authority is not going to be any one man or any two men. The President, his friends tell us, is jealous of any assumption of power by any of his advisers. He is unwilling to have the public think that any other than himself is President. A man as handsome as Harding, as vain of his literary style as he is, has an ego that is not capable of total self-effacement. He will bow to impersonal authority like that of the party, or invoke the anonymous governance of "best minds," calling rather often on God as a well established authority, but he will not let authority be personal and be called Daugherty, or Lodge or Knox or whomever you will.
The President's attitude is rather like that of the average man during the campaign. If you said to a voter on a Pullman, "Mr. Harding is a man of small public experience, not known by any large political accomplishment," he would always answer optimistically, "Well, they will see to it that he makes good." Asked who "They" were he was always vague and elusive, gods on the mountain perhaps. There is an American religion, the average man's faith: it is "Them." "They" are the fountain of authority.
As Mr. Harding knew little competition in Marion so he has known little competition in public life which in this country is not genuinely competitive. Mr. Lloyd George is at the head of the British government because he is the greatest master of the House of Commons in a generation and he is chosen by the men who know him for what he is, his fellow members of the House of Commons. An American President is selected by the newspapers, which know little about him, by the politicians, who do not want a master but a slave, by the delegates to a national convention, tired, with hotel bills mounting, ready to name anybody in order to go home. The presidency, the one great prize in American public life, is attained by no known rules and under conditions which have nothing in them to make a man work hard or think hard, especially one endowed with a handsome face and figure, an ingratiating personality, and a literary style.
The small town man, unimaginative and of restricted mental horizon does not think in terms of masses of mankind. Masses vaguely appall him. They exist in the big cities on which he turned his back in his unaudacious youth. His contacts are with individuals. His democracy consists in smiling upon the village painter and calling him "Harry," in always nodding to the village cobbler and calling him "Bill," in stopping on the street corner with a group, which has not been invited to join the village club, putting his hand on the shoulder of one of them and calling them "Fellows." Politics in the small town is limited to dealing with persons, to enlisting the support of men with a following at the polls.
Mr. Harding once drew this picture of his idea of politics. "If I had a policy to put over I should go about it this way," he said. "You all know the town meeting, if not by experience, by hearsay. Now if I had a program that I wanted to have adopted by a town meeting I should go to the three or four most influential men in my community. I should talk it out with them. I should make concessions to them until I had got them to agree with me. And then I should go into the town meeting feeling perfectly confident that my plan would go through. Well it's the same in the nation as in the town meeting, or in the whole world, if you will. I should always go first to the three or four leading men."
Mr. Harding thinks of politics in this personal way. He does not conceive of it as the force of ideas or the weight of morality moving the hearts of mankind. Mankind is only a word to him, one that he often uses,--or perhaps he prefers humanity, which has two more syllables--a large loose word that he employs to make his thought look bigger than it really is, something like the stage device for making an ordinary man seem ten feet tall.
Thus he will never try to move the mass of the people as his predecessors have. He will not "go to the country." He will not bring public opinion to bear as a disciplinary force in his household. He will treat the whole United States as if it were a Marion, consulting endless "best minds," composing differences, seeking unity, with the aid of his exceptional tact.
This attitude has its disadvantages. If you have a passion for ideas and an indifference for persons you can say "yes" or "no" easily; you may end by being dictatorial and arrogant, as Mr. Wilson was; but you will not be weak. If, on the contrary, you are indifferent to ideas and considerate of persons you find it hard to say "Decided" to any question. And somewhere there must be authority, the passing of the final judgment and the giving of orders.
But he compensates for his own defects. Almost as good as greatness is a knowledge of your own limitations; and Mr. Harding knows his thoroughly. Out of his modesty, his desire to reinforce himself, has proceeded the strongest cabinet that Washington has been in a generation. He likes to have decisions rest upon the broad base of more than one intelligence and he has surrounded himself for this purpose with able associates. His policies will lack imagination, which is not a composite product, but they will have practicality, which is the greatest common denomination of several minds; and he, moreover, is himself unimaginative and practical.
Whatever superstructure of world organization he takes part in, behind it will be the reality, a private understanding with the biggest man in sight; for this reason the fall of Lloyd George and the succession of a Labor government in England will disconcert him terribly. The democratic passion for equality, which dogs the tracks of the great, he mollifies by reminding the nation always that he is "just folks," by opening the White House lawn gates, by calling everyone by his first name. So constant is his aim to appease it that I wonder if he is not sometimes betrayed into addressing his Secretary of State as "Charley."
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