Saturday, June 13, 2020

Flashback, June 1920: Harding, Calling for ‘Normalcy,’ Nominated by GOP for Presidency

On the 10th ballot at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, with front-runners having pummeled each other silly and unbearable heat bearing down on the delegates, lovable lightweight Warren G. Harding emerged as the nominee 100 years ago this week. 

The victory climaxed a careful multi-month campaign that had achieved greater momentum four weeks earlier, when the U.S. Senator from Ohio called for a return to “normalcy” that would end progressive legislation domestically and intervention abroad.

For years, that reversion from government activism, along with a scandal-plagued administration, led largely liberal historians to place Harding among the lowest rung of Presidents. 

In the last two decades, vigorously contrarian (and often conservative) scholars, tapping papers long (and wrongly) believed destroyed by the President's widow, challenged that assessment. That may have raised Harding’s standing somewhat, but he is still unlikely to rank among good or even fair Presidents.

But Harding’s quest for the nomination is one area where the revisionists offer a more nuanced approach to our understanding of the forces that propelled him to the Presidency. In particular, a 2004 biography by John Dean of Watergate fame persuasively argued that, rather than being simply a favorite-son or dark-horse candidate who caught lightning in a bottle, Harding had shrewdly positioned himself as an acceptable second or third alternative to better-known candidates who could not secure the nomination.

For at least the last four decades, national conventions have been scripted down to the minute. It was a far cry from what held sway through much of the 19th and 20th centuries. (In 1924, the Democrats went to 103 ballots before staggering out of New York with a compromise candidate, John W. Davis--who still lost that fall overwhelmingly.)

In 1920, bitter internecine warfare engulfed the three GOP front-runners: Gen. Leonard Wood, Gov. Frank Lowden and Sen. Hiram Johnson. On the eve of the convention, a campaign finance scandal damaged Wood and Lowden. However, Johnson was unable to pick up their delegates, as he was blamed for pushing the Senate probe about his two opponents. 

That paved the way for the success of the strategy created by Harding’s campaign manager and friend, Harry Daugherty—i.e., secure commitments from delegates in the rival camps to back Harding if their own candidate couldn’t break a convention deadlock. 

Harding enjoyed several other advantages when he came to Chicago with his family, including a moderately conservative record that appealed to important businessmen who backed the party; an amiable personality that seldom if ever alienated anyone; a wife who played an unprecedented role behind the scenes and before the media; a wide-open field following the death of Theodore Roosevelt a year and a half before; and a handsome appearance that led more than one of his supporters to think that he “looked like a President.”

Daugherty secured the nomination for his Ohio buddy following sleepless, frantic deliberations the night before in a 13th-floor suite of the Blackstone Hotel—giving rise to the term “smoke-filled room” to suggest party bosses secretly selecting nominees without taking into account the wishes of primary voters. 

Dean disputes the efficacy of that meeting, noting that nothing had been decided in these freewheeling discussions that night and that the real coup was pulled off the next morning on the convention floor by Daugherty’s forces. But clearly, some crucial minds were changed by what went on in that suite.

The second person to whom Harding owed his victory was his wife, Florence Kling Harding, who had been instrumental in his success as a newspaper editor and politician. 

In the lead-up to the convention, the formidable “Duchess” had convinced her husband to stay the course after he had suffered two disastrous primary defeats. At the convention itself, as detailed by biographer Carl S. Anthony, she “openly engaged the male political reporters covering the deadlocked convention with remarks that, for all intents and purposes, served as the blueprint for candidates’ spouse convention speeches many generations in the future.”

But, as the ultimate prize appeared within her husband’s grasp, Mrs. Harding was not as happy as might be expected. “I can see but one word written over the head of my husband, if he is elected, and that word is ‘tragedy,’” she told reporters. 

What caused her concern? She was certainly familiar with her husband’s limited intelligence and his vulnerability to charlatans who took advantage of his too-trusting nature (both of which paved the way for the Teapot Dome scandal that undermined his reputation after his death). 

But some of the unease stemmed from her conversation with a Washington fortune-teller who predicted that her husband would make it to the Oval Office—then die there by “sudden, violent, peculiar death by poison”—which, in one sense, did happen three years later, when one of Warren’s doctors accidentally hastened his death by prescribing purgatives that aggravated his cardiac condition.

But that remained far in the distance in the fall of 1920, when Harding benefited from an electorate exhausted from World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s battle with the GOP-controlled Senate over the League of Nations, as well as a recession that began under the Democrat. 

Still, a major obstacle loomed. In order to clear the path to Harding’s victory in November, the Republican National Committee paid his longtime mistress, Carrie Phillips, to go on a long trip to Asia so she would be unavailable to reporters who might discover her relationship with the nominee, as well as her oft-voiced sympathy for Germany during the war. She continued to be paid a yearly stipend by the GOP to assure her silence until her death in 1960. 

(Due to litigation by Phillips' daughter and two of Harding's nephews, the President's erotic, pseudo-poetic correspondence with his paramour was not released by the Library of Congress until 2014.)

GOP leaders were unaware of yet another of Harding’s dangerous liaisons, this time with Nan Britton, two decades younger than Phillips and three decades younger than the nominee. By the time of the convention, she was eight months pregnant with his child—and, unlike Phillips, would continue her relationship with Harding when he reached the White House.  Her revelation of their relationship in a 1931 tell-all--long denied by Harding loyalists--was finally confirmed by DNA testing in 2015.

Dean, Amity Schlaes and Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh have argued in recent years that Harding is underrated as a President, pointing to moderate views on race and his successfully attempt to revive the economy. 

But their reassessment, while an important correction to the record, only carries so much weight, as Harding's racial views were squarely in mainstream Republican thought at the time and never really challenged his base; important sections of the economy—notably, agriculture—did not benefit from the boom of the Twenties; and the President remained, intellectually, a featherweight.

Moreover, for all his work in journalism, Harding continually offered up some of the most gaseous political rhetoric ever produced in the White House. With memorable invective, newspaper columnist and editor H.L. Mencken summed up Harding’s style as "Gamalielese" (a play on the President's middle name):

“He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. 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 sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

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