In Defense of Harding

In Defense of Harding February 16, 2009

Since today is not President’s Day, I thought I would indulge in a little rant.

Presidential rankings tend to be rather biased. The problem isn’t so much political. A 1982 survey of historians, for example, found that conservatives and liberals were in complete agreement as to the best eight and worst six presidents (though the ordering in each case was slightly different). Rather, bias in presidential rankings is that such rankings tend to reward presidents who do a lot and expand the power of the presidency while punishing those who do not. A president who presides over peace and prosperity is liable to be forgotten, whereas those who faced great crisis, economic or military, tend to be ranked more highly. Indeed, since success in averting or defusing crises often makes them seem less severe in retrospect, this sort of ranking could be said to actually reward presidents for mishandling potential crises, or even creating them in the first place.

How else to explain the consistently low ranking (often in last place) of our 29th President, Warren G. Harding. Harding assumed office during what might well have been a major economic crisis. Unemployment had more than doubled, while GNP fell 24% from 1920 to 1921. Harding responded by cutting taxes, cutting spending, and refusing to having the federal government intervene in the economy, with the result that in six months the recession was over and the U.S. began a decade of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Harding’s civil rights record, while not perfect, was far superior to any president in the decades either preceding or following his term in office. He publicly advocated full legal equality for southern blacks (in Birmingham, Alabama, no less), and fought to get an anti-lynching bill enacted in Congress. Harding ended the civil liberties abuses perpetrated during the last years of the Wilson administration, and pardoned war protesters, including Eugene Debbs, who had been imprisoned for their opposition to World War I.

It’s true that various members of Harding’s administration were caught taking bribes exchange for giving preferential oil leases to certain companies. These days government officials can get bribed with sex and drugs in exchange for preferential oil leases and hardly anyone notices, but at the time this was a major scandal. Still, while things like Teapot dome are a black mark on Harding’s presidency, there is no evidence that he was personally involved in the scandals, and to put him last in presidential rankings, behind even figures like Hoover, Buchanan, and Jimmy Carter, seems a bit shortsighted. Barack Obama has recently had trouble with some of his cabinet nominees, and if he had made the mistake of appointing Rod Blagojevich to a cabinet post his problems might have been far worse, but I hardly think that would have put him in the running for the worst president ever. Corruption in one’s administration is certainly a bad thing, but compared to getting America involved in an ill-conceived war or perpetuating a decade long crippling economic depression (attributes shared by several higher ranked presidents), it hardly seems worth mentioning.

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