Change isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. That’s what most of us have come to realize in recent years, whether the change proposed came from Pres. Barack Obama or the Tea Party movement. Still, most haven’t quite reached the point where we oppose change and fight for stability.
Maybe we ought to: Maybe sometimes it is the time for no change. That, at least, was the position of Warren Harding. Warren who? On the presidential roster, Harding is POTUS 43. No, that doesn’t mean he’s replaced George W. Bush: Harding’s “43” is his aggregate rank among presidents. Since there’s a tie somewhere in there, this means Harding is the worst-ranked president in the history of our land.
Still, the most despised chief exec had something to say about the issue that’s preoccupying the country. Nowhere did Harding put the case against change, and the case for realism, better than in his inaugural address, delivered 90 years ago today.
When Harding sat down to plan that address, he was confronting a nation suffering the kind of uncertainty that is familiar to us today. After the war, unemployment hit 14 percent. Inflation raged. The economy contracted severely, and the stock market followed suit. Restless veterans and angry workers thought they might imitate the revolutions taking place overseas.
In his 1920 campaign, Harding ran as the anti-revolutionary: He sought “a return to normalcy.” His choice of Calvin Coolidge as his running mate underscored his commitment to that concept. Coolidge stood for caution and for drawing the line at extremism. It was Coolidge who had pulled a pre-PATCO and, Reaganesque, fired the Boston police force for leaving the city to looters when they went out on strike in 1919.
One of our problems today is that politicians are unwilling to concede certain truths about the economy. One is that housing prices may fall more. Another is that government intervention will inevitably force upon us a period of inflation. Yet another is that wages may not go as high as we like until the economy sorts itself out. Instead of skirting those issues, Harding spelled them all out, trusting voters to accept the truth.
While government would do all it could, there were imbalances it could not rectify, Harding allowed. “Perhaps,” he said, “we never shall know the old level of wages again.” To assume that life might be instantly reordered was also to overreach: “There is no instant step from disorder to order. We must face a condition of a grim reality, charge off our losses and start afresh.”
Next Harding turned to the topic of change. “Any wild experiment,” the new president said, “will only add to the confusion.” He went on: “Our supreme task is the resumption of our onward, normal way. Reconstruction, readjustment, restoration, all these must follow. I would like to hasten them.”
Harding went on to lay out what he thought normalcy should be like: “I speak for administrative efficiency, for lightened tax burdens, for sound commercial practices, for adequate credit facilities . . . for the omission of unnecessary interference of Government with business, for an end to Government’s experiment in business, and for more efficient business in Government administration.”
If Americans could accept all these realities, the new president argued, “We can reduce the abnormal expenditures, and we will. We can strike at war taxation, and we must.”