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.”
Harding was right. The decade began with a recession. But soon enough, and while Harding was still living, those other things he predicted did follow. After Harding’s Teapot Dome Scandal in 1923, and his death that summer, the new president, Coolidge, sought to clear his own administration of scandal. But Coolidge was careful not to abandon Harding’s theme of normalcy. Normalcy for both presidents meant keeping government out of the way, reducing what the scholar Robert Higgs today calls “regime uncertainty.” Harding and Coolidge after him honored Harding’s inaugural-speech promise to drop the nation’s high tax rates. Harding promised to create a Bureau of the Budget, and did. New presidential authority from the law he signed in 1921 aided both him and his successors in their effort to trim spending.
Normalcy gave the United States a Wunder-decade of strong growth, low unemployment, and little inflation. Americans got cars and electricity for the first time. They got healthier. The federal budget moved into surplus and stayed there. The 1920s also saw strong productivity gains, so strong that Americans began to accomplish in five days what they used to in six.
Why haven’t we heard more about the 1920s, and Harding’s role? In part because Harding died midterm, and because some in his cabinet were indeed corrupt. Nonetheless there is little evidence that Harding himself broke the law; rather he was guilty of naïvété. As Harding once said, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights.”
The other reason we don’t know about Harding is that many observers couldn’t stand the possibility of the success of such a humdrum philosophy as “normalcy.” Normalcy after all precluded progressivism, which is all about change; it also somehow threatened intellectuals, who thought that they, and not everyman, must set the nation’s political direction. So they sought to drown Harding out with strong criticism. The attacks started with H. L. Mencken, hardly a progressive, but still eager to present Harding as an ignoramus. Harding’s writing, Mencken claimed, was “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.” Coolidge scarcely fared better. He was trashed throughout his presidency for a policy of inaction that critics chose to deem laziness.
A good way to make up one’s own mind is to bypass such self-important intermediaries and head to the speech. Many of its lines are eerily timely. “Discouraging indebtedness confronts us,” said Harding. “No civilization can survive repudiation.” There is no need to clear out a space on Mount Rushmore for Warren Harding. But it’s time to realize the man may deserve a higher rank in the presidential roster. That, and our own return to normalcy, are the kind of changes worth making.
— Ryan Cole served as speechwriter in the administration of George W. Bush. Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge.