In Defense of President Warren Harding

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Memo: To
Reaganauts and Historians
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Rating American Presidents

All weekend
I’ve been watching journalists debating whether Ronald Reagan
was “one of the greatest” Presidents or just a “great” President,
with a few votes for him being just average. I’ve already voted
in this space for Reagan being the best president of the century,
for reasons I stated last week. What disturbs me is seeing the
reports that historians believe Warren G. Harding was a failed
president, one of the handful of truly “bad” Presidents. This
only goes to show that it really does take a long distance between
a presidency and an accurate assessment of a president’s worth,
in one direction or another. If it were not for Harding, we would
never have had a Reagan presidency. He was far, far more instrumental
in leading to Reagan’s election in 1980 than was Barry Goldwater,
whose chief contribution to America’s greatness was being so awful
an exponent of conservative principles that hardly anyone voted
for him in 1964, the year of his candidacy and the LBJ landslide.

What got
me going today is a piece in the Washington Post by Lewis
Gould, author of Grand
Old Party: A History of the Republicans
(Random House)
and professor emeritus of American history at the University of
Texas at Austin. Dr. Gould’s piece was not focused on Harding,
but he mentioned it in sufficiently disparaging terms that I immediately
e-mailed him to this effect:

Dear Professor

I read your
Sunday WashPost piece rating
Ronald Reagan
and respectfully disagree on your methodology,
especially as concerns Harding’s presidency.

In another
50 years, Harding will look much better than he does today. His
most sensational move was to name Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh
banker, Treasury Secretary, which is why the Twenties roared.
Mellon was the best Treasury Secretary after Alexander Hamilton.
Harding’s second great move (which preceded his Mellon pick) was
to name Calvin Coolidge his running mate. Coolidge is derided
because he didn’t advocate Big Government, but he was Reagan’s
hero. RR was in high school in the Coolidge years, when Coolidge
best expressed the ideas of low tax rates producing greater tax
revenues than high tax rates. It was Mellon who inspired the JFK
tax cuts of 1964 and the Reagan Revolution that followed. The
only reason Harding is reviled by today’s historians is that he
MUST be entombed along with Hoover (and Coolidge) in order to
elevate FDR.

You historians
use “Teapot Dome” of the Harding years – a rinky-dink scandal
by today’s standards – to demean Harding, who had nothing to
do with the scandal itself. It is the same twisted perspective
that leads you to run down the Grant administration. Grant had
nothing to do with the scandals in his administration and should
be given ten times the credit for getting the country back on
the gold standard after the turbulence of the Civil War greenback
era. Conservatives don’t realize they are being snookered by liberal

Roosevelt was not the greatest president of the 20th century because
after his 1932 election he made matters worse in domestic and
foreign policy. He took the country off the gold standard and
raised taxes on top of Hoover’s. He was re-elected in 1936 by
such a wide margin because the GOP/Landon were still trying to
defend Hoover – the worst president in U.S. history, with nothing
to his credit but the Great Depression and the World War that
followed. FDR gets plaudits for cleaning up the mess he helped
create. Reagan created no mess, but cleaned up the mess he inherited
from Nixon, Ford and Jimmy Carter. Nixon at least had China to
his credit, so he must rank above Hoover. Way above. As for Harding
and Coolidge, we should thank our lucky stars the voters of 1920
and 1924 put them in charge. Their stewardship was key to the
education of young Ronald Reagan, the best president of the 20th
century. By far.

15, 2004

Wanniski [send him mail]
runs the financial/political advisory service
(If you subscribe,
and check
in the referring website pull-down,
LRC gets 10%).

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