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 Gould:
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 historians.
Franklin 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.
June 15, 2004