Garfield, Harding, Arthur

The benefit of royalty is that they are as variable as the gene pool itself. One king has a long nose, like Louis 14th. Another has a pert, little snoze the turns up and makes him look boyish even when he is commanding executioners.

Occasionally, subjects of a kingdom get a rotten monarch who cannot leave well enough alone…and occasionally they get a bonnie prince and good king, who spends his time dallying with courtesans and leaves his countrymen in peace. Even a bad king like Charles I was better than a self-righteous hustler like Cromwell, who cut his head off. As long as Cromwell lived, England knew no peace; after he was gone, the whole country gratefully and eagerly brought back another Charles, dusted him off, and put him back on the throne.

Oliver Cromwell was more like a modern president; a leader by intention and design, rather than by dumb luck. This made him immeasurably less suited to lead, in our opinion, because he was full of foolish ideas and ruinous plans — like Woodrow Wilson or Franklin. But having no royalty, Americans have only their elected presidents to bow before. Too bad, they always seem to choose the wrong ones.

An honest and upright man has no place in national politics. A man with his wits about him is too modest for the role. He suffers greatness as a sort of hypocrisy. He has no better idea of how the nation should be led than anyone else — and he knows it. Dissembling wears him down until he is shouldered out of the way by bolder liars and abject stoneheads. The former will say whatever the voters want to hear — and then go on with disastrous projects. The latter have no plans or fixed ideas of any sort…they merely shake hands and blabber whatever cockamamie nonsense comes into their heads. The former never make good presidents. The latter often do.

Many of the best American presidents — such as Garfield, Harding, and Arthur — are rarely even mentioned. Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, on the other hand, are routinely described as national heroes. Nobody really knows which president was good for the nation and which was bad. We would have to know what would have happened if the man in the Oval Office had done something different. Would the nation be better off if Lincoln had not slaughtered so many southerners? Would world history have been worse if Wilson had not meddled in WWI? We can’t know the answers; we can only guess. But the historians who guess about such matters have a disturbing tilt — not towards mediocrity, but towards imbecility. Like crooked butchers, they advertise our biggest mutton-brains as prime beef — and push their thumbs down on the scales of history to give them extra weight. Those they select as “great” are merely those who have given them the most meat — those who have made the biggest public spectacles of themselves.

Most historians rate Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt as our greatest presidents. But every one of them might just as well be charged with dereliction, gross incompetence and treason. For every one of them at one time or another betrayed the constitution, got the country into a war that probably could have been avoided, and practically bankrupted the nation.

The presumption that underlies the popular opinion is that a president faces challenges. He is rated on how well he faces up to them. But the biggest challenge a president will face is no different from that faced by a Louis or a Charles — merely staying out of the way. People have their own challenges, their own plans, their own, private lives to lead. The last thing they need is a president who wants to improve the world. Every supposed improvement cost citizens dearly. If it is a bridge, it is they who must pay for it, whether it is needed or not. If it is a law forbidding this or regulating that…it is their activities that are proscribed. If it is a war, it is they who must die. Every step towards phony public do-goodism comes at the expense of genuine private improvements.

That is why a president who does nothing is a treasure. William Henry Harrison, for example, was a model national leader. Rare in a president, he did what he promised to do. He told voters that he would “under no circumstances” serve more than a single term. He made good on his promise in the most conclusive way. The poor man caught pneumonia giving his inaugural address. He was dead within 31 days of taking the oath of office.

James A. Garfield was another great. He took office in March of 1881. The man was a marvel who could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other — at the same time. He was shot in July and died three months later. “He didn’t have time to accomplish his plans,” say the standard histories. Thank God.

Millard Fillmore was one of America’s greatest presidents. He did little — other than trying to preserve peace in the period leading up to the War Between the States. Preserving peace was an achievement, but instead of giving the man credit, historians hold up the humbug, Abraham Lincoln, for praise. America has never suffered more harm than on Lincoln’s watch. Still, it is the Lincoln Memorial to which crowds of agitators and malcontents repair, not the Fillmore Memorial. As far as we know, no monument exists to Fillmore, who not only kept the peace, he also installed the first system of running water in the White House — giving the place its first bathtub. Fillmore was a modest man. Oxford University offered him an honorary degree. But Fillmore couldn’t read Latin. He refused the diploma, saying he didn’t want a degree he couldn’t read.

If Fillmore couldn’t read Latin, Andrew Johnson was lucky to be able to read at all. He never went to any kind of school; his wife taught him to read. He too is often held up as an example of a failed presidency. Instead, he seems to have made one of the best deals for the American people ever — buying Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. Who has added so much since? Who has actually made the nation richer, rather than poorer? Johnson did the nation a great service. Still, he gets little respect and practically no thanks.

But our favorite president is Warren Gamaliel Harding.

In his hit book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells how Harry Daugherty (a leader of the Republican party in Ohio) met Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1899 in the back garden of the Globe Hotel in Richwood, Ohio…both were having their shoes shined.

Daughterty blinked and thought he saw a man who could be president

Journalist Mark Sullivan described the moment:

“Harding was worth looking at. He was at the time about 35 years old. His head, features, shoulders and torso had a size that attracted attention, their proportions to each other made an effect, which in any male at any place would justify more than the term handsome. In later years, when he came to be known beyond his local world, the world ‘Roman’ was occasionally used in descriptions of him. As he stepped down from the stand, his legs bore out the striking and agreeable proportions of his body; and his lightness on his feet, his erectness, his easy bearing, added to the impression of physical grace and virility. His suppleness, combined with is bigness of frame, and his large, wide-set rather glowing eyes, his very black hair, and bronze complexion gave him some of the handsomeness of an Indian. His courtesy as he surrendered his seat to the other customer suggested genuine friendliness toward all mankind. His voice was noticeably resonant, masculine, and warm. His pleasure in the attentions of the bootblack’s whisk reflected a consciousness about clothes unusual in a small-town man. His manner as he bestowed a tip suggested generous good-nature, a wish to give pleasure, based on physical well-being and sincere kindliness of heart.”

Not only did Harding have the looks and the presence — he also had the bad-boy image. Gladwell writes, “Not especially intelligent. Liked to play poker and to drink…and most of all, chase women; his sexual appetites were the stuff of legend.”

As he rose from one office to the next he “never distinguished himself.” His speeches were vacuous. He had few ideas…and those that he had were probably bad ones. Still, when Daughtery arranged for Harding to speak to the 1916 Republican National Convention, he guessed what might happen.

“There is a man who looks like he should be president,” the onlookers would say. Later that day, in the smoke filled rooms of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, the power brokers realized they had a problem. Who could they find that none of them would object to? Well, there was Harding!

“Harding became President Harding,” writes Gladwell. “He served two years before dying unexpectedly of a stroke. He was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history.”

On the surface, he sounds like one of the best. We have never heard of anyone being arrested and charged under the “Harding Act.” We have never seen a building in Washington, or anywhere else, named The Harding Building. We know of no wars the man caused. We recall no government programs he set in motion.

As far as we know, the nation and everyone in it was no better off the day Warren Harding stepped into office than they were they day he was carried out of it.

Harding was a decent man of reasonable talents. He held poker games in the White House twice a week. And whenever he got a chance, he sneaked away to a burlesque show. These pastimes seemed enough for the man; they helped him bear up in his eminent role…and keep him from wanting to do anything. Another saving grace was that the president neither thought nor spoke clearly enough for anyone to figure out what he was talking about. He couldn’t rally the troops…and get them behind his ideas; he had none. And even if he tried, they wouldn’t understand him.

H.L. Mencken preserved a bit of what he called “Gamalielese,” just to hold it up to ridicule:

“I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved.”

The sentence is so idiotic and meaningless; it could have come from the mouth of our current president. But the crowds seemed to like the way he delivered it. He said it with such solid conviction, it “was like a blacksmith bringing down a hammer on an egg,” says Mencken.

Harding was so full of such thunderous twaddle that he stormed into office…and then drizzled away until he died. Bravo! Well done.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.