A brush fire has broken out on HNN over Warren Harding's reputation, David Beito celebrating Harding here, and Ralph Luker trashing him here. Ronald Reagan is in the news and we are talking about Warren Harding? Maybe Calvin Coolidge, whose picture Reagan hung prominently in the White House, but Harding, whom Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously described as a slob? Actually, there's a good reason to, as I'll get to in a moment.
Conservatives of various stripes have found Harding appealing for at least a decade or two, perhaps because Paul Johnson found him interesting and estimable in Modern Times. In the pages of TomPaine.com (yes, it's archaic to refer to the pages of a website, but so be it), our own William Thompson celebrated Harding's career in a lengthy piece I published a few years ago. Beito now ranks him a great or near-great president. (Harding's stock is going up. In February Beito had him only as above-average.)
I remember finding Johnson's praise of Harding a remarkable instance of historical revisionism. What Johnson forgot was that Harding himself concluded he was unfit for the presidency (according to William Allen White's account), and that the people who nominated him agreed.
My colleagues at HNN wonder what facts against Harding can be mustered. I have one, which sticks in the mind. He let the head of the Veterans Bureau escape to Europe after he learned of the man's flagrant thievery. (Eventually the official was caught and convicted.) Not since Grant had a president blinded himself to the corruption of his appointees. In the end of course he came round to the view that many were corrupt, noting that it was his friends he had to fear and not his enemies.
Have the historians who defend Harding ever listened to one of his speeches? You can, as the Library of Congress has made several available. They are much worse than the usual claptrap that passes for ordinary discourse at the national level. I used one of his lines as the title for a book. Harding, incensed at the debunkers of the 1920s, celebrated the founding fathers in a speech. Of Paul Revere, he wrote: "I love the story of Paul Revere, whether he rode or not." A great line, but not in the way Harding intended. It makes Harding sound like a hick who doesn't care about facts.
Which brings me back to Ronald Reagan. Harding was saying in this speech about the founding fathers that what matters aren't stupid facts but the story. Sound familiar? Historians naturally find this offensive as our job is to produce facts and to separate facts from fictions. The politician's job is often to create fictions, as Ronald Reagan did, sometimes to negative effect by playing off stereotypes (welfare queens) and at other times simply by exploiting peoples' natural desire to feel good (America is a chosen city on a hill).
If Harding had used his fictions to help Americans define themselves in a more democratic manner, as Lincoln did in propounding a national narrative out of the Declaration of Independence, I might be inclined to overlook his deficiencies. But it's plain that all he wanted to do was sentimentalize American history. That's a sin historians are well disposed to dismiss.