How the Promise of Normalcy Won the 1920 ElectionHistorians in the News
tags: elections, presidential history, Warren G. Harding
Here in stately, spacious Kalorama, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood less familiar and storied than nearby Georgetown, politics makes strange neighbors. Over on Tracy Place, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump occupy a large, charmless house whose chief selling point, one suspects, was its fuck-you proximity to the post-Presidential residence of Barack and Michelle Obama, several houses away, on Belmont Road.
A short walk from either takes you to 2340 S Street, into which Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson moved after leaving the White House, in March, 1921. Wilson’s successor, Ohio’s Senator Warren G. Harding, and his wife, Florence, were packing up their house a few blocks away, at 2314 Wyoming. Harding was a serious poker player, and today his old house is occupied by the Ambassador of gambling-friendly Monaco. The Wilson House, a small museum that is Kalorama’s chief tourist attraction, has been closed during the covid-19 pandemic. With awareness of Wilson’s racism cancelling his once-good name, someone has placed a Black Lives Matter sign, looking hasty and apologetic, against a small pane of glass near the front door.
The last four of Wilson’s eight years in the White House were an epic drama. Reëlected in 1916 on an implied promise of nonintervention (“He kept us out of war”), he soon became the Commander-in-Chief of an American military victory and, on the streets of Europe, the rhapsodically received oracle of a permanent peace that would be sustained by a League of Nations. Crushed by his own country’s resistance to this vision, he suffered a stroke in 1919 after barnstorming the U.S. in support of the League. The following year, he was too infirm to fulfill his hopes of bucking the two-term tradition and running for a third.
When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to “normalcy.” Early in 2020, the term remained useful to supporters of Joe Biden, with its suggestion of Presidential behavior once more within the pale. The word’s nostalgic tenor soon enough made it anathema to left-wing Democrats, and the cyclonic circumstances of the past six months may have made it feel obsolete to Biden himself, but it is still what he is talking about when he calls for removing Donald Trump: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our national character?” In terms of the Presidential decency on which so much depends, there is nowhere to go but backward.
Harding received the Republican nomination on June 12th, in a hellishly hot Chicago. His tenth-ballot victory came after the famous deadlock-dissolving conversations in a “smoke-filled room” at the Blackstone Hotel. His image seemed to materialize as a kind of anti-Wilson: a non-cerebral, non-visionary backslapper, less interested in remaking the world than in making sure that Main Street looked spruce. His instinctive centrism led the Republican overlords to believe that Harding might finally reunite the “regulars” who had stuck with Taft in 1912 and the progressives who’d bolted away on Theodore Roosevelt’s bull moose. When it came to the Party’s current fissures, Harding appeared likely to please the dwindling faction that remained open to participation in Wilson’s League, as well as the Senate’s Reservationists and Irreconcilables, who opposed it with varying degrees of implacability.
As the campaign took shape, Harding, whose success in politics had been only intermittent before he was elected to the Senate, in 1914, was aided by his pacific, Rotarian temperament; by an ambitious and mystical spouse; and by his sensual handsomeness—Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy, believed that he resembled “a decaying Roman emperor.” During the Convention, Harding had found time to dally, twice, with his mistress, Nan Britton, who’d given birth to their child a year earlier. In most respects besides the extramarital, he was the opposite of the man the Republicans have now, a century later, nominated for a second time. Far from bellowing that he alone could fix things, Harding accepted his nomination by saying, “No man is big enough to run this great republic.” He promised to be directed by his party, not by any sense of personal gifts or destiny. If Trump is the most cultish figure ever to achieve his party’s nomination for President, Harding may have been the least.
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