Revisionist historians put a premium on the presidential commitment to civil rights. So what does that mean for Warren G. Harding?
Last month CSPAN released a survey ranking all American presidents on their rights records. There are no big surprises, though Grant moved up the list and Andrew Johnson slipped based on their policies regarding slavery and Reconstruction. But one name oddly comes in dead last: Warren G. Harding.
Certainly there were scandals and crooked politicians in the Harding administration. His sordid personal life did not help his reputation but neither did his womanizing hurt the legacy of other presidents. H.L. Menken had a field day blasting Harding’s mangled speaking style which in hindsight makes the Bush lexicon look elegant.
But the succeses were many. The Harding administration slashed taxes, spurred unprecedented economic growth, and even managed to balance the budget. Unemployment dropped from 12% to 3%. And while not a fan of the League of Nations, Harding was no isolationist and his presidency backed international disarmament and a global court.
Perhaps motivated by questions over his own ethnicity, Harding spoke out against lynching and terminated Woodrow Wilson’s executive order enforcing de facto segregation in the federal government. In 1921 Harding gave a passionate speech in Birmingham calling for equal rights for all. Sure Harding was a cad who liked the ladies and closed his eyes to corruption inside his administration, but he could hardly be called a throwback to the pre-Civil War adminsitrations.
President Obama would do well to take a few pages out of Harding's playbook. In Tuesday's press conference, Obama noted that, while the economy has been his chief focus, civil rights and race remain issues. Certainly a conservative Republican is an unlikely model, but, if the economy and civil rights are the top issues for the new president, he could do no better than look at the example of our misbegotten 29th president.