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GRAYBOYES: Harding, Wilson and the Perils of Expertise

The fallibility of expertise is obvious when one considers that for nearly a century historians have considered Woodrow Wilson among the near-great presidents and Warren Harding among the worst. (Harding died 99 years ago this month, and Wilson six months later.)

In 1921, Harding gave the most courageous presidential civil rights speech ever. Speaking in Birmingham, Ala., Harding called for racial equality. White spectators stood in stunned silence while Black spectators cheered. Civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Dubois called the speech “a sudden thunder in blue skies” driving discussion “into the clear light of truth.”

In contrast, Wilson, Harding’s predecessor, helped poison race relations for a century. Even by 1910’s standards, Wilson’s racism was appalling. As president, he strived to undo whatever modest gains African-Americans had made since the Civil War.

Harding openly supported anti-lynching legislation — which Wilson opposed. Wilson’s acolytes whispered (falsely) that Harding had an African-American ancestor; Harding’s response amounted to “maybe so, and I don’t care.”

Wilson invited Hollywood pioneer D.W. Griffith to screen his technically pathbreaking but thematically toxic “Birth of a Nation” at the White House — the first film to be shown there. The film featured Wilson’s words: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” (Wilson later developed misgivings about the film, but his screening had already helped revive the Klan.)

Historians often favor leaders with expansive agendas during dramatic times over those with modest goals in calmer times.

Wilson led America into World War I, sired the Federal Reserve, and exerted an imperious (“Wilsonian”) foreign policy. Harding wasn’t a great president, but his America craved “normalcy” after the nightmare of World War I. Wilson expanded the federal government, while Harding focused on the less sexy goal of tidying it up. Today’s Office of Management and Budget and Government Accountability Office trace their origins to Harding. Harding’s appointees were often outstanding— Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

Wilson’s venality and Harding’s generous nature were not limited to race.

Wilson’s 1912 Socialist opponent, Eugene V. Debs, was imprisoned for urging resistance to World War I conscription. Wilson wrote, “This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.” From prison in 1920, Debs ran against Harding, who then commuted his sentence and invited him to the White House, saying, “I’ve heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally.”

Wilson ignored warnings that draconian punishment of Germany would elicit disaster. Fury over his Versailles Treaty was a catalyst for Germany’s monsters — anarchists, communists, proto-Nazis. Wilson excluded senators from negotiations over the League of Nations, and they rejected his brainchild. Harding involved senators deeply in negotiations over a postwar disarmament treaty and won unanimous Senate approval.

Harding signed the unfortunate 1921 Emergency Quota Act closing America’s doors to immigration. But the act passed nearly unanimously in both houses — more a product of Wilson-era xenophobia than of the newly inaugurated Harding.

Immensely popular while in office, Harding’s posthumous reputation suffered from his naïve trust of unworthy cronies. Interior Secretary Albert Fall was imprisoned for corruption. Harding’s corrupt attorney general, Harry Daugherty, was forced from office by Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s successor. But were Fall and Dougherty worse than Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, who whipped up the first big Red Scare, deported immigrants and launched raids of dubious constitutionality against Americans? Harding’s posthumous reputation also suffered from the (correct) rumor that he fathered an illegitimate child with a much-younger woman.

Harding was what Winston Churchill called Clement Attlee: “a modest man with much to be modest about.” Compare that to a story told by Sigmund Freud: an associate remarked to Wilson how proud he was to have contributed to the president’s election victory. Wilson’s icy response, Freud said, was: “Remember that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented this.”

Rest well, Mr. Harding.

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: Worst First Year as POTUS? It’s Not Joe Biden

No matter how you look at it, 2021 was a bumpy ride for President Joe Biden. Washington pundits are already declaring his agenda D.O.A., and at least one says Biden’s had the worst first year of any president. Ever.

In the current era of political hyperbole and 24/7 cable news commentary, such a claim is hardly a surprise. But from the standpoint of history, it has to be labeled #FakeNews.

Looking for a rough rookie presidential year? Try William Henry Harrison. He stood in bitingly cold weather without a coat or hat and delivered a two-hour inaugural address, the longest in history. It was hardly a surprise when the 68-year-old died of pneumonia 31 days later, the shortest presidency in history. (The evidence suggests a longer Harrison administration wouldn’t have been any prize.)

But Harrison’s short-lived presidency can be dismissed as an outlier. Not so with President Bill Clinton.

Widely viewed as a political wizard later in his career, Clinton’s first year in office was almost amateurish. His first two nominees for attorney general went down in flames over not paying their nanny’s Social Security tax. He ran afoul of the military’s big brass over whether openly gay Americans should be allowed to serve in the military, resulting in the embarrassingly convoluted — and highly ridiculed — “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Clinton announced early on he would raise taxes (always a crowd-pleaser in the polls), and he pushed his tax-hiking 1993 budget through the House with just a 218-216 margin. His Department of Justice’s calamitous raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, left 75 people dead.

Travelgate and Troopergate were born, and a controversial healthcare reform commission headed by first lady Hillary Clinton was launched with the same fanfare the Titanic received when it set sail… and ultimately suffered a similar end.

Now that’s a bad first year.

But most historians agree the president who suffered through the absolutely worst first year of all was Abraham Lincoln.

Elected with just 39.8 percent of the popular vote in an election where turnout topped 81 percent, seven states had left the Union to create their own country before he’d even taken office in March 1861. His early attempts to keep more states from seceding left him looking weak.

Lincoln’s presidency was born in war (the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter just before sunrise on April 12, 1861) and began with few successes. Union forces were soundly defeated at Manassas, Virginia and Wilson’s Creek, Missouri in the war’s first major battles.

Then there were the political gaffes and diplomatic stumbles. The secretary of war (forerunner of today’s secretary of defense) was openly corrupt. When a Union general freed slaves in Missouri without authorization from Washington, Lincoln quickly rescinded the order to avoid escalating tensions in the crucial border states. He lost much support among abolitionists for that.

His administration bungled badly by declaring a naval blockade of Southern seaports. Under international law, a nation can only declare a blockade against another nation. Britain seized on that to grant the South belligerent status, one step shy of full diplomatic recognition. (John F. Kennedy avoided repeating that blunder a century later when he announced a “naval quarantine” instead of a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

Worst of all, in late 1861 a U.S. warship stopped a British commercial steamer on the open sea. Two Confederate diplomats bound for England and France were seized at gunpoint and tossed into a Boston prison. Lincoln looked decisive to Northerners but infuriated Britain. Her majesty’s government demanded the emissaries be immediately freed—then sent 12,000 British soldiers to neighboring Nova Scotia as a reminder Washington was dealing with a global Superpower. Faced with the real prospect of wars on two fronts, Lincoln humiliatingly released the pair in December. Lincoln’s support nosedived.

Biden’s first year the worst ever? Not even close.

At the same time, it’s hardly been a resounding success, either. And as bad as it’s been, many political observers expect it to get worse: His party’s almost certain to lose control of at least one chamber of Congress, his vice president is pulling down his poll numbers and few D.C. insiders expect Biden to run again. Once it’s clear he’s a lame duck, his political influence will fall even farther.

So while Joe Biden didn’t have a great first year of his presidency, the irony is it may turn out to have been his best.

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