The American Pageant (12th Edition)

Chapter 33 – Page 753

Our Critique

753 “Yet the charming, smiling exterior [of President Warren Harding] concealed a weak, inept interior. With a mediocre mind, Harding quickly found himself beyond his depth in the presidency. ‘God! What a job!’ was his anguished cry on one occasion.”

Bailey accuses Harding of being “weak,” having a “mediocre mind,” and “beyond his depth in the presidency.” Bailey’s evidence throughout the chapter for this opinion is very thin, and in this paragraph he only presents as evidence Harding’s statement, “God! What a job!”—which is a comment likely made by every president, perhaps often, about his stressful office and its vast responsibilities.

First, on the charge that Harding was “weak,” Bailey notes later (on page 756) that Harding vetoed a very popular bill to give a bonus to war veterans, hardly a sign of weakness. Harding vetoed this bill because he believed that cutting the federal budget was critical to restoring prosperity to America. Thus, Harding slashed so many federal programs that he ultimately cut the entire federal budget in half from 1921 to 1923, the year he died in office. One might disagree with his budget cuts, but we can agree that no one who is “weak” stands up to so many special interest groups, some of which protested vigorously.

Second, Bailey claims Harding had “a mediocre mind.” Harding graduated from Ohio Central College and gave the commencement address. He also started a school newspaper, played in the band, and enjoyed debate and composition. After college, Harding bought a newspaper in Marion, Ohio, and ran it profitably for decades. Harding was not brilliant, but he was smart enough to be president. President Harry Truman, whom Bailey admires, never went to college and President Franklin Roosevelt was a “C” student in college. Yet Bailey never says they had “mediocre minds.” The issue is not so much intelligence, but effectiveness. Harding proved to be effective in restoring a high standard of living for tens of millions of Americans.

Third, Bailey says Harding “quickly found himself beyond his depth in the presidency.” As just noted, however, the federal budget was cut in half during his term. Furthermore, unemployment under President Harding (1921–1923) dropped from 11.7 percent to 2.4 percent—record numbers of Americans at last found jobs. He cut the spiraling national debt as well. Thus, Harding may have had the biggest economic turnaround in his presidency of any president who ever occupied the White House. The argument that he was “beyond his depth” is prejudice, not history.