At inaugurations history turns a page. Think of mobs overrunning the White House exuberantly honoring Andrew Jackson; of Franklin Roosevelt rallying Americans to fight “fear itself”; of celebrating our first black president.
And then there was 1921.
For twenty years, progressives had used government power to curb ills emerging from the rise of industrialism. From food and drug laws, to breaking up monopolies, strengthening government regulation of business, creating the Federal Reserve and women’s suffrage, they put government on the side of the people. Their foreign policy reflected America’s central role in the global economy.
By 1920 this was losing steam – largely because of disillusionment with American involvement in World War I and bitter struggle over membership in the new League of Nations.
Enter Republican Warren Harding, an amiable senator with a gift for capturing the public mood without actually saying much. Take this quote, for example, that begins, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration” and ends, “not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
What did it mean? No one knew – least of all Harding, who called it “bloviating”. One critic termed Harding’s speeches “an army of platitudes marching back and forth across the landscape in search of an idea.”
It didn’t matter. Seduced by Harding’s promise of “a return to normalcy”, Americans disoriented by decades of bewildering economic and social change swept conservatives into office, shelving progressive reform and international engagement in favor of unbridled self-interest.
The 20’s saw accelerating economic inequality, repressive restrictions on immigration, the rise of ultra-conservative groups like the KKK to unprecedented influence in national politics, and a retreat from world affairs.
A terrible judge of character, preoccupied with extra-marital affairs, Harding oversaw an exceptionally corrupt administration. “It’s good Warren’s a boy,” said his father, “because he can’t say ‘No’.” Before Watergate, Harding’s Teapot Dome affair set the standard for presidential scandals.
Harding died in office, his place taken by Calvin Coolidge. But the damage was done. Coolidge later said Harding’s election “with the aid of the dissatisfied” nearly wrecked the Republican party.
It almost wrecked more than that.