Tuesday, October 1, 2019

ecce homines, pars X

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1921-1933.

These three Republican presidents are generally considered the pygmies in between the giant Democratic figures of Wilson and Roosevelt. The authors of these volumes are out to convince you that their subjects are more interesting than that.

John W. Dean on Warren G. Harding is the man who brought down one president (Nixon), and he's here to rehabilitate another, whom he's fond of because they had the same home town. And he does it in a manner befitting a one-time Nixon flunky. It's a pity, because when it sticks to the facts, this is a useful and informative Harding biography, demonstrating that he had a political philosophy and sought to carry it out. Other books in this series have indulged in special pleading for their subjects, but none match the shifty exculpation here. Dean quotes caustic criticism of Harding's gaseous speeches, and then rebuts it by pointing out that Harding was popular with voters (at least in 1920; his party crashed in the mid-term elections), so presumably somebody must have liked what he said. Dean dismisses Nan Britton's account of her affair with Harding because he thinks she's a fabricator: unfortunately, DNA testing a few years after this book was written proved that her child was Harding's. He recounts the administration's scandals as if Harding bore no responsibility for what his subordinates did, a particularly Nixonian defense, and even seems to say that Denby stealing government money for the Teapot Dome oil was OK because he intended to pay it back, which sounds like something Oliver North would say. I was most astonished by Dean's claim that, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned Wilson about the League of Nations, Harding got the better of their exchanges (p. 47). I went and read the stenographic transcript, and that's not how it looks to me, or to any other commentator I've read.1 Dean does not reprint Wilson's own comment, which was that "Senator Harding had a disturbingly dull mind, and that it seemed impossible to get any explanation to lodge in it."2

David Greenberg on Calvin Coolidge is one I was looking forward to, because Greenberg is an academic historian who wrote a brilliant book called Nixon's Shadow, a history of his image and reputation in their disparate manifestations. Could he be so coruscating concerning Coolidge? He could. Greenberg conveys a clear and coherent canvas of Coolidge's character, showing the principles by which Coolidge was so retiring, and so eager to delegate responsibilities and then step back once he'd done so. We learned how Coolidge's plans worked and how, just as frequently, they didn't. As he was with Nixon, Greenberg is particularly interested in Coolidge's image. He has complete command of the paradoxes by which this dour puritan became the symbol of the United States in the wild and roaring 1920s. Coolidge was simultaneously deaf to the emerging notion that the president is the emotional leader of the nation, and yet keenly aware of the value of publicity and very capable at selling himself. In short, Greenberg concludes that Coolidge was a bridge between the 19th and 20th century conceptions of the presidency, and while not a great president, did not deserve the plummeting that his reputation fell into during the Depression. He was lax on regulating business, on principle, but controlling the overheated economy would have been beyond his ability to deal with.

William E. Leuchtenburg on Herbert Hoover faces the question facing several previous volumes in this series: how did such a brilliant man become such a terrible president? An academic historian like Greenberg, Leuchtenburg takes a similar approach of an analysis of personality, except that - apart from an observation that Hoover's severe personality was probably shaped by his Dickensian childhood - Leuchtenburg makes no attempt to analyze his subject's inner life. He even begins with an epigram, quoting one of Hoover's officials describing him as unknowable. All he has is what Hoover said and did. So when Hoover, helping stranded Americans and feeding starving Belgians in World War I, proclaims that his successes show the virtues of volunteerism from private enterprise, all Leuchtenburg can do is note that in fact these ventures relied mostly on government finance and governmental authority, and can't explain why Hoover thought otherwise. That's one thread explaining Hoover's failures in the Depression: that he couldn't grasp that the crisis was beyond private charities' ability to ameliorate, even when specifically told so. But another thread is found in Hoover's prickly personality, which made him numerous enemies. (When he was in the Cabinet, Harding admired him, but Coolidge, though finding him useful, scorned him.) What becomes clear is that Hoover was a brilliant administrator but a lousy leader, and since the presidency is leadership, leaving administration to subordinates, it didn't suit him. Yet Leuchtenburg has a very strange chapter on the early part of Hoover's presidency. The first half is about what a good president he was, and the second half is about what a bad president he was. The line used to divide these is tortured: in the first half, for instance, we learn of his three popular Supreme Court nominations, and only in the second half is it revealed that there was a fourth which was controversial and failed. Similarly, we learn that Hoover took many initiatives to ameliorate the Depression: they just weren't enough, and, like Coolidge, he was a complete failure at providing the emotional rallying that FDR would be so brilliant at.

1. The transcript ought to be online, but I haven't been able to find it there. It was a government document, and is reprinted in, among other places, v. 62 of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson.
2. This is quoted in many accounts, but I had a hard time locating the source. It's as reported by Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston, Eight Years with Wilson's Cabinet (1926), v. 2, p. 17.

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