by Patrick J. Buchanan – July 9, 1997
On this year’s centennial of the inauguration of William McKinley, Ohio University professor Alfred E. Eckes, a trade official under Ronald Reagan, addressed Ohio’s Historical Society. Subject: our 25th president, assassinated by an anarchist in Buffalo in 1901. McKinley’s was a truly extraordinary presidency.
A teenager at Antietam and Civil War veteran of four years fighting, McKinley took over a nation still wracked by the Panic of 1893. To restore prosperity, he raised tariffs, taxing imports rather than workers, and gave America an annual growth rate of 7 percent!
Unemployment in McKinley’s tenure fell from 14 percent to 4 percent.
Though he did his best to avoid war over Cuba, the blowing up of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 forced McKinley’s hand. Within four months, he defeated Spain and captured Cuba — annexing Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii and the Philippines. While making America a global power, McKinley ran a budget surplus and cut U.S. debt to $16 per capita. (Today, it is $20,000 per capita.) In 1900, he chose war hero Theodore Roosevelt as vice president and crushed William Jennings Bryan a second time.
In slashing the nation’s misery index (unemployment plus inflation), McKinley’s record, writes Eckes, is superior to any president this century, save one. FDR? Reagan? Nope. FDR ranks fourth, Reagan third. The president who was first at cutting the misery index is Warren G. Harding.
Which brings me to the subject of this column. Why is Harding so reviled? In a recent poll of historians by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Harding was accorded the honor of the most votes as a totally failed president.
But why? Though he served only as long as JFK, consider Harding’s achievements. In 1920, he destroyed the Democratic Party in the greatest popular landslide ever. With Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, he began slashing income tax rates from 65 percent to 25 percent, presiding over the best economic times of the century. In his first year, Harding held the most successful disarmament conclave ever — the Washington Naval Conference, where the United States convinced Japan to maintain a fleet of virtually no ships.
Harding and his secretary of state effectively ruptured an Anglo-Japanese alliance many Americans feared could leave us fighting both Japan and Great Britain in the Far East. “We have traded whiskey for milk!” an enraged Japanese diplomat said of Harding’s triumph.
His achievements endured. Under Harding’s tax cuts and Fordney-McCumber tariff, Cal Coolidge racked up growth rates of 7 percent a year. The Roaring Twenties were America’s best times until the ’50s. Yet Warren Harding is disparaged, while Woodrow Wilson is hailed as a “near great” president, alongside Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
But consider Harding’s predecessor. In 1913, Wilson gave us our first peacetime income tax. When World War I erupted in 1914, he pledged to be neutral in thought, word and deed but tilted to Britain and war when Americans wanted to stay out. Lacking the courage to keep all armed merchant ships out of U.S. harbors and to tell Americans not to travel on belligerents’ vessels since Britain and Germany were blockading each other, Wilson bears responsibility for the American deaths that resulted.
Re-elected narrowly on the slogan “He kept us out of war!” a month after inauguration, he got a declaration of war. After Germany accepted an armistice based on his Fourteen Points, Wilson went to Paris to watch his allies, Britain’s Lloyd George and France’s Georges Clemenceau, dishonor his pledges, divide and dismember a newly democratic Germany, impose a brutal peace and prepare the ground for Hitler and World War II.
A failure at Paris, Wilson tried to ram the vindictive treaty through Congress. With modest compromises that leaders of his own party urged, he would have had his League of Nations. Instead, he ordered his party to vote down any treaty containing reservations proposed by Republicans.
Wilson gave us the income tax, inflation, war, a $25 billion debt, a disillusioned nation and a repudiated Democratic Party that would not recover for a decade. Felled by a stroke in 1919, he spent his last year in office an angry, bitter, spiteful recluse issuing orders through his wife.
At death, the popular Harding was smeared as venal and dissolute — allegedly trysting with groupie Nan Britten in White House closets — and, perhaps, a victim of murder. Historian Robert Ferrell, in his new book, “The Strange Deaths of President Harding,” demolishes these malevolent myths.
Why do scholars, who despise the successful Harding, canonize the failed Wilson? Because Woodrow Wilson believed in big government, globalism and world government. To liberal historians, that covers a multitude of sins and is enough to get you in the pantheon.
cc: Bill Clinton