For President’s Day, a warm-up: Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding

Presidents Day, February 21, is just two weeks away.  To get in the mood, here’s a favorite photo of a strange pair:  Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding, crammed awkwardly into the back seat of a car for the ride from White House to Capitol Hill for Harding’s inauguration, March 3, 1921. 

What could these two possibly talk about?  Wilson the two-term progressive Democrat and Harding the “return to normalcy” Republican?  Wilson had little patience left at this point.  He had suffered a stroke (thrombosis) in late 1920, leaving him crippled and isolated during the last months of his Presidency as the US Senate defeated the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I and Wilson’s own treasured, signature achievement, the League of Nations.  Bitter and distrustful, Wilson now walked with a cane; aides had to lift him physically to put him in the limousine that morning.  

Harding, for his part, had won a landslide election victory in November 1920, but he still felt nervous around Wilson.  So he started talking … about animals.  He mentioned his fondness for elephants, based on his sister’s having lived in Siam as a missionary, where she owned one as a pet.  Harding said he always wanted to own one himself.  Wilson shot back, “I hope it won’t turn out to be a white elephant.”

When they reached the Capitol Building, aides lifted Wilson from the car, placed him in a wheelchair, then pushed him to a freight elevator that carried him to the foyer where Senators had gathered.  Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Ma), the Foreign Relations chairman who had led the fight against Wilson’s League of Nations, was one of the first to greet him.  “Well, the Senate threw me down before, and I don’t want to fall down myself now,” Wilson said, apparently meaning it as a joke.

Wilson signed a few final papers, then he told Harding he was fatigued.  A few minutes later, when time came for Harding to step into the sunlight and take the oath of office, Woodrow Wilson did not join him.  Instead, he left quietly through a side door and rode off to the new home he had purchased in Washington, D.C., at 2340 S. Street NW, where he planned to live his final days.

Harding himself would die in office in 1923, shortly before disclosure of the notorious Teapot Dome scandals that would tarnish his name for posterity — despite the fact that no hint of personal corruption even touched Harding himself.  Harding’s reputation as president has enjoyed a recent revival, buoyed by his strong record on economic stability, civil liberties (freeing of political prisoner and socialist icon Eugene V. Debs), and civil rights.  None less that John W. Dean of Watergate fame has lead the charge to restore Harding’s good name in his 2004 biographyWarren G. Harding, followed by Jim Robenalt’s excellent 2009 The Harding Affair

For the best recent book on Woodrow Wilson, check out Kristie Miller’s terrific 2010 offering Ellen and Edith: Wordrow Wilson’s First Ladies


Photo of a pleasant afternoon.

This is one of my favorite snapshots: It’s from Inauguration Day 1921, showing the Presidential limousine en route up Pennsylvania Avenue for the sweaing in. In the back seat, outgoing President Woodrow Wilson, sickly, having suffered a massive stroke (thrombosis) in late 1919, chats quietly with his replacement, incoming President Warren G. Harding, who had trounced Wilson’s party in the 1920 November elections.

In the front seat, 84 year-old Joseph G. Cannon (R-Ill), long-time autocractic Speaker of the House nearing the end of his 48 years in Congress, stares ahead. He is without the trademark cigar stub clenched in his teeth, but pointedly refused to wear a formal top hat like the others.

The back-seat conversation?

Warren Harding later described it this way: He said he felt nervous around Wilson Wilson. So, to make small talk, he mentioned during the ride that he had a fondness for elephants based on his sister’s having lived in Siam as a missionary, where she owned one as a pet. When Harding said he always wanted to own one himself, Wilson shot back: “I hope it won’t turn out to be a white elephant.” Wilson laughed.

Where they were going?

The sweaing-in went beautifully that day, the first ever to use an electronic amplifier so people standing in the cold could hear Warrn Harding’s voice. By 1924, Harding’s successor Calvin Coolidge would reach millions through radio. Wilson Wilson, however, grew tired during lunch and went home to rest rather than attend the ceremony.

Wilson and Harding both would be dead within three years. Harding would die mysteriously, apparently of food poisioning, returning by train from a trip to Alaska in August 1923. A few gossips would speculate that his strong-willed wife Florence poisoned him over his extramarital affairs. Harding’s presidency would be remembered primarily for the Teapot Dome scandal, involving abuses in his Interior, Veterans, and Justice Departments (though not directly touching Harding), considered then the most disgraceful since the President Grant scandals of the 1870s.

Woodrow Wilson would die six months after Harding, in February 1924. He would spend his final years convalescing in a townhouse near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, despondant over his failure to win American approval of the Versailles Treaty, containing a League of Nations. Wilson had negotiated the treaty at the close of World War I and touted the League as justification of the loss of 100,000 American soldiers during the War. The ratification failure left his argument hollow.

Rather than securing peace, historians mostly would view the Versailles Treaty as simply planting the seeds for the even-bloodier World War II.

As for “Uncle Joe” Cannon, he would serve one more term in Congress and then retire to his home in rural Danville, Illinois. Cannon had been humiliated in 1910 when Congressional “Insurgents” — a coalition of Progressives and Democrats chafing after years of Cannon’s bullying — stripped him of his powers in a famous St. Patrick’s Day uprising on the House floor. As a result, Cannon lost his House seat altogether in 1912. But Cannon, duly chastened, made peace with his enemies and returned to Congress in 1914 for another eight years. Not long after his 1926 death, Congress would honor him by putting his name its massive new office building, today a landmark of Capitol Hill.

Life in the moment.

But for now, they sat there amiably in the limousine, like three normal people on a pleasant afternoon, enjoying the fresh air, the company, and the crowds in the street, ignorant of the dramas ahead. They barely knew each other personally, but were thrown together in a car for a fleeting encounter, each being graceful enough to keep it pleasant. Life is made of moments like this.

See how I rated Wilson and Harding in the C-SPAN 2009 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership.

A different view of FDR

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To cap off President’s Week, I thought you might enjoy this rare photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taken from the July 1920 Literary Digest.
Just 38 years old, two years before contracting polio, FDR is still the dashing young socialite, gracing Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet. We see him standing in front of one of his favorite cars, a Stutz roadster, holding a hunting rifle trying to mimick is famous Bull Moose Uncle Theodore.
Roosevelt that summer had used his celebrity name to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for Vice President on the ticket headed by Ohio Governor James Cox. They would lose in a landslide to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coollidge.
There is an appealing innocence to this photo. Polio, the Depression, the strains in his marriage, the trials of returning to politics, restoring national confidence in tough times, facing Nazism and Facism in World War II — these things all were in the unknown future.

For now, we just see an easy-going young man on a sunny afternoon. Life was good.

C-SPAN’s Presidential Poll

Woodrow Wilson, 1916.

Yesterday, C-SPAN finally issued the full results of its 2009 Presidential Survey by some 150 historians. Here’s the link to the full C-SPAN group results. As you know, I had the honor to participate and, for comparison. Here’s the link to my own entry.

Not surprisingly, as soon as I saw the final C-SPAN list, I eagerly put their’s and mine side by side, just to see how I stacked up. What I saw was a profile of my own prejudice staring back at me. Here’s a sample:

Let’s start with the top ten. We agreed on the top four (Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts), though in slightly different order. But after that, we parted ways.

For instance, the C-SPAN group ranked both Woodrow Wilson and JFK in the top ten, at #9 and #6 respectively. I couldn’t disagree more. I rated Wilson far lower, at #16, his dismal records on civil rights, wartime dissent, and the post-war Red Scare, as well as his failure to win acceptance of the Versailles treaty, all counting as significant demerits. Similarly, I rated JFK far lower at #17. Yes, he inspired the country, but his sparse legislative record hardly earned him a spot in the top tier. Yes, for glamour, celebrity, and style, JFK wins hands down. But is that really how we rate Presidents? Perhaps had he lived….

As for the bottom ten, I broke from the group on two notables. First, I included Richard Nixon at #36. The C-SPAN group rated him much higher, at #27. I admit to prejudice on this one: Living through the Vietnam War at draftable age could not help but affect my attitude toward Nixon. But even putting that aside, Congress had good reasons for impeaching Nixon in 1974. His temperament — seen in his enemies list, wiretaps on his own staff, and conspiracies galore — was perhaps the worst of any President, and it overshadowed any positive accomplishment.

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

So that’s my first take on the final, official C-SPAN list, and I look forward to debating these points on many more Presidents Days to come. Hope you have a happy one –KenA

How an anti-war Senator should act.

George W. Norris, circa 1918

Greeting, all, from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where my wife Karen and I are enjoying our annual summer beach getaway.

My beach reading this summer included an oldie but goodie, Profiles in Courage by then-senator and future president John F. Kennedy. And among the great stories in it, one particularly caught my eye this year, the one about George W. Norris, the Progressive Republican Senator from Nebraska, who, among other things, dared to defy mob hysteria in 1917 by taking a lonely stand against American entry into what he considered a pointless, terrible war … in his case, World War I.

With all the debate today, in 2007, about how Democrats in Congress under Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should wage their fight against George W. Bush’s fiasco in Iraq — and at what point principle must stand before politics — Senator Norris and his 1917 stand lays down a good marker.

In January 1917, just two months after having won reelection to the White House on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson already was pushing the country to intervene in the stalemated European contest that already had cost millions of lives since 1914. War fever swept the country, fanned by the recently-released Zimmerman telegram (in which a German diplomat allegedly promised Mexico return of Texas and California in return for its helping it launch attacks against the US) and German submarine warfare on the high seas. President Wilson that month tried to turn the heat up another notch by insisting that Congress pass the Armed Ship Bill, authorizing him to arm American merchant vessels carrying armaments to England, and the House passed it within days on a vote of 403 to 13. Anyone who opposed this measure was labelled a coward, a traitor, or unAmerican.

But Norris smelled a rat. Norris in 1917 was a freshman Senator, one-time school teacher and small-town lawyer old enough to have lost an older brother in the Civil War. To Norris, armed American ships meant provoking the Germans into an incident that could spark war without any sober debate, and he bristled at the broad grants of Presidential authority in the Bill’s small print. Behind it, Norris suspected the hand of American financiers and munitions makers who had banked heavily on the Allied side in the war and now saw their investments at risk. And Norris was not willing to shed American blood to bail out corporations.

So Norris and a small band of like-minded Senators, including Wisconsin’s Progressive Robert LaFollette, launched a filibuster to kill the Armed Ship Bill. Their strategy was to use the Senate calendar and stall a final vote until noon on March 4, 1917 — Inauguration Day — when the Senate would adjourn sine die.

Norris won. The filibuster worked. But there was bloody hell to pay for it. The country screamed treason, stupidity, and arrogance. President Wilson — who would prove himself no friend of free speech during the War — led the verbal assaults. The fact is, most Nebraskans, most Americans, even most Progressives disagreed stridently with Norris. Even JKF, writing his book decades leter, felt the need to distance himself from Norris’s position: “It is not now important whether Norris was right or wrong,” he wrote. “What is now important is the courage he displayed in support of his convictions.”

Norris, stunned by the outcry, felt compelled to ask the Governor to a call a special recall election to allow Nebraskans the chance to vote him out of office. At the same time, he went home and called a town hall meeting in Omaha to confront critics. Over three thousand people came and Norris could not find a single friend to share the stage with him. Alone, he stood in front of the mob and said simply “I have come to speak the truth.” Then he went on: “Even though you say I am wrong…, has the time come when we can’t express our opinions in the Senate, where we were sent to debate such questions, without being branded by the moneyed interests as traitors?”

Norris didn’t change any minds about the War, but he won the crowd’s respect. Te Governor felt no need for a recall election, and Norris went on to serve many more years in the US Senate. Despite Norris’s victory against the Armed Ship Bill, President Wilson quickly asserted executive power to arm US vessels without Congress’s permission, and within a few months the country had entered a European bloodbath whose merits even today remain a matter of debate. Wilson called it a struggle “to make the world safe for democracy,” but World War I’s more immediate fruits were 16 million dead, millions more wounded or displaced, a peace treaty rejected in the US, and the planting of seeds for even more bloodshed 20 years later in World War II.

Now, fast forward to today, September 2007, as Washington, D.C. braces for what promises to be a grueling showdown over the future of America’s role in Iraq — with President Bush showing every sign of intending to stick to his surge-based war plan at least long enough to pass it off to a next president in 2009, and Congressional Democrats in apparent disarray over how to confront him. Where is the George Norris of 2007? Can anyone on Capitol Hill claim to be living up to the standard of courage, skill, and integrity he set in fighting Woodrow Wilson’s war plans in 1917? I don’t ask this as a rhetorical question. The threat to our country today is as great as it was in 1917, the issues as complex, and the need to cut through double talk on all sides just as urgent.

I hope the roster will be long. JFK published his original edition of Profiles in Courage fifty years ago, in 1955. Perhaps a next edition will include a few names of current members of Congress with the vision and tenacity to lead in confronting today’s morass, waiting to make their marks in during the struggles over the next few weeks.

That, at least, is my hope, sitting here at Cape Hatteras on this sunny Labor Day weekend, sipping my cup of coffee, looking out over the sand dunes toward the beach beyond.

Thanks for your patience in reading through this long post. All the best. –KenA