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Opinion: Trump Is Neck and Neck With the Worst Presidents

Could he even make Warren G. Harding look good?

Even Warren G. Harding had a better first month than President Donald Trump, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Even Warren G. Harding had a better first month than President Donald Trump, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

DUBLIN — A long holiday weekend in Ireland proved to be less of an escape and more of a reminder of the omnipresence of the 45th president. The front page of the Sunday Independent featured a column by conservative writer and media personality Brendan O’Connor that began, “Ireland 2021. The country has been laid waste to after Donald Trump caused nuclear Armageddon.”

Other anti-Trump broadsides in the Sunday Independent had headlines such as “World still has reasons to be fearful.” Such is the nervous attitude of a leading right-of-center newspaper in a land that Trump has not yet insulted and which Republicans consider America’s sixth most loyal ally.

Of course, in Trump’s internal mythology, Europeans secretly respect his tough-guy bluster and at home, his administration is humming like “a fine-tuned machine.” Who cares about a national security adviser who was out like Flynn, a fast-spreading Russia scandal, an inept and inhumane executive order on immigration, a White House that cannot find recruits for sub-Cabinet jobs and a presidential approval rating below 45 percent?

It’s huge

So, in honor of Presidents Day, here’s a question: How does President Trump measure to the worst former presidents?

Until now, Warren G. Harding has been considered by historians to be the most disastrous president since the Civil War era. And Harding, who died in office in 1923, more than earned his reputation for failing dismally to measure up to presidential laggards like Herbert Hoover, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.

H.L. Mencken — contrasting Harding with every Homo sapiens on earth — derided him as “the archetype of the Homo boobus.” With trysts with his mistress Nan Britton in the White House and a love of drinking and card games, Harding was, in the opinion of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, not so much a bad man as “just a slob.”

But no Russian ties

What destroyed Harding’s reputation was not his traveling-salesman personality, but his casual tolerance of massive corruption.

Harding’s pick to head the Veterans’ bureau was convicted of embezzlement and accepting kickbacks for hospital construction. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, the Ohio Republican boss who had engineered Harding’s nomination in 1920, saw the profit-making potential of the Justice Department through the sale of pardons, immunities and licenses for bootleggers. Even though Daugherty narrowly avoided prison, an Arizona senator rightfully charged that this Harding crony had presided over the “Department of Easy Virtue.”

Then there was the biggest 20th century scandal until Watergate — Teapot Dome. In 1921, Harding put his corrupt Interior Secretary Albert Fall in charge of leasing federal oil reserves. Fall, a former New Mexico senator, soon secretly sold lucrative drilling rights at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and Elk Hills in California without competitive bidding. In gratitude, oilmen Henry Sinclair and Edward Doheny funneled $400,000 to Fall and his family.

But it is unfair to compare Trump with Harding’s entire sordid record in the White House. Instead, the relevant question revolves around how Harding was doing one month after he took the oath of office on March 4, 1921.

In the period between World War I and the Depression, the president impinged on the nation’s consciousness far less than today. Entire days could go by without Harding’s name appearing on the front pages of leading newspapers like the New York Evening World. Even a New York Times article, headlined “CONGRESS IS FACING MANY BIG PROBLEMS,” did not even mention Harding until the third paragraph.

While Harding dithered over developing a legislative program, he reveled in the ceremonial aspects of the presidency. Opening the White House to visitors three days a week, Harding was soon overwhelmed by official delegations and rubberneckers wanting to get a glimpse of the new president, including a woman who left her baby with a policeman as she toured the White House grounds. As the New-York Tribune headlined in a front-page story, “Harding Weakens as Army of Handshakers Increases.”

But there was also a progressive side to Harding, which was glimpsed in small gestures.

The new president announced that he would receive a delegation of public figures (including Helen Keller) urging the pardoning of Socialist leader Eugene Debs who had been imprisoned for two years under the Espionage Act for speaking out against World War I. Harding also agreed to meet with 50 members of the National Women’s Party, who wanted Congress to rewrite all legislation discriminating against women, following the ratification of the suffrage amendment (the 19th). And Florence Harding, the first lady, publicized that she had bought a relief booklet supporting an Armenian war orphan for a year.

In addition to appointing boodlers to the Cabinet, Harding also tapped distinguished figures such as Charles Evans Hughes (State), Andrew Mellon (Treasury) and Herbert Hoover (Commerce).

All this leads to an unequivocal 30-day scorecard: Warren Harding had a far more successful and admirable first month in office than Donald Trump. Also Harding, a former Ohio newspaper publisher, would never have conceived of the press being reviled as — in language that sounds like it came from the 1917 Russian Revolution — “an enemy of the people.”

At the National Library of Ireland, here in Dublin, there is a gloriously curated exhibit of the life and poetry of William Butler Yeats. Political writers often borrow language from Yeats’ 1920 poem “The Second Coming,” especially the line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

But there is an emotional power in seeing Yeats’ poem written out in his own hand in black ink in a manuscript copy. Particularly haunting and apt are these words:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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