A kindly, genial man who should never have given up his career as a journalist.
A genial, kindly, well-meaning, lovable man, typical of a large group of Americans—this was President Harding. Every one who met him was attracted to his personality. To this favorable impression his fine appearance contributed not a little. Nobody could have been seen to better physical advantage than Mr. Harding on such state occasions as the burial of the unknown soldier and the opening of the Conference for the Limitation of Armaments. He was then both dignified and impressive. Moreover, after the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, it was a profound relief to have in the highest public office a man to whom one could make an appeal to the heart. The very fact that he had risen from humble origins, that most of his life had been spent in a small town characteristic of the Middle West, gave him a fellow-feeling for the plain American of which no rise in situation could deprive him. That kindliness and understanding made him release Eugene Debs, made him feel sympathy for many victims of the passions of the war, and disposed him generally to a kindly view of the world and its people. It is this quality of generous good-will for which Mr. Harding will, we believe, be chiefly remembered; it is with this that the saga we build up about our Presidents will largely concern itself when time deals with Warren Harding—precisely as William McKinley is remembered for his amiable personal qualities.
If one could stop here it would be a pleasure. But he who would record contemporary truths cannot afford either to paint but one side of the picture or to color the whole with that feeling of compassion for Mrs. Harding and the poignant regret and sorrow which every American must have felt when he read that not wholly unexpected news from San Francisco. The fact is that as President Mr. Harding was much to be pitied. He was pitchforked into the position not by the pre-nomination votes of large groups of his fellow-countrymen, but as a result of the final secret confab of a few machine leaders in a private parlor in the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. Not by training nor by antecedents nor by knowledge was he equal to his position, in which he could hardly keep abreast of the current work. To map out any really constructive policies was beyond him. The defects of his amiability made themselves felt hourly, for he found it harder and harder to take a position and stick to it—witness his three several positions upon the question of American participation in the new World Court.
In domestic problems he was as helpless as every similar Republican President is certain to be, being bound and pinioned by the historic party policies and that invisible big-business control which constitutes the real government of the country. He was aware that the times were out of joint; yet he had no remedies to suggest save the old salves and cures that were supposed to work wonders thirty-five years ago. So far as the situation of the world is concerned, Mr. Harding’s incumbency of the presidential office, together with the dominant influence exerted by Messrs. Hughes and Hoover in foreign affairs, has been a dreadful misfortune.
Never has there been such an urgent, world-wide call for American leadership, never such a wonderful opportunity for the American President to lead the world to paths of peace and of sanity. With Europe sinking rapidly into ruin, as the British Prime Minister has just again declared, it is hard for us to understand how Mr. Harding could have held back from insisting upon exerting our enormous influence for a solution of the deadlock because of which civilization itself totters. One word from President Harding, and the French would never have entered the Ruhr to stain their good name with crimes against humanity which will never be effaced. One word from President Harding would have brought about a conference which under American leadership would have begun with possibilities of success which the European conferences have totally lacked. A proposal for the solution of the reparations problems, not put forth haphazardly by a cabinet officer in a speech to a group of learned men, but carefully worked out by economists with the aid of French and German experts, would not only not have been resented, but must have been widely welcomed by our British allies and by all the neutrals who are now suffering grievously because of the French madness. But the Harding Administration could only mark time. Perhaps it is possible to deduce from Mr. Harding’s final state paper, his speech published but not delivered, that after all he was beginning to realize his duty. It is an extraordinary coincidence at least that in this address he declared for closer international relations precisely as William McKinley’s last utterance similarly appealed for wider and better trade relations with the rest of the world.
For the rest, President Harding’s family and friends may find some consolation in the hour of his going as well as in the absence of all suffering. The remainder of his term could have added nothing to the public’s kindly feeling for him personally. Had a successful attempt been made to renominate him he must have experienced the bitterness of repudiation and defeat. That especial tenderness with which Americans think of Presidents who have died in office will always inure to him.
And now the Presidency sinks low, indeed. We doubt if ever before it has fallen into the hands of a man so cold, so narrow, so reactionary, so uninspiring, and so unenlightened, or one who has done less to earn it, than Calvin Coolidge. A child of marvelous fortune, he becomes the thirtieth President of the United States because of a newspaper fiction which falsely presented him to the country as a great and vigorous personality who in a dark and troubled hour had saved Boston from a strike misrepresented as a wanton blow at law and order by some of its duly constituted authorities. In an hour when America aches for constructive leadership of a broad and liberal kind its official destinies are to rest for a year and a half in the hands of one whose writings and public utterances reveal no spark of originality, no vision, no tolerance, no sympathy with progress and advance. Every reactionary may today rejoice; in Calvin Coolidge he realizes his ideal, and every liberal must be correspondingly downcast. Fortunately, there are checks and balances in Washington; the Congress still lives. Fortunately, in this case, the President is not today a free agent. Fortunately, not even the prestige of the office will conceal the intellectual nakedness of a man whom a Minnesota audience refused last year to listen to after a brief taste of his discourse.