December 12, 2006
First Do No Harm
Gene Healey extols the benefits of do-nothing presidents:
Consider Warren G. Harding, dead last in the Schlesinger polls, next to last in the WSJ/Federalist poll. Historians have downgraded him for his scandal-ridden administration. But that can't be the only reason for his abysmal ranking: Harding wasn't personally corrupt, after all, and he never profited from his cronies' misdeeds.Via Jim Henley.
Place that fault against his great merits: Harding presided over the dismantling of Wilson's draconian wartime controls, ushering in an era of prosperous "normalcy." (Is it the normalcy that presidential scholars hold against him?) Harding's good nature and liberal instincts led him to pardon the dissenters that Wilson had locked up, among them Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, imprisoned for making a speech against the draft. "I want [Debs] to eat his Christmas dinner with his wife," Harding said.
Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge, hasn't fared much better in the polls: below average in the WSJ/Federalist survey, bottom 10 in the Schlesinger Jr. survey. Cal kept things entirely too cool for historians who like presidential drama: he slept too much, didn't do enough, and didn't talk enough. There was method to his muteness, though. As he put it, "Nine-tenths of [visitors to the White House] want something they ought not have. If you keep dead still they will run down in three or four minutes."
After six years of George W. Bush, a president bent on expanding executive power and redeeming the world through military force, the modest, unheroic virtues of a Harding and a Coolidge are easier to appreciate. There ought to be room at the top of the rankings for presidents who know when to keep quiet and who understand the limits of power.