Down with Jeff Davis and Woodrow Wilson. Up with Warren Harding and Donald Trump

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 11.55.28 AM

Good day Austin:

The statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson won at least a temporary reprieve this weekend from the ignominy of being moved from their place of honor on the University of Texas campus.

From Ralph K.M. Haurwitz:

The University of Texas on Friday abruptly canceled plans to move the statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson this weekend after the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed suit.

UT agreed to hold off until a hearing can be held next week on the group’s request for a temporary restraining order, university spokesman Gary Susswein said.

The university had planned to begin removing the bronze likenesses of Davis, the president of the Confederate States, and Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, on Saturday. They have occupied prominent spots on the campus since 1933.

xxxxxxxxx

University officials haven’t decided where to place the Wilson statue, which Fenves had said would be relocated to maintain symmetry. The two statues stand on opposite sides of the entry to the Main Mall.

We are talking landscape symmetry, but also I suppose ideological symmetry.

Wilson’s election was a victory for the Old Confederacy. Wilson, Virginia-born, was the first native Southerner to be elected president since the Civil War, and, devoted progressive though he may have been, Wilson’s views on race were hardly more advanced than those of Jefferson Davis.

From Boston University historian William Keylor in 2013 on the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s inauguration:

Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was a loyal son of the old South who regretted the outcome of the Civil War.  He used his high office to reverse some of its consequences.  When he entered the White House a hundred years ago today, Washington was a rigidly segregated town — except for federal government agencies.  They had been integrated during the post-war Reconstruction period, enabling African-Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side by side with whites in government agencies.  Wilson promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of racial integration in the federal civil service.

Cabinet heads — such as his son-in-law, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo of Tennessee – re-segregated facilities such as restrooms and cafeterias in their buildings.  In some federal offices, screens were set up to separate white and black workers.  African-Americans found it difficult to secure high-level civil service positions, which some had held under previous Republican administrations.

A delegation of black professionals led by Monroe Trotter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and Boston newspaper editor, appeared at the White House to protest the new policies.  But Wilson treated them rudely and declared that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

The novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon – a longtime political supporter, friend and former classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins University – was published in 1905.  A decade later, with Wilson in the White House, cinematographer D.W. Griffith produced a motion picture version of the book, titled “Birth of a Nation.”

With quotations from Wilson’s scholarly writings in its subtitles, the silent film denounced the Reconstruction period in the South when blacks briefly held elective office in several states.  It hailed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a sign of southern white society’s recovery from the humiliation and suffering to which the federal government and the northern “carpetbaggers” had subjected it after its defeat in the Civil War.  The film depicted African-Americans (most played by white actors in blackface) as uncouth, uncivilized rabble.

Of course, removing  signs of respect with race as your prism is a very slippery slope. American history is flush with false idols.

George Washington was a slaveholder who was the father of a nation that enshrined slavery in its Constitution. So much for the Declaration of Independence’s all men are created equal.

Maybe instead of Washington, D.C., it should be D.C. – the District of Columbia.

But no. That won’t do.

Columbia refers to Columbus, the father of American conquest and genocide, whose treatment of the indigenous people he encountered in the New World were a grotesque horror.

And America?

What kind of name is that?

When I was up in Iowa the week before last, I was surprised to read in the paper that Democrats were stripping the names Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their fundraising dinners.

And not just in Iowa.

From Jonathan Martin in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — For nearly a century, Democrats have honored two men as the founders of their party: Thomas Jefferson, for his visionary expression of the concept of equality, and Andrew Jackson, for his populist spirit and elevation of the common man.

Political candidates and activists across the country have flocked to annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, where speeches are given, money is raised, and the party celebrates its past and its future.

But these time-honored rituals are colliding with a modern Democratic Party more energized by a desire for racial and gender inclusion than reverence for history. And state by state, Democratic activists are removing the names of Jefferson and Jackson from party gatherings, saying the two men no longer represent what it means to be a Democrat.

The Iowa Democratic Party became the latest to do so last weekend, joining Georgia, Connecticut and Missouri. At least five other states are considering the same change since the massacre in June at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C.

Wow.

The Democratic Party is toppling Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter and author of the Trail of Tears, and Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder and, incidentally, author of the Declaration of Independence with its all men are created equal, from their pedestals, like a couple of dispensable Saddam Husseins.

Alphabet City in New York’s East Village probably has it right

Avenue A. Avenue B. Avenue C. Avenue D.

Can’t go wrong with that.

Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

But, as we sort through American history using a racial lens, there must be some figures due for a revisionist upgrade to replace the fallen.

Right?

Well, in fact, yes.

How about Warren G. Harding?

I kid you not.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 11.55.28 AM

As you may have read, Harding, generally ranked as among the very worst presidents of the United States, was back in the news last week

From Peter Baker at the New York Times:

Long before Lucy Mercer, Kay Summersby or Monica Lewinsky, there was Nan Britton, who scandalized a nation with stories of carnal adventures in a White House coat closet and endured a ferocious backlash for publicly claiming that she bore the love child of President Warren G. Harding.

Now nearly a century later, according to genealogists, new genetic tests confirm for the first time that Ms. Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was indeed Harding’s biological child. The tests have solved one of the enduring mysteries of presidential history and offer new insights into the secret life of America’s 29th president.

OK. This latest news may not, on the surface, serve to exalt Harding.

But, listening to a report on the breaking news about Harding’s extra-marital life, I was startled to hear the author of a Harding book explain why this was a splendid opportunity to upgrade Harding’s rating as president?

Really?

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 12.39.11 AM

 It was James D. Robenalt, the author of “The Harding Affair, Love and Espionage During the Great War,” who wrote in the Washington Post:

The aura of scandal that has plagued Warren G. Harding, our 29th president, has almost obliterated the substance of the man as a senator and as president. Breaking news that DNA testing may now prove that Harding fathered a child with one of his paramours, Nan Britton, will no doubt play to the stereotype of Harding as a womanizer and reinforce his already miserable reputation as president — a reputation that regularly lands him at the bottom of historians’ lists of our worst leaders.

That’s a shame because, unlike the DNA samples from the Harding and Britton families, the reputation of Warren Harding the man and the record of Warren Harding the Republican politician do not match. At the time of his death, Harding enjoyed tremendous popularity. It was only later, when details of his infidelity scandalized the nation, that his legacy took a nosedive. Our obsession, past and present, with Harding’s sex life has obscured the truth: This man was a good president.

Among his more important accomplishments was stabilizing the country and the world after the catastrophic war in Europe, a true Armageddon that left most “civilized” nations in economic, political and social chaos. The United States alone was capable of steadying the world. Harding started by lifting our country out of a sharp postwar depression and then placed the federal government on a budget for the first time — establishing the Office of the Budget (the forerunner of the modern OMB).

He addressed severe racial tensions that the war stirred up, in part because of the great migration of African Americans to the North to work in war industries. Harding traveled to Birmingham, Ala., in his first year in office to deliver a courageous civil rights speech. “Democracy is a lie,” he said, without political equality for black citizens. He also supported a federal anti-lynching law.

Harding oversaw the first world arms limitation treaty, the Washington Conference, aimed at reducing the number of battleships in the world. He formally ended the war with Germany and its allies.

And he cooled anarchist and labor violence, the height of which included bombs exploding across the country at the homes of top political officials. Symbolically, during his first Christmas in the White House, Harding commuted the sentence of Eugene Debs, the tremendously popular socialist labor leader who had been imprisoned for 10 years merely for speaking out against the war in a workers’ rally in Canton, Ohio. (President Wilson had routinely denied a pardon for Debs, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the paragon of justice, wrote the Supreme Court opinion affirming the Debs’s conviction.)

Over time Harding freed hundreds of political prisoners, repairing the severe wounds wrought by the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918. Free speech was the victor

But, let’s back up.

Now, to be sure, Warren Harding never uttered the words Black Lives Matter in Birmingham, and he was still quite clearly a racist by any standard, who even as he was advocating for political rights for blacks was denying them their fundamental claim to social equality.

But here is the headline deck from the Page One story in the October 27, 1921 New York Times.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 2.57.56 PMScreen Shot 2015-08-16 at 10.58.51 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 12.46.44 AM

President Harding speaks in Birmingham, Alabama.

This is truly remarkable.

In 1921, the president of the United States travels to Birmingham, Alabama, to deliver a speech before a huge throng telling white Southerners something they did not want to hear, whether you like it or not.

That’s our WGH.

From the Times story:

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 10.21.42 PM

And then this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 12.49.40 AM

Here was President Harding saying that, not only should blacks exercise the franchise in the South, but that they should not simply pull the lever out of habit or loyalty to his party, the Republican Party.

From W.E.B. DuBois, a founder of the NAACP, in late 1921:

And now comes President Harding’s Birmingham speech when unwittingly or deliberately the President brings the crisis. We may no longer dodge nor hesitate. We must all, black or white, Northerner or Southerner, stand in the light and speak plain words.

The President must not for a moment be blamed because, when invited to the semi-centennial of a great southern city of industry, he talked of the Negro instead of the results of profitable mining. There s but one subject in the South. The Southerners themselves can speak no other, think no other, act no other. The eternal and inevitable southern topic is and has been an will be the Black Man.

Moreover, the President laid down three theses with which no American can disagree without a degree of self-stultification almost inconceivable, namely:

1. The Negro must vote on the same terms that white folk vote.

2. The Negro must be educated.

3. The Negro must have economic Justice.

The sensitive may note that the President qualified these demands somewhat, even dangerously, and yet they stand out so clearly in his speech that he must be credited with meaning to give them their real significance. And in this the President made a braver, clearer utterance than Theodore Roosevelt ever dared to make or than William Taft or William McKinley ever dreamed of. For this let us give him every ounce of credit he deserves.

To be sure, DuBois wrote, Harding’s views on social equality were hopelessly benighted, but still …

On the basis of this one speech, it seems to me Harding vaults from the bottom tier of presidents, and has earned his place a amid the statuary at UT.

Down with Woodrow Wilson. Up with Warren Harding.

 

Statue of Warren G. Harding and his dog, Laddie, in Rapid City, S.D.

Statue of Warren G. Harding and his beloved dog, Laddie, in Rapid City, S.D.

And, in the interests of symmetry, and in the spirit of historical revisionism, let’s complement the new Harding statue with a forward-looking, ahead-of-the-curve statue of Donald Trump in what would amount to a new Arch of Triumph (you can’t spell triumph without Trump) at the entry to UT’s Main Mall.

Because, just as Harding’s reputation stands to be revised upwards nearly a century since his death, I think this past weekend will be recalled as the weekend that Trump’s standing with the mainstream media, myself included, was revised upwards.

It’s not that I don’t continue to think that Trump is a blowhard and narcissist whose campaign is by any conventional standard ridiculous. But, the central conceit of Trump’s campaign is that behavior that exhibited by any other human being would be considered fatal character flaws, are, with him, a source of public delight.

And  this weekend, in his dominating and thoroughly entertaining appearance at the Iowa State Fair, in his relatively more thoughtful, self-aware and unpredictable interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, and in his continued dominance in the post-debate Fox poll, Trump appeared to be a candidate who was simply not going to go away, whose candidacy. even as it continues to seem utterly outlandish, for the first time appeared to have the potential – maybe, possibly – to go all the way.

He – and his candidacy – were evolving and maturing before our eyes.

(From the Fox poll, via Politico, “Among likely Republican primary voters, Trump polled at 25 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 12 percent and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at 10 percent.”)

For the first time, Cruz’s tender courting of Trump seemed less a play for the backing of the Trump faithful when he inevitably quits the race, and more an early bid to be Trump’s running-mate. (Though, to the ear, Trump-Cruz sounds like an ill-fated Carnival excursion.)

From Jeff Greenfield, on the new Trump, on Meet the Press:

He’s moved to a slightly more subtle level than in the opening rounds … There was the first vague hint of nuance.

From former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on Morning Joe:

He’s trying to be a little more presidential … He’s trying to tone it down a little bit.

And Joe Scarborough:

You could tell in the tone this weekend – Donald Trump  turning the page … The rest of the Republican field has to be pulling their hair out.

From this weekend’s Trump, there was an eclectic assortment of unexpected answers.

While the other GOP contenders compete to say how early on their first day in office they would rip up an Iran deal, Trump said on Meet the Press,  “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘We’re going to rip up the deal.’ It’s very tough to do when you say, ‘Rip up a deal.’

“You know, I’ve taken over some bad contracts. I buy contracts where people screwed up and they have bad contracts,” he said. “But I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. As bad as the contract is, I will be so tough on that contract.”

On affirmative action: “I’m fine with affirmative action.”

On D.C. voting rights and representation in Congress: He loves the people and the leadership of D.C., and wants whatever is good for them. (Which would be two more Democrats in the U.S. Senate.)

On “who do you talk to for military advice right now”

“Well, I watch the shows. I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and the generals and you have certain people …”

On whether he’s made any mistakes. “I don’t think I’ve made mistake.”

In fact, he said, every step he has taken has redounded to his benefit.

“So far, hasn’t worked out badly, huh?”

And then on immigration, the issue that launched Trumpmania, he actually posted a position paper on his web site that effectively outflanked the rest of the Republican field, to their right – making Mexico pay for the wall, ending birthright citizenship, defunding sanctuary cities, and mass deportations.

But, asked Chuck Todd, would he really be willing to rip families apart?

No, said Trump. He’ll deport the whole family.

“We’ve got keep the families together, but they’ve got to go. We’ll work with, them but they’ve got to go.”

“Either we have a country or we don’t,” Trump said.

That’s the kind of line that will endear Trump to his base, even if they don’t agree with him on affirmative action or care about D.C. voting rights.

As Ezra Klein wrote at Vox, elaborating on a New York Times piece by Josh Barro arguing that Trump is best understood as a moderate Republican:

I think Barro’s onto something, but it’s not that Trump is a moderate Republican. It’s that he’s a moderate, full stop. And he’s the kind of moderate that really exists, not the kind of moderate Washington likes to pretend exists — which is to say, his policy ideas, such as they exist, are often extreme, but they can’t easily be classified as left or right.

And there’s a market for that.

From David Weigel, reporting from Flint, Mich., in the Washington Post:

Trump’s rise and persistence as a presidential candidate has been credited to name recognition, to voter anger and to a specific contempt for the Republican Party establishment. But he is also the candidate talking most directly about the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.

In the Democratic race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has adopted a similar theme, but Trump’s appeal here captured something that went beyond policy: a brew of impossible nostalgia coupled with a pledge to destroy other countries, most notably China, in negotiations. On Twitter, “Make America Great Again” is a goofy, meme-ready slogan, best displayed on ironic hats. There are places, such as Michigan, where it makes real sense.

As Trump told Todd about his hard-line immigration policy: “It will work out. You will be so happy.”

Like the children who got rides on Trump’s helicopter on the outskirts of the Iowa State Fair Saturday. Trump didn’t do like most of the other candidates and appear at the Fair’s Des Moines Register Soapbox, because he doesn’t consider it “relevant.”

The Register nearly a month ago invited Trump’s wrath when it editorialized that Trump should drop out of the campaign:  “He has become ‘the distraction with traction’ — a feckless blowhard who can generate headlines, name recognition and polling numbers not by provoking thought, but by provoking outrage.”

But watching Trump in Iowa yesterday, it was very hard not to be entertained.

(As I write this, the image flickering across my TV screen is Trump fist-bumping and signing  autographs on his way into jury duty. He even makes jury duty fun. “I hope they’re innocent,” he said yesterday.)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to the media after arriving by helicopter at a nearby ballpark before Trump attended the Iowa State Fair Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, in Des Moines. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to the media after arriving by helicopter at a nearby ballpark before Trump attended the Iowa State Fair Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, in Des Moines. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

He is Huey Long, Citizen Kane and Willy Wonka all rolled into one.

All that was missing was H.L. Mencken to observe it all.

But wait, here is Mencken, writing in The Baltimore Sun March 7, 1921, about our long-lost hero, Warren G. Harding.

Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters,
he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have
even encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing
on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through
endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark
abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of
posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

But I grow lyrical. More scientifically, what is the matter with it? Why does it seem so flabby, so
banal, so confused and childish, so stupidly at war with sense? If you first read the inaugural
address and then heard it intoned, as I did (at least in part), then you will perhaps arrive at an
answer. That answer is very simple. When Dr. Harding prepares a speech he does not think of
it in terms of an educated reader locked up in jail, but in terms of a great horde of stoneheads
gathered around a stand.

That is to say, the thing is always a stump speech; it is conceived as a stump speech and written as a stump speech. More, it is a stump speech addressed to the sort of audience that the speaker has been used to all of his life, to wit, an audience of small town yokels, of low political serfs, or morons scarcely able to understand a word of more than two syllables, and wholly able to pursue a logical idea for more than two centimeters. Such imbeciles do not want ideas—that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention. What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures.

As I say, they can’t understand many words of more than two syllables, but that is not saying that they do not esteem such words. On the contrary, they like them and demand them. The roll of incomprehensible polysyllables enchants them. They like phrases which thunder like salvos of artillery. Let that thunder sound, and they take all the rest on trust. If a sentence begins furiously and then peters out into fatuity, they are still satisfied. If a phrase has a punch in it, they do not ask that it also have a meaning. If a word slips off the tongue like a ship going down the ways, they are
content and applaud it and wait for the next

xxxxx

But is such bosh out of place in stump speech? Obviously not. It is precisely and thoroughly in
place of stump speech. A tight fabric of ideas would weary and exasperate the audience; what
it wants is a simple loud burble of words, a procession of phrases that roar, a series of whoops.
This is what it got in the inaugural address of the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding

Let me be clear.

I do not share Mencken’s contempt for what he called the booboisie.

And this was the weekend. to borrow from the subtitle of Dr. Strangelove, that I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, thrilling to the possibility of the most spectacular presidential election in American history: Independent Socialist Bernie Sanders (and running-mate Elizabeth Warren) for the Democrats, billionaire populist Donald Trump (and Ted Cruz) for the Republicans, and, inevitably, billionaire progressive Independent Michael Bloomberg (with either Condoleezza Rice or Jeff Bezos) riding to the rescue as standard bearer of the Party of Wall Street.

It’s going to be great.

Huge.

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

0 comments