Here in stately, spacious Kalorama, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood less familiar and storied than nearby Georgetown, politics makes strange neighbors. Over on Tracy Place, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump occupy a large, charmless house whose chief selling point, one suspects, was its fuck-you proximity to the post-Presidential residence of Barack and Michelle Obama, several houses away, on Belmont Road.
A short walk from either takes you to 2340 S Street, into which Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson moved after leaving the White House, in March, 1921. Wilson’s successor, Ohio’s Senator Warren G. Harding, and his wife, Florence, were packing up their house a few blocks away, at 2314 Wyoming. Harding was a serious poker player, and today his old house is occupied by the Ambassador of gambling-friendly Monaco. The Wilson House, a small museum that is Kalorama’s chief tourist attraction, has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. With awareness of Wilson’s racism cancelling his once-good name, someone has placed a Black Lives Matter sign, looking hasty and apologetic, against a small pane of glass near the front door.
The last four of Wilson’s eight years in the White House were an epic drama. Reëlected in 1916 on an implied promise of nonintervention (“He kept us out of war”), he soon became the Commander-in-Chief of an American military victory and, on the streets of Europe, the rhapsodically received oracle of a permanent peace that would be sustained by a League of Nations. Crushed by his own country’s resistance to this vision, he suffered a stroke in 1919 after barnstorming the U.S. in support of the League. The following year, he was too infirm to fulfill his hopes of bucking the two-term tradition and running for a third.
When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to “normalcy.” Early in 2020, the term remained useful to supporters of Joe Biden, with its suggestion of Presidential behavior once more within the pale. The word’s nostalgic tenor soon enough made it anathema to left-wing Democrats, and the cyclonic circumstances of the past six months may have made it feel obsolete to Biden himself, but it is still what he is talking about when he calls for removing Donald Trump: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our national character?” In terms of the Presidential decency on which so much depends, there is nowhere to go but backward.
Harding received the Republican nomination on June 12th, in a hellishly hot Chicago. His tenth-ballot victory came after the famous deadlock-dissolving conversations in a “smoke-filled room” at the Blackstone Hotel. His image seemed to materialize as a kind of anti-Wilson: a non-cerebral, non-visionary backslapper, less interested in remaking the world than in making sure that Main Street looked spruce. His instinctive centrism led the Republican overlords to believe that Harding might finally reunite the “regulars” who had stuck with Taft in 1912 and the progressives who’d bolted away on Theodore Roosevelt’s bull moose. When it came to the Party’s current fissures, Harding appeared likely to please the dwindling faction that remained open to participation in Wilson’s League, as well as the Senate’s Reservationists and Irreconcilables, who opposed it with varying degrees of implacability.
As the campaign took shape, Harding, whose success in politics had been only intermittent before he was elected to the Senate, in 1914, was aided by his pacific, Rotarian temperament; by an ambitious and mystical spouse; and by his sensual handsomeness—Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy, believed that he resembled “a decaying Roman emperor.” During the Convention, Harding had found time to dally, twice, with his mistress, Nan Britton, who’d given birth to their child a year earlier. In most respects besides the extramarital, he was the opposite of the man the Republicans have now, a century later, nominated for a second time. Far from bellowing that he alone could fix things, Harding accepted his nomination by saying, “No man is big enough to run this great republic.” He promised to be directed by his party, not by any sense of personal gifts or destiny. If Trump is the most cultish figure ever to achieve his party’s nomination for President, Harding may have been the least.
His Democratic opponent was another Ohioan, the state’s reformist governor, James M. Cox. At the statehouse in Columbus, he had been both progressive and pragmatic, appointing skilled technicians where Harding would have chosen pals. Cox, too, was a fallback choice at his party’s Convention, in San Francisco. It took him forty-four ballots to beat the ballyhooed front-runners, including A. Mitchell Palmer, the Attorney General, who had made himself the scourge of left-wing radicals after anarchists bombed his home on Washington’s R Street, in June of 1919. Cox appeared to be, like Harding, a man who could thread several important needles. Pro-League of Nations but not ardently so, he was also considered, when it came to the enforcement of just-imposed Prohibition, neither wet nor dry but, like the Democrats’ deliberately flexible platform plank, “moist.” His bland memoir, “Journey Through My Years” (1946), brings to mind such non-showstopping oratory as this, from 1920: “We stand at the forks of the road and must choose which to follow.” If Harding’s private life was secretly louche, Cox’s divorce from his first wife was eight years in the past and a matter of public record. Now fifty, he was remarried, to a much younger woman, and the couple’s new baby, Anne, was about to become a popular photographic subject for the Washington Star’s Sunday rotogravure.
The candidates shared a background as newspapermen. Cox had been the publisher of the Dayton Daily News, whose presses rolled only eighty miles from those of Harding’s Marion Star. The nominees’ former profession was a point of pride with the nation’s press, which presented them as tribunes, not enemies, of the people. The Washington Star, buoyantly middlebrow and moderately conservative, seemed to endorse Harding on October 16th, though it’s difficult to tell. The paper remained almost Panglossian in its faith that, whoever won, the rapidly urbanizing country had a cheerful future. The marvels of modernity were regularly showcased in the paper: the start of coast-to-coast airmail; Governor Cox’s use of an amplifier when addressing a crowd; Senator Harding’s preservation, on a phonograph record, of one of his speeches. A mid-July advertisement by Woodward & Lothrop, a now vanished Washington department store, enticed the homemaker to buy “asbestos table mats.”
And yet the prevailing mood of the country was troubled. The recent past weighed heavily on voters, who wanted to forget or suppress it. The influenza epidemic had finally subsided in the spring of 1920, leaving six hundred and seventy-five thousand Americans dead—more than ten times the number of U.S. soldiers killed on European battlefields. There might have been a strong public desire to celebrate the world war as a mission accomplished, but, nearly two years after the Armistice, bodies were still being repatriated from France for burial at Arlington, and the White House was only just getting around to selling a flock of sheep that had grazed the South Lawn, providing wool for the war effort. Five thousand draft resisters had been convicted, but Attorney General Palmer was bent on pursuing the rest.
The country feared that this immediate past was already turning into prologue. Nothing abroad had been settled. After the Versailles Treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate, the European Allies had to arrange its implementation by themselves, negotiating disarmament and reparations with the Weimar Republic at a conference in Spa, Belgium, which the Star’s correspondent compared to “a pack of wolves snarling over a carcass.” Americans had increasing reason to fear that the war would never really be “over over there,” and that their doughboys would soon be heading back.
The American voter of 2020 is aware of a Europe that wants to isolate itself from the United States, to raise a shield against Trump and his feckless gestures at disease control. The electorate of 1920 felt a compulsion to isolate itself from an array of needy, troubled European suitors. Many Americans cast doubtful looks across the Atlantic, and nativists were suspicious of the still assimilating Europeans they nonetheless pandered to as new voting constituencies. The threats to America were coming, after all, from the same places those people had recently left, and to which they might still feel attached.
In late July, the Comintern, in Moscow, told British and European workers to get ready for “heavy civil war” and “revolutionary struggle.” As Poland held off Trotsky’s Red Army, a delegation of Polish-Americans pleaded with Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty, for U.S. aid to Warsaw. Neither candidate advocated such action, which seemed symptomatic of what Harding identified as the problem of “hyphenated citizenship,” the dual loyalties that made immigrants to the U.S. encourage American “meddling” in their countries of origin. Such fears about those already here could amount to a kind of domestic xenophobia, and Cox saw Harding as the beneficiary of the split allegiances he publicly deplored. In his memoirs, Cox pointed out how blocs of ethnic voters were either aggrieved with Wilson for going to war (the Germans) or angry with him for abandoning their interests, such as Irish independence, in the Versailles negotiations. It was this “racial lineup,” Cox wrote, which guaranteed a G.O.P. victory.
American participation in a League of Nations would only cement those grievances, but Wilson remained determined to see the U.S. join. The effects of his stroke rendered him so inactive and so little visible that, for stretches of the 1920 campaign, Cox and Harding appeared to be running for a job that no longer existed. The President’s wife, Edith, along with his physician and his secretary, kept affairs of state operating at a minimal level, while Wilson navigated what his biographer A. Scott Berg calls “a twilight zone—a state of physical exhaustion, emotional turbulence and mental unrest.”
The League became, to Cox’s clear disadvantage, the central issue of the 1920 campaign after he was permitted to visit the White House on Sunday, July 18th. The sight of the disabled Wilson moved him to tears, changing the dynamic between the two men and ultimately the tenor of the whole campaign. Cox had been sufficiently lukewarm toward the League that Wilson was initially anything but enthusiastic about his candidacy. Now, however, the nominee impulsively pledged to Wilson his “million percent support” for the League. Cox’s ardor became emotive and personal, prompting him to tell one campaign audience that Wilson had been reduced to “the saddest picture in all history” by the ad-hominem hatred of his tormentors in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Harding tried to finesse the League issue. His willingness to consider a different “international association” or a souped-up version of the World Court left him open to charges of waffling. Moreover, the Democrats’ new commitment to the League gave Republican senators Henry Cabot Lodge, Hiram Johnson, and William Borah a reason to hold their candidate’s feet to the rejectionist fire. As Cox pronounced opposition to the League a betrayal of “the boys who died in France,” Lodge attacked the new organization as “a breeder of war.” By October 7th, Harding appeared ready to offer a straight answer. “I favor staying out,” he told the citizens of Des Moines.
The League issue came to the fore partly because it could be decided yes or no. Domestic anxieties never attained the same clarity but were ever present. In fact, the initials H.C.L., which turn up in headlines and stories, were shorthand not for Henry Cabot Lodge but for the high cost of living. Rising postwar prices for beef, coal, and sugar preoccupied householders and bureaucrats. The economic situation was not nearly as dire as the one strangling 2020, but then, as now, the federal response looked ham-fisted. The War Department sold off stockpiled canned meat, and the Justice Department’s H.C.L. task force recommended, as an affordable “common sense garment,” a dress made from sugar sacks. Until prices began coming down in September, Harding blamed the incumbent Democrats, in one speech intoning, with an ecstatic, Whitmanesque repetition, the phrase “more production,” as the essential cure for consumer woe. A protective tariff, he believed, was also in order.
Throughout the year, labor was restive. The Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, were said to be planning a “reign of terror” in the Pacific Northwest. The White House jawboned striking coal miners back to work, and threatened D.C. sewer workers, who were contemplating a walkout, with replacement by U.S. troops. The biggest, blackest headline of the campaign appeared in mid-September, after an attack on New York’s financial district: “20 KILLED IN WALL STREET EXPLOSION.” (The final death toll was thirty-eight.) Inside J. P. Morgan’s bank, as Beverly Gage reconstructed the scene in her book, “The Day Wall Street Exploded” (2009), one man experienced “a shudder followed by a blizzard of white” as “papers burst from their files.” On the streets outside, “men on fire dropped to the ground: ‘Save me! Save me! Put me out!’ Customers fled barbershops, with cream on their faces, aprons streaming behind. . . .” No one was ever convicted of the attack, but evidence pointed to Italian anarchists, heightening the appeals to nativism and isolationism.
The socialist Eugene V. Debs, already imprisoned for sedition in encouraging draft resistance during the war, continued a third-party Presidential campaign from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He told the press that he was glad to have an alibi for his whereabouts during the bombing.
Racial violence remained a phenomenon of such dailiness in 1920 that its occurrence, even when reported, was perceived as being more inevitable than eventful, something that required an occasional word from the candidates without anybody believing it would seriously affect the election. During the campaign, there were lynchings in Duluth, Minnesota; Paris, Texas; Graham, North Carolina; Corinth, Mississippi; Macclenny, Florida; and elsewhere. The Star had occasionally, over the previous year, published strong editorials against lynching, but the paper’s complacency more often prevailed. When it had reason to feature or consider the Civil War, only as distant from 1920 as the Kennedy Presidency is from our own day, it took satisfaction from lore and legend, and from North-South reconciliation—which (rather than emancipation) would be the dominant theme of the Lincoln Memorial, still under construction. The Star’s Sunday magazine made a serious revival of the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia and Georgia seem part of a colorful pageant being staged by reënactors: “The Old Klan, Its Mysterious Rites, the Blazing Cross and the Fantastic Costumes.”
Harding declared, in his speech accepting the nomination, “I believe the federal government should stamp out lynching,” but his party’s platform was more evasive: “We urge Congress to consider the most effective means to end lynching in this country.” The cravenness of the Convention document compelled the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs to withhold its endorsement from the G.O.P. ticket. The Democratic Party, the nation’s principal political guarantor of Jim Crow segregation for two more generations, offered even less. The word “lynching” doesn’t appear in the platform constructed in San Francisco, and when Cox, late in the campaign, wrote that his opponent was trying to “arouse racial hatred,” he meant that Harding was making too many pledges to Black citizens, which he had no “intention of carrying out.” During the last days of the campaign, a pamphlet claiming that Harding had Black ancestry received substantial press coverage, but too late to incite the full horror it intended.
Memory of the recent mass death from influenza underwent its own sort of quarantine, a mental feat akin to the general denial surrounding race. The pandemic had never received sustained attention from the federal government. Wilson didn’t address it in public, not even during its third wave, in 1919, when he remained preoccupied with peacemaking abroad. His detachment may have been enabled by something newly messianic in him, whereas Trump’s petulant self-pity over COVID-19 was inevitable from the start. But the Presidential vacuum feels shocking in either century. Harding, in 1919, had been one of two senators to propose a modest appropriation for research into the flu; in 1920, there was no serious campaign discussion of any public-health policies that might blunt future pandemics. Whooping cough, tuberculosis, and even anthrax (a possible danger from new shaving brushes) all found their way into the news, but the flu departed from political discussion as stealthily as it had once settled into people’s lungs.
The speed with which the disease’s ravaging was airbrushed from history remains a matter of mystery and speculation. In “America’s Forgotten Pandemic” (1989), Alfred W. Crosby suggests that the flu became in people’s minds “simply a subdivision of the war,” the other alien calamity that they were intent on forgetting. Few contagious diseases in that era were ever cured, and a practiced fatalism probably contributed to the willful adoption of what today we would call closure. Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to determine what happens on November 3rd, the flu played no discernible part in Harding’s election.
It may, however, have contributed subconsciously to the longing for normalcy. The fulfillment of that longing depended on erasure more than on scrutiny, nostalgia instead of vision. As Irving Stone, in his chapter on Cox in “They Also Ran” (1943), summed it up:
The people were tired: tired from the war, tired from the suffering and bloodshed, tired from hysteria, tired from being geared to the breaking point, tired from the vast expenditures of money and morale and man power, tired from eight years of idealism, tired from personal government. . . . For just a little while they wanted to be let alone, to sleep in the sun, to recoup their energies and their enthusiasm.
Cox promised a campaign of “ginger and jazz,” but Harding won by conducting a sort of non-campaign from his “front porch.” He occasionally travelled into competitive states, but Marion, Ohio, had a small-town camera-readiness that proved more effective than stumping. Harding made news greeting barefoot children or taking a vacation from what already appeared to be one: “Harding Lets Up in Campaign Work—Declares Holiday and Motors Forty Miles for Game of Golf.” Cox insisted that no one was going to keep him “muzzled” on any veranda, and he taunted Harding as if his opponent were Joe Biden “hiding in his basement.” But when Cox toured Western states, where voters were more sympathetic to the League, he risked becoming ensnared by local political squabbles that Harding was able to avoid.
There was one sea change that year: the triumph of women’s suffrage, on August 18th, when Tennessee ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. After decades of bitter conflict in which its proponents were mocked, imprisoned, and despised, both candidates were eager to be seen giving it a final push toward passage. Republicans pointed out that twenty-nine of the ratifying states were controlled by the G.O.P.; Cox argued that women’s traditional civilizing influence should make them natural supporters of the League. Will Hays, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who later codified motion-picture purity, hoped that settlement of the suffrage issue would add to “national security” and clarify the “political atmosphere.” Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, hoping to avoid any display “of the friction or collusions which may have developed in the long struggle for ratification,” chose to sign the new amendment, without any ceremony, at his home. The sudden absence of the contentious issue became one more ingredient of normalcy; the women’s crusade contributed to it by going away, like the war and the flu.
The long-term direction of the country turned out to depend not on who was at the top of each party’s ticket but on the Vice-Presidential nominees. The Republican Convention delegates, allowed a free hand in the matter, had picked the Massachusetts governor, Calvin Coolidge, newly famous for his tough handling of a Boston police walkout, in which he had declared, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Coolidge ended up serving twice as long as Harding in the White House, sanitizing the place with his dignified, even endearing probity. Throughout the 1920 campaign, he remained circumspect, allowing the image of thrifty Silent Cal to accrue: voters learned that he had not bought a new pair of shoes for the past two years. His biographer Amity Shlaes points out in “Coolidge” (2013) that his oratorical version of “normalcy” was “old times.”
Governor Cox selected the beguiling thirty-eight-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, for his running mate. But, if Roosevelt was his first choice, Cox wasn’t F.D.R.’s. One preliminary phase of the 1920 campaign feels like an alternate-history novel: Roosevelt was intrigued by the notion of being on a ticket that was headed by—wait for it—Herbert Hoover, the engineer turned nonpartisan public servant, hailed for saving Europe’s war refugees from starvation. (Hoover, alas, decided to become a Republican.)
Two weeks after being nominated with Cox, F.D.R. assured him that he was getting lots of favorable mail from progressive Republicans. Roosevelt did not point out that a portion of his supporters believed him to be Teddy’s son. He was soon on the stump from North Dakota to West Virginia, exhibiting a rhetorical talent that Cox could only envy. F.D.R. couldn’t get Coolidge to debate the League face to face, but he told Bostonians that the Republican platform was “a hymn of hate,” and insisted to Hoosiers that Harding’s pledge of party government amounted to “a syndicated presidency,” not leadership. Geoffrey C. Ward’s biography of the young Roosevelt, “A First-Class Temperament” (1989), depicts a devious, exhaustingly ambitious future President who, in 1920, explained to voters that normalcy would actually be “a mere period of coma in our national life.”
Warren Gamaliel Harding was elected President of the United States on his fifty-fifth birthday, November 2, 1920. Turnout was low, but voters provided Harding with a landslide and the Republican Party with nearly unassailable majorities in both houses of Congress. Debs polled almost a million votes for the Socialist Party, despite his imprisonment and the flood tide toward normalcy. The election results were quick, uncontested, and received with civility.
The Star felt certain that Harding would appoint “big men” to his Cabinet, and he did—Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, Hoover as Secretary of Commerce—along with some speckishly small and corrupt ones: Albert Fall, the eventual brewmaster of the Teapot Dome scandal, went to Interior, and Harry Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, became Attorney General. The cash-stuffed envelopes of “the Ohio Gang” soon began to upholster Washington. In the summer of 1923, increasingly mired in the scandals of subordinates, Harding embarked on a cross-country trip, a political reset that he dubbed the “Voyage of Understanding.” Before he could complete it, he died on August 2nd, probably of a heart attack, in a San Francisco hotel room, just twenty-nine months into his term. Cox later recalled him as “a warm-hearted man with most gracious impulses” who had been undone by a “preference for cronies of a lower type.”
Woodrow Wilson managed to outlive Harding and rode in his funeral procession, but, six months later, in February, 1924, those who still associated Wilson with freedom and self-determination were keeping a deathbed vigil, kneeling in prayer outside his house on S Street. Cox had by then returned to the newspaper business; a decade later, with F.D.R. in the White House, he declined his old running mate’s request to serve as Ambassador to Germany or as head of the Federal Reserve. Cox’s daughter (the baby in the rotogravure), Anne Cox Chambers, died in January, at the age of a hundred. In the past five years, ideological descendants of Debs, whose sentence Harding commuted in 1921 with a Christmastime handshake at the White House, have brought democratic socialism back into the mainstream of American political debate.
The Star expired early in the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, who, with admiration that had lingered since youth, hung Coolidge’s portrait in the White House Cabinet Room. The Star’s creamy white Beaux-Arts building still stands directly across from the city’s Old Post Office, once the office of the Postmaster General and now occupied under a sixty-year lease by guests of the Trump International Hotel. The country’s current Postmaster, Louis DeJoy, lives in Kalorama, at the corner of Connecticut and Wyoming Avenues. In August, demonstrators outside his apartment building, spurred by congressional accusations that DeJoy was trying to sabotage the mail-in voting that the President detests, shouted demands for his resignation.
Warren Harding’s house and front porch in Marion, Ohio, have undergone restoration in advance of the opening, next door, of a museum and library. Because of the greatest health emergency to envelop the United States since the Spanish-flu pandemic, the dedication of these new facilities, once scheduled for September 18th, has been postponed indefinitely. ♦