Posts Tagged ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt’

The President’s Grandson

September 4, 2015

President Warren G. Harding was one of the most popular Presidents of the United States at the time of his death in office in 1923. Since his death, Harding’s reputation has declined precipitously to the point that he is now regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The Teapot Dome scandal, which was only uncovered after Harding’s death has tainted his reputation, even though he was never implicated and was only made aware of the magnitude of the illegal dealings just before his death. It does reflect badly on Harding’s judgement of character that several of his appointees, including his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, and Director of the Veterans’ Bureau, Charles Forbes, were sent to prison for crimes committed while in office. His Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, only narrowly escaped a prison term.

Warren G Harding

Warren G Harding

Throughout Harding’s presidency there were rumors of his affairs. The most persistent of these rumors  involved a woman named Nan Britton who claimed to have an affair with Harding throughout his presidency in her 1928 book, The President’s Daughter.

Nan Britton and Elizabeth

Nan Britton and Elizabeth Ann

Britton identified Harding as the father of her daughter Elizabeth Ann, and claimed that he had promised to support their daughter, but Harding’s wife, Florence, had reneged on the promise after his death. Nan Britton had no real proof of her claims and was generally dismissed as a liar or delusional. Now, however, as I read in this story I found in the Oregonian,  DNA evidence confirms Nan Britton’s grandson, Jim Bleasing, is indeed the grandson of President Warren G. Harding. There is a good story about this in the Oregonian.

Jim Blaesing has known since he was a boy that he was the grandson of Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States.

The Southeast Portland man was very close to his grandmother, who openly shared stories of her love for the man who took office in 1921. And it’s always bothered him that so many people had dismissed her as “delusional” or labeled her as money-hungry, a fame seeker.

Nan Britton was disbelieved not only by members of Harding’s family, who proclaimed the story of the 6½ -year love affair a lie, but the history buffs who vigorously tried to discredit her over the decades.

“It just kept yanking at me and bugging me,” said Blaesing, a 65-year-old construction contractor.

So he finally decided to do something: Get his DNA tested.

All of those doubters were silenced last week with news — first reported on the front page of The New York Times — that Blaesing is indeed the grandson of the late president. Ancestry.com confirmed his relationship to Harding with a more than 99 percent certainty, by comparing Blaesing’s DNA with that of Harding’s grandnephew and grandniece.

There is a lot more there about Harding and his relationship with Nan Britton, but I am more interested in President Harding’s historical reputation. I am not sure he really deserves such a low ranking. If the Teapot Dome and other scandals count against President Harding, there are several solid accomplishments that in fairness ought to be held in his favor. If all too many of Harding’s appointees turned out to be corrupt or incompetent, some of the men he appointed to his cabinet have been among the best men who have ever served a president. These included Harding’s
Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. (Hoover’s lackluster tenure as president has tended to overshadow his very real accomplishments. In fact, Hoover was successful in every post he held except the presidency.)

In foreign policy, the Harding administration formally ended US involvement in World War I, a move necessary because the Senate had not ratified the Versailles treaty which ended the war. The State Department under Hughes began the negotiations that led to the agreement in 1924 to ease the burden of the war debts that the allies owed to the United States as well as the reparations applied to Germany. Hughes also participated in the disarmament talks which led to the agreement between the United States, Great Britain and Japan to limit the sizes of their navies. This did not turn out so well in hindsight, but no one knew that at the time, and Harding was eager to reduce the expenses that maintaining a large military entailed. Harding also curtailed US interventionism in Latin America, ending Wilson’s practice of invading Latin American nations on the slightest of pretexts.

In domestic policy, Harding inherited a nasty depression. Andrew Mellon proposed fighting the downturn with tax cuts. This policy seems to have worked well enough since the depression only lasted a year and there was an economic boom which lasted until 1929 and the Great Depression. It might seem that Harding’s record on the economy was rather better than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. Like everyone else at the time, Harding believed that Blacks were inferior to Whites, yet he believed that they should be given a fair chance and equal rights under the law. Harding supported federal anti-lynching legislation, but was never able to get it passed because of opposition from the Democrats. Harding also pardoned Eugene Debs and other people who Wilson had put in prison for opposing US participation in World War I. Despite the scandals, Harding did have a solid record of accomplishments in his short tenure in the White House, so why the bad press?

I think that part of the reason that Harding has become unpopular, at least among progressive historians, is that he campaigned on, and largely governed on, the theme that it was time for America to return to normalcy. He did not call for the sort of fundamental transformation of the nation and the world that Progressive Era presidents as Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson had. Compared to those two, more activist presidents, the Harding administration must have seemed dull and contemptible to the sort of people who desired a continuation of the reforms of the Progressive Era.

There may also have been some snobbishness involved. Harding was not an intellectual as Wilson or a member of a prominent family like the Roosevelts. He came from Marion Ohio, a small midwestern town. He did not attend Harvard or Princeton but Ohio Central College. He worked his way up from humble origins as the owner and publisher of the Marion Star, a failing newspaper that he managed to turn around to become successful. Despite his success in business and later in politics, Harding preferred the small town life. Harding himself was not known to be corrupt but he was something of a “good old boy”, the sort of back slapping local businessman or politician who is friends with everybody and a member of the all the clubs and is always ready for convivial poker games. In other words he was Babbitt, the sort of comfortable, ordinary member of the middle class or bourgeois that the more progressive intellectuals have always disdained. This dislike for the unintellectual Harding may have helped not a little to color the opinion of historians against Harding, condemning him for faults they might have forgiven in a president they felt more affection for.

I wouldn’t make the argument that Warren G. Harding was a great, or even a particularly good, president. He was not really up to the job and he showed a terrible lack of judgement in some of his appointments. Still, he did less damage to the country than some presidents better regarded than he. We could do worse.

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Rating the Presidents

February 18, 2013

While shopping at Goodwill yesterday, I came across a book called Presidential Leadership, published by the Wall Street Journal. This book features a collection essays assessing the historical legacy of each of the presidents from George Washington to George W Bush. The writers seem to be conservative commentators, so perhaps the collection has a rightward tilt. Still, I am sure the book will be interesting to read, although I have not had time to do more than skim through the book. Towards the end, after the essays about the presidents are essays about presidential leadership and appendices of various scholars’ attempts to rank the presidents. Since today is President’s Day, I thought I would write a little about the Presidents.

The three Presidents generally ranked the greatest are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. George Washington probably wouldn’t be considered much of a president today. He wasn’t an activist executive and he deferred to Congress. He might be considered a do-nothing president by today’s standards. Still, there is no question that he was one of our greatest presidents. He was the first and he had to work without any clear precedents or guidelines. Abraham Lincoln was also one of the greatest. A lesser man might have given upon the Civil War and let the South go. Lincoln had a clarity of vision that eludes most politicians and was willing to sacrifice his popularity and chances of reelection to do the right thing.

I am not sure Roosevelt deserves to be considered one of the greatest presidents. His New Deal policies probably prolonged the Depression. That was not his intent and he does deserve credit for raising the nation’s morale in a difficult time, yet it has become clear that he really didn’t have any idea what he was doing. Roosevelt was an effective war time leader. In general, he picked the right men for doing the job, especially George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. His only fault in the handling of that war was his trust of Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt seemed to be unaware that Stalin was just as vicious and evil as Hitler and believed that Stalin could be handled like any other politician. In this, Roosevelt may have been badly advised by the members of his administration who were Communists, or Communist sympathizers. To the extent that Roosevelt was unaware of the treacherous leanings of some of his staff, he deserves the blame for the concessions he made at the Yalta Conference. I also believe that Roosevelt did poorly in running for  a third and then fourth term. He reversed the long standing precedent that a president should only serve two terms. It may well have been that Roosevelt felt that no one else could do the job effectively, but the foundation of a republic rests on the concept that no one man is indispensible. In any event, by 1944 Roosevelt was in failing health and must have know he would not have live to finish another term.

The worst presidents are generally regarded to be Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and James Buchanan. These seem to be fair assessments, except for Warren Harding. He did possess remarkably poor judgment in selecting his subordinates, which led to a series of scandals late in his administration, yet Harding ended Woodrow Wilson’s more egregious civil rights violations, released the anti-war protestors and Socialist that Wilson had jailed, and did his best to return the country to normalcy. I kind of suspect that Harding’s low rankings have as much to do with ending “progressive” policies as any thing else.

I think something similar could be said of Ulysses S. Grant. He also exhibited poor judgement in some of his appointments and there were a series of scandals in his administration. Grant, like Harding, tried to return the country to normalcy after the horrendous Civil War and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. He fought for the rights of the former slaves and used military action to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. He even believed that the Indians should be treated decently.  I think that the low ranking Grant is usually given reflects the ire of Southern historians who were outraged that anyone should defend the Blacks, not to mention Grant’s key role in winning the Civil War.

John F Kennedy is almost certainly the most overrated president. For all his charisma and sympathy from the intellectual class, he didn’t actually do all that much. He does deserve some credit for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it should be remembered that that crisis would not have arisen at all if he had handled the Bay of Pigs invasion. He ought to have either given the rebels his full support or cancelled the operation entirely. By allowing it to go ahead but withholding air support, he assured its failure and made himself look weak and foolish. Kennedy’s reputation would not have been  so favorable if he had not been assassinated. As it is, his ranking has gone steadily downward over the years.

Thomas Jefferson is another overrated president. He was an accomplished man, in many ways, but he was not a very good president. His second term was a disaster.

Richard Nixon is an unusual case. By all respects, he should have been a successful president. He got us out of Viet Nam without actually losing the war. He negotiated the SALT agreement with the Soviet Union and opened up relations with China. Nixon was the president who created the EPA and large scale Affirmative Action. Yet, Nixon is often regarded as a failure. This is, of course, because of the Watergate scandal. Watergate was, in itself, not so large a deal as has often been reported, previous presidents have done far worse. The intense and increasing partisanship in American politics caused the scandal to assume an outsized role and ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation. I wouldn’t regard Nixon as a great president, however. He was at least partly to blame for the enmity held against him.

The greatest president you have never heard of is James K. Polk. He may have been the only president to have actually fulfilled all of his campaign promises. He served only a single term but did more than most presidents have in two terms. Polk expanded the territory of the United States by provoking and winning the Mexican War while negotiating a peaceful settlement with Great Britain over the boundaries of the Oregon Territory.

Another great but forgotten president is Grover Cleveland. He was an honest and strong man who fought to keep the government honest. He favored a strong money policy over those who wanted the government to expand the money supply and create inflation, ostensibly to help the cash poor farmers of the West. He also limited government spending.

Presidential reputations change over time, sometimes due to changing ideas about what a president should be, and sometimes because new information about a president is revealed. I have already noted Kennedy’s declining reputation. It seems that the more one looks beyond the myth of Camelot, the tawdrier the whole thing appears. Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, has become more respected over the years. Eisenhower was a popular president, but the general feeling has been that he was a rather relaxed chief executive who didn’t do much. As more has been learned about his administration, historians have discovered that he was a very active president indeed. Eisenhower was not much concerned with getting credit for his actions and so was underestimated. Another president whose reputation has improved is Harry S. Truman. Truman is well thought of today, but he was a very unpopular president. He left the office with a job approval rating of 22%, lower that Richard Nixon’s and about the same as George W. Bush’s. Somehow, Truman’s blunt, uncompromising personality looks a lot better in hindsight, and history seems to have vindicated his policies on the Cold War. Perhaps the same will be true of Bush.

There is a lot more that I could say about the presidents. I have barely scratched the surface in rating some of the presidents and here are so many that I haven’t even mentioned. This post is starting to get overly long, however, so I think I will end it here. The presidents do make a fascinating subject and I am sure I will find more to right about.

FDR Warned about Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2011

This report from Yahoo News tells of a new book  by Craig Shirley, December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World in which he writes that FDR actually had information that the Japanese were about to attack Pearl Harbor. No, this doesn’t mean that Roosevelt knew it would happen. Just as our intelligence personnel did not connect the dots prior to 9/11, so Roosevelt’s intelligence people did not sift through the information they had acquired.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and it would be easy to fault Roosevelt for not seeing what to us seems obvious, that Japan was getting ready to attack. Of course he did not have the advantage of knowing what we now know. Still I think it is amazing that everyone in the Roosevelt administration consistently underestimated the Japanese and didn’t consider the possibility of a sneak attack. After all, the Japanese had begun both the Russo-Japanese War and the Sino-Japanese War in just that way. I suppose that racism played a part. They just didn’t consider that Asians of any sort could be a real threat

 


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