President Warren G. Harding holds his first cabinet meeting in 1921. (Library of Congress)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Ron Smith is a fifth-generation Kansan, a native of Manhattan, an attorney practicing in Larned, a grandfather several times over, a Vietnam veteran and a civil war historian.
It is hard to become, and then remain, a bona fide political mugwump.
A mugwump is someone who wants to remain aloof from party politics. I find snake balls more fascinating than a political gathering of like-minded pachyderms and mules who believe in the sainted majesty of their leaders.
As the cowboy poker players would warn, never put your trust in kings and princes: Three triplets takes ’em every day.
The American Constitution was never intended to produce saints. The best we can hope for are good bipartisan leaders.
Kansas is a land of contrasts and first-in-the-country politics. Because the true mugwump can’t identify with the parties, we should praise our uniqueness. In 1880, Kansas enacted its own prohibition. It took 40 years for the rest of the country to catch up. Our prohibition was a tad unusual, though. You could buy beer in a saloon, but purchasing hard liquor required that you swear an oath that the liquor was for medicinal purposes. Overnight, many Kansans came down with weird illnesses.
My favorite sworn disease from that era was creeping intellectual paralysis. That would support a snort or two. Strangely, we find that disease infecting our current political crop. We’ve had our share of mindless politicians who remind us mugwumps of the Donald Trumps and Joe Bidens of the world. Trump is waiting to be the replacement if there is a vacancy in the Trinity. Biden is still reading Genesis.
In 2022, we elected a group of not-so-greats. They are more concerned with stirring up the masses and poking the opposition in the eye than solving problems. The current whack-a-mole contest between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is an example. It used to be that Republicans claimed Democrats, when forming a firing squad, created a circle. Seems to me that orbit has changed. Democrats are laughing gleefully at Trump’s GOP, which is already spiraling.
All we can hope for in Washington is that the government doesn’t gimble lock.
Can we remain aloof but still admire some politicians? History shows some of our lesser-known, second-rank presidents did remarkable things.
Consider Warren G. Harding.
By 1920, the country had had its bellyful of Woodrow Wilson’s Ivy League, professorial priggishness. He was losing popularity at home. While in Europe after World War I, Wilson caught the Spanish flu, had a stroke, lingered and died. The same year, Harding defeated Wilson’s protégé, Democrat James Cox, to win the presidency.
Harding became as popular as Teddy Roosevelt during his presidency, which was cut short by poor health. He promised a return to normalcy, a backhanded slap at Wilson. Harding cut taxes, left folks alone and let the country’s economy grow. He released the anti-war political prisoners Wilson had thrown into jail.
These things lead one to hope that we shall find an adjustment of relations between the two races, in which both can enjoy full citizenship, the full measure of usefulness to the country and of opportunity for themselves, and in which recognition and reward shall at last be distributed in proportion to individual deserts, regardless of race or color.
– Warren G. Harding
The 1920s were roaring. Everything modernized, including farms once the Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity out to the countryside.
One of the more interesting speeches on race relations in American politics was given during this time by Harding. It took considerable courage. He gave it in October 1921 in Birmingham, Alabama, five months after the deadly massacre in Tulsa that killed 36 and injured more than 800. Jim Crow laws were prominent in many states, including Alabama, and the Klan was a political power during the 1920s, including in Kansas.
Harding spoke to a segregated audience. While stating that the social and racial differences between white and Black people could not be bridged quickly, the president said Black Americans had fought in large numbers in France. He urged equal political rights, stating that Black Americans had earned the right of racial equality at law.
“These things lead one to hope that we shall find an adjustment of relations between the two races, in which both can enjoy full citizenship, the full measure of usefulness to the country and of opportunity for themselves, and in which recognition and reward shall at last be distributed in proportion to individual deserts, regardless of race or color,” he said.
The audience was stone quiet when Harding finished. Cheers then erupted, from the back rows.
Harding was the first American president of either party to openly call for political racial equality. Contrast that to Democrat Wilson’s totalitarianism regarding the politics of WWI, and his blatant racism (he fired all Black people from federal government employment). Even Abraham Lincoln, before his assassination, and before he was president, failed the equality test. Lincoln wanted slavery abolished, but not equality. What he might have agreed to as racial policy in a full second term, John Wilkes Booth ended.
Instead of another Trump or Biden, maybe we mugwumps can find us a Harding wanting a return to normalcy. In his May 1920 speech to a political club in Boston, Harding said what can easily be adopted now:
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
Upon Harding’s unexpected and fatal heart attack, his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, assumed the presidency. Silent Cal had little to say on anything. He certainly had no opinions on race or what constituted normalcy.
As the Roaring ’20s moved us inexorably toward the Great Depression, Harding showed us mugwumps that second-rank presidents can outshine the guys claiming spots in the front row.
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