Back to normalcy

Like most politicians, W. G. Harding was only semi-literate, yet well above the average. The Ivy League types are still querying his use of “normalcy,” which the Natted States president used during his election campaign of 1920. Harding himself ranks low in the polls of “Great American Presidents,” though he was quite popular until his death. That mistake, committed after a heart attack in San Francisco, anno 1923, was the first of several. It was discovered that his administration had been rather corrupt, and himself guilty of an adultery. One might say he was “impeached,” posthumously. Today, they impeach Republican presidents for breathing.

Warren Gamaliel Harding is naturally among my favourite presidents. This has something to do with his “return to normalcy.” For the better part of a decade, his countrymen had suffered under the ministrations of progressive Democrats, such as the unspeakable Woodrow Wilson, and from such foreign entanglements as the First World War. The federal budget was being blown to heck, and society was on the verge of the Jazz Age.

Harding, who stayed home in Marion, Ohio, for most of his presidential campaign — rather than “pressing the flesh” and risking the influenza — won by a landslide, promising: “Not heroics, but healing; … 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.”

Oh yes and, “not nostrums, but normalcy.”

The quote, which I have filched from the Wicked Paedia, is semi-literate throughout. Harding was a man who had an unhealthy relationship with a dictionary, and to his other sins, we must add an addiction to semi-colons. Still, “The Peeple” could guess what he meant. He wanted America to move backwards. He thought the whole country should forget about recent lunatic adventures, and return to her wonted calm.

Unfortunately, she would become further entangled in “events” — including very dicey economic ideas — and she was back to mainlining on Progress, and paying for it, after the Great Stock Crash. But in the meanwhile, Harding and his successors Coolidge and Hoover had succeeded in being relatively boring, which is all one can hope in a politician. (Trump could be criticized for being relatively interesting.)

It is the backwardness of Harding that still appeals to me. The task he set, of returning status quo ante the Great War, strikes me as an unattainable ideal. Ninety-nine years have passed, and we are even farther from it; I expect little from the centenary. But it remains movement in the right direction. More generally, we should honour the principle of non-participation in trends.

Much was wrong with the world before 1914. As evidence, it was “trending” towards that Great Conflagration. But then, there is always much wrong with the world. Rather than try to fix the problems, which largely fix themselves over time, in order to accommodate new problems, our ambition should be to not make them worse.

As Harding and his like distantly perceived, we should turn our attention to fixing ourselves, rather than the incorrigible world. Even in his case, there was room for improvement.