Blogs > Cliopatria > You've Got To Be Kidding! ...

Jun 13, 2004 4:34 am

You've Got To Be Kidding! ...

Is a blog which finally talks itself into suggestingthat Warren G. Harding was the greatest American presidentstill to be taken seriously as a history blog? Does it suggest an inherent incompatibility between being a historian and being a libertarian? At what point does ideology give way to madness?

Janadas Devan's"He Made Conservatives the Party of Hope" in The Straits Times, on the other hand, is a strong, well-reasoned interpretation of Ronald Reagan's historical importance. It suggests why the libertarian hope was never well invested in Reaganite conservatism, which makes the state the vehicle of"large purposes." Both libertarians, on the one hand, and moralistic conservatives, on the other, find their rhetoric embraced by corporate statist conservatives, but they both have been and will be frustrated by the policies of corporate conservatism. Whether American liberalism can recover a vision of"large purposes," to which Devan refers, remains to be seen.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

David T. Beito - 6/15/2004

To add to Keith's point, let me also point out that it does not pass the smell test to argue that FDR (so able to bend the rules to get his way and go to extremes to using the trading with the enemy act to ban gold) was helpless to find a refuge for the Jews in the 1930s.

Let's assume, however, that his hands were tied on immigration law. This would not have prevented him from helping to find a refuge for the Jews in third countries (including the various African colonies). Despite many opportunities to do this, he should no interest in taking action on this front. He was fairly consistent on his lack of action. When he heard news about the death camps, he showed no interest in bombing either the camps or the railway tracks into the camps.

Having said this, I do agree that Harding was wrong to sign the immigration restriction legislation.....but then he could have never anticipated the persecution of the Jews in Germany, much less seen the obvious harbingers of the Holocaust that became apparent in the 1930s. FDR does not have this excuse for his decision to turn away the St. Louis.

Keith Halderman - 6/15/2004

The argument is that FDR was a great President. Just the facts as you interpret them and present them above, I believe, negate that argument.

In the 1920s when those immigration laws were passed Hitler had not risen to power and the Jews were receiving no more than the usual amount of persecution. By the mid-1930s and surely after Kristal Nacht it was clear that something extordinary was happening. Plenty of people asked Roosevelt to help and he did nothing despite having solid control of Congress.

It is true that there is not a steady rise in unemployment during FDR first two terms but when it went down it did not go down enough to make a substanial difference. If you talk about 1935, 1936 those years are pretty widely considered part of the Great Depression. As for the notion that spending cuts caused the 1938 downturn, that is pure Keynesian Economics and we just had a week long funeral for the man who is beloved largely because discredited them. My question has always been if Roosevelt was such a good President how come everybody was so poor when he was in office?

Native Americans, often at war with the United States, were not citizens and repatriation to another country is not the same as confinement behind barb wire, I stand by my original statement. Besides if you are maintaining that someone was a great President then saying other people did bad things too is not really an effective argument.

FDR's failure to give more than retorical support for anti-lynching legislation is but one example of how his policies had an adverse effect on the lives of Black people. I would refer you to a book by Nancy Weis titled Farewell to the Party of Lincoln. And when you mention Harding you are again making that others did bad things too argument.

As to how Roosevelt could have helped the people of Eastern Europe, he could have not run for a fourth term and someone whose health was not so bad they could only work four hours a day would have been dealing with Stalin. I do not recall if FDR was still alive at the time but I do know that our tropps stopped their advance so that the Russians could take Berlin. I also know that we gave back part of Czechosolvakia and made many refugees return to the East against.

When I first began to study history I read an essay by Eugene Genovese on being a Marxist and a historian. He argued there was no conflict because he would follow the facts as faithfully as possible and he was confident they would vindicate his beliefs. I have that same attitude and I wish to point out two facts. Dr. Genovese later renounced Marxism and became a devout politically conservative Catholic, he paid attention to the facts. Secondly, everything that I have learned in the study of history, much, perhaps most of it written by leftist historians, has confirmed my belief in Classical Liberal principles.

Keith Halderman - 6/15/2004

It was Bill Clinton who signed the law which made a person's sexual history material in cases where they are accused of sexual harrassment. I agree with you when you say "Whether he had consensual sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky had nothing to do with what happened in the hotel room with Paula Jones." However, Bill Clinton only agrees with that logic when it applies to him. When it comes to the rest of us he wants a different set of rules. There is a name for that it is called tyranny.

Jonathan Rees - 6/15/2004

I was referring to Daugherty and other Ohioans, not Fall. I can paraphrase the famous Harding quote for you: "My enemies don't scare me, but it's my friends who keep me up walking the floors at night." I don't know the original source, but remember most if not all of the Harding scandals didn't break until after he's dead.


PS Clinton is not in jail because lying and perjury are not the same thing. The lie has to be material to the case for it to be a crime. Whether he had consensual sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky had nothing to do with what happened in the hotel room with Paula Jones. And by the way, what court are you talking about?

David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

Harding knew? I don't know of any historian who argues that! In fact, the most reliable story is the Harding angrily shook Forbes by the lapel once he found out shortly before his death. I certainly have never heard it claimed in any shape or form that Harding knew about Fall and the oil leases.

A court found Clinton in contempt for lying.....and nearly every Clinton defender admits that he lied under oath. Why didn't he serve jail time like ordinary slobs like Barbara Batalino for lying about consensual sex? Good question.

Jonathan Rees - 6/14/2004


Bill Clinton may not have told the truth when first asked about Monica Lewinsky, but he, nor any of his Cabinet secretaries (unless Mike Espy copped to a misdemeanor to get the Independent Counsel off his back) have ever been convicted of any crime. You (like so many other Clinton-haters) just accused him of committing a felony. If he did, why isn't he in jail right now? Had Warren Harding lived, he may not have been so fortunate. He knew what his Ohio cronies were doing and did nothing.

Having said that I must admit, that I've been thinking the same thing (about looking better all the time) with regard to Ronald Reagan for about a year now.


David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

No offense taken.

David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

I never said the story was a myth.....though Robert Ferrell (certainly not a wacko libertarian) makes a convincing argument that Britton was liar. Having said that, it is clear that Harding had affairs.....but big deal! So did Kennedy (Harding was innocent compared to him), FDR, LBJ, and Woodrow "near great" Wilson.

My objection was never to Clinton's affairs or even doing BJ's in the oval office. His offense was to perjure himself in a sexual harassment (under sex discrimination rules he supported!) suit even while his justice department sent others, such as Barbara Battalino, for lying about *consensual sex.* Perhaps it is Clinton who owes people like Battalino an apology. He should have pardoned her....that is if perjury "about sex" should not be punished.

Having said that, I must admit that Clinton is looking beter all the time compared to the man the currently occupies the White House who I believe has probably committed several impeachable offenses.

Christopher Riggs - 6/14/2004

Two clarifications:

1. My post is in response primarily to Prof. Halderman's (and to a lesser extent to Prof. Beito's) post(s).

2. I am not trying to in any way impugn the scholarly credentials of either Prof. Halderman or Prof. Beito. I am sure they are both fine historians.

Christopher Riggs - 6/14/2004

I have no problem criticizing FDR, but Prof. Halderman’s critique is problematic in many respects.

Roosevelt’s decision to turn away persecuted European Jewish refugees seeking to immigrate to the United States is indeed a serious blot on his record. But let’s remember that in denying entry to those Jewish refugees, the administration was enforcing immigration restriction policies passed in the 1920s by Republican-controlled Congresses and signed by Republican presidents. In fact, Harding called Congress into special session in 1921 so that it could pass and he could sign an immigration restriction law vetoed by Wilson. (Coolidge signed an even more restrictive immigration act in 1924.)

Prof. Halderman’s use of the dates 1933-38 for arguing that the unemployment rate simply went up under Roosevelt before WWII is misleading. Unemployment declined during FDR’s 1st term, but shot up in 1937-38 (the so-called “Roosevelt Recession”) when FDR cut spending on New Deal programs.

The Japanese internment was unquestionably disgraceful. However, Prof. Halderman’s phraseology obscures the fact that the United States has a long history of forcibly removing and/or confining groups of people—consider the forced removal of American Indians and their confinement to reservations, the forced repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in 1931, and the like. This does not and should not in any way excuse the treatment of the Japanese and Japanese Americans in the U.S. during WWII, but I think it is useful to recognize that FDR’s action was, unfortunately, not as unprecedented as Prof. Halderman’s post suggests.

The Roosevelt administration’s record on civil rights is, to be sure, not all that one could hope for. FDR did criticize lynching and said he favored an anti-lynching bill in 1934-35. However, he refused to spend political capital to secure passage of that bill because he feared that doing so would alienate Southern Democratic committee chairs and prompt them to retaliate by blocking New Deal economic legislation. Sadly, FDR didn’t exactly act with much political courage on this issue.

But I think it’s fair to ask why his Republican predecessors like Harding didn’t pass an anti-lynching law. After all, Harding won in 1920 with the largest percentage of the popular vote ever garnered by a presidential candidate to that date. He had solid GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. Presumably most of the committee chairs were not representing states committed to preserving legalized segregation, and presumably Harding didn’t have to worry that backing anti-lynching legislation would run the risk of derailing an expansive economic policy agenda. Wasn’t he in an ideal position (at least as ideal a position as one could get at that time) to win passage of such a law? Prof. Beito points out that Harding supported an anti-lynching bill. Yet, I cannot help but wonder whether Harding’s support was backed up by substantial political capital or whether it was largely symbolic—in contrast to, say, his aforementioned support of anti-immigrant legislation.

Prof. Halderman suggests that Eastern Europeans were Roosevelt’s to do with as he wished in 1944-45 and that he chose to consign them to life under Communism. By early 1945, however, the Red Army, not the U.S. Army, had already occupied much of Eastern Europe. What exactly should FDR have done? Should he have delayed liberating France and instead gone into the Balkans in 1944 in the hopes of countering Soviet influence in Eastern Europe at the risk of prolonging the war against Germany and Japan? Should he have cut off lend lease aid to the Soviets (an American ally) and thereby given an advantage to Nazi Germany (one of America’s enemies)? Should he have severed the anti-Axis wartime alliance with Stalin, thereby making it less likely that Stalin would agree to FDR’s proposal to enter the war against Japan and thus lessen the burden on American forces in the Asia/Pacific Theater? (Remember that the U.S. had not developed a working A-Bomb at the time of FDR’s death.) Should he have used American air power to bomb Soviet troops in Poland—that is, should the United States have gone to war with the Soviet Union even before Germany and Japan had been defeated? That Eastern Europeans lived under Communism for decades is tragic, but Prof. Halderman fails to suggest exactly what Roosevelt could or should have done to prevent it.

Prof. Halderman is correct that FDR was not a saint. But with all due respect, his post seems to be more in keeping with his role as a libertarian activist ( than as a historian. He certainly has the right to say what he wishes about FDR, but I cannot help but feel that his post provides evidence for Prof. Luker’s original contention that there is a tension between being a good libertarian and being a good historian.

Jonathan Rees - 6/14/2004


John Mitchell did jail time for actions taken while running CREEP, not for what he did as Attorney General.

The name of Harding's mistress was Nan Britton (spelling may be off). You may not believe her story (as I don't think there were reliable paternity tests to check back then), but she was not a myth.


PS Isn't it convenient that Republican presidents' sexual foibles are myths while everything Democratic presidents allegedly did while in office are instantly accepted? I would be delighted to take this whole issue off the table and concede that Harding was wonderful if you'll write Bill Clinton an apology on behalf of conservatives everywhere.

David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

I believe that other cabinet secretaries did as well.

David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

Do you have actual evidence to present (as I did) to sustain your point of view who do you take it on ideological faith?

David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

The woman in the closet is a myth. JFK's escapades, of course, would easily put even the closet story to shame.

Read Ferrell.

Albert Fall was an extremely popular Senator and his appointment was much praised sailed through without any significant opposition. Now, Fall was convicted of a single count of selling oil leases. Is this defensible? Certainly not. It should be said, however, that he engaged in behavior which had been fairly routine for government officials. I am not arguing that Harding was as pure as the driven snow only that the corruption in his administration needs to be fairly compared to other presidents.

Jonathan Rees - 6/14/2004

The name of Harding's less-than-stellar cabinet appointment was Albert Fall. And, if it wasn't clear enough, the woman in the closet with President Harding was not his wife.


Jonathan Rees - 6/14/2004


Let's push this argument a little more, why don't we? Warren Harding conceived a child in a White House closet and these guys want to canonize him??? I assume apology letters to Bill Clinton will be in the mail by the morning. After all, what part of peace and prosperity do you not understand?

Jonathan Rees

PS Harding also appointed the only Cabinet Secretary ever to do jail time for what he did on the job (his name eludes me but he was Secretary of the Interior) and Harding's Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, came very close to joining him.

David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

Read my blog. Ralph links it in his blog. I provide a long list of reasons.

David T. Beito - 6/14/2004

As Keith points out, the evidence for corruption, favoritism, and abuses of power in the FDR administration is substantial. I do admit that he had a sense of humor about it was often able to deflect media attention through such devices as the Fala speech. All of Warren's sins, however, are insignificant compared to FDR's dangerous attempt to pack the Supreme Court.

Harding also had a far greater appreciation of civil liberties in other ways....including the release of Debs. FDR's first inclination after Pearl Harbor, on the other hand, was to prosecute the Chicago Tribune for sedition. Fortunately, his more sensible attorney general was able to block that.

Keith Halderman - 6/13/2004

Let us take a quick inventory of the accomplishments of Saint Roosevelt. He slammed the door in the face of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. He was the first American President to put American citizens into concentration camps. He managed to get Blacks to vote for him despite the fact that he did nothing stop lynching in this country. He kept the depression going for more than seven years with his anti-business policies. Between 1933 and 1938 he raised the unemployment rate and put more families on the dole. He criminalized the largely harmless practice of marijuana smoking. He consigned millions of people in Eastern Europe to a life under communism. He forced people who wanted to do business with the goverment to buy insurance policies from his son. He left us with the Ponzi scheme we call social security. And, I could go on at much greater length. You are right Warren Harding cannot match that record of accomplishment.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/13/2004

Fair question, David. If you do not believe that the federal government should have "large purposes," I suppose that you can look fondly on Harding. You'd have to ignore the corruption and scandal, of course, but if you took them into account I should think that even Calvin Coolidge would outrank him. But seriously -- in the company of Washington, Lincoln, FDR? The problem with libertarian rankings is that positive accomplishment almost necessarily magnifies the role of government, which is what you oppose.

David T. Beito - 6/13/2004

Good question Ralph! You offered no evidence for your assertion. Ralph I offered evidence for my argument. You merely accused me of supporting "madnesss" and didn't bother with facts e.g. you used the methods of an ideologue. If my facts are wrong, give me an example. BTW, I didn't argue that WH was the "greatest" president, though I suppose it is a small detail since I would put him in at least the near great category.

Michael E Lawton - 6/13/2004

Btw,libertarians have never seen a cart they didn't insist on putting before a horse.

They also have a bad habit of being as ideologically rigid as any sophomore marxist with a black beret,Che t-shirt and dogged eared copy of Derrida.

Or tenured humanities professors,for that matter.

Michael E Lawton - 6/13/2004

You show me your's,I'll show you mine.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/13/2004

Your evidence?

Michael E Lawton - 6/13/2004

"Does it suggest an inherent incompatibility between being a historian and being a libertarian?"

Is there an inherent incompatibility between being a historian and a political/social leftist?