If an optimist is a man who makes lemonade out of all the lemons that are handed to him, men Senator Harding is the greatest of all optimists. He has been told by his friends and his critics that he is colorless and without sap, commonplace and dull, weak and servile. Right you are, says the Senator. You have described exactly the kind of man this country needs. It has tried Roosevelt and Wilson, and look. It can't stand the gaff. I am nothing that they were. I am no superman like Roosevelt and no superthinker like Wilson. Therefore, I am just the man you are looking for. How do I know that? I am distinguished by the fact that nothing distinguishes me. I am marked for leadership because I have no marks upon me. I am just the man because no one can think of a single reason why I am the man. If any one happens to think of a reason then I shall cease to be that normal man which these abnormal times demand.
Just what is Mr. Harding trying to say anyway? Presumably some idea is lodged in his brain and panting for utterance beyond the normal human impulse to find a good reason for his own candidacy. For the sake of good appearances in history, I suppose that Mr. Harding is not exalting his defects as do the preternaturally wise animals in Clarence Day's This Simian World. He can't just be the one-eyed man who is against two-eyed men, or the tortoise who thinks the hare leads too fast a life. Some other idea is sprouting on that front porch in Marion.
That idea, probably, is that the Presidency has grown too big for any man, and that the time has come for decentralizing its power. There are conceivably two ways this might be done. One way would be to think out a plan for adapting responsible cabinet government to the congressional system. It is a way that would require an abnormal lot of thinking. It would require also a quarrel with Congress. For until Congress disgorges its petty control over the details of administration. Congress will not be fit to take upon itself major control of executive policy. But Congress at present is so much concerned with the things that do not belong to it, that it has no opportunity to be concerned with the things that do. The relation of Congress to administration is like that of a general staff so tremendously interested in the second lieutenants that it ignores the lieutenant-generals. The result is that the general can't command the lieutenants, and the lieutenants' hair is forever standing on end while they try to obey the swivel chairs. Mr. Harding's remedy for this is to sack the general and find someone who will be content with four stars and will keep his mouth shut.
There is something in it. If you can't think of any way to redistribute the functions of government, then all you have to do is to find a President who will be so weak that power will leave him. That is the inner meaning of Mr. Harding's nomination. He was put there by the Senators for the sole purpose of abdicating in their favor. The Grand Dukes have chosen their weak Tsar in order to increase the power of the Grand Dukes. And if he is elected the period will be known in our constitutional history as the Regency of the Senate.
What will this accomplish? It will reduce the prestige and the power of the White House. Will it create a better balance of prestige and power in the whole government? Hardly. The gentlemen who intend to benefit by Mr. Harding's abnormal normality are a group tiny enough to meet in a hotel bedroom. They are not the elected Congress of the United States. Their rise to power would mean not the restoration of a balance between executive and legislature but the substitution of government by a clique for the lonely majesty of the President. Dangerous as is the plight we are in, it has at least the advantage of visibility. The President may be an autocrat, yet every one knows where that autocrat lives. But the government of a clique, an invisible, self-invited collection of friends, would be just nothing but the return of exactly what every decent person has fought against for a generation.
That the glory of the normal should be presented to a weary nation as the purest Republican doctrine according to the Fathers is one of those paradoxes which Mr. Chesterton says, always sit beside the wells of truth. It is in fact primitive Democratic doctrine. I h at doctrine has always been that anybody could govern, that leadership was dangerous, excellence somewhat un-American, and specialized knowledge somewhat sinister. The Republicans from Hamilton's time on have always professed belief that ability mattered, and that no system of government could succeed in which the best men were not preeminent. They may have had some queer notions about what constituted the best men, but they have at least done this republic the service of refusing to accept the idea that anybody could do anything. They have not in theory at least stooped to encourage the democratic vices. Mr. Harding does. I hate to say it, but he is in ultimate theory a great deal closer to Mr. Bryan than he is to any great Republican from Hamilton to Root. For Mr. Bryan has that same simple faith that any deserving fellow can do anything, which Mr. Harding has now brought forth from the caverns of his mind.
This article originally ran in the July 21, 1920, issue of the magazine.