[Full disclosure: This is an experiment in ChatGPT journalism from a retired non-journalist in Mesa, Arizona. Overall, the AI input for this project has provided some incredible results, but you have to ask the right questions. Surprisingly, many responses had to be altered after finding numerous conflicting facts, demonstrating the drawbacks involved in this type of research. One interesting footnote about ChatGPT: if you request Internet links to stories related to your inquiry, the bot will provide them, but I’ve tried this several times and the links never resolve to the story, nor does the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive have any record of them. Your mileage may vary … just keep that note in mind. Selected quotations are from my own research and obviously, the photos are not supplied by our friendly AI bot.]
Warren Harding, publisher, and editor of the Ohio Marion Star, was active in politics throughout his life. He served as an Ohio state Senator (1900-1904), as Lieutenant Governor of Ohio (1904-1906), and as a United States Senator (1915-1921). On May 14, 1920, Harding presented a speech to the Home Market Club in Boston. In this address, Harding expressed his desire for the United States to revert to a state of “normalcy” following a period of progressive policies and involvement in foreign affairs. His vision resonated with the American people, and in the subsequent presidential election, Harding secured the largest proportion of the popular vote ever recorded up until then.
Library of Congress: “Presidential Election of 1920.”
By 1920, World War I was over. The wartime boom had collapsed. Diplomats and politicians were arguing over peace treaties and the question of America’s entry into the League of Nations. Overseas there were wars and revolutions; at home there were strikes, riots and a growing fear of radicals and terrorists. Disillusionment was in the air.
The giants who had dominated the political scene for a generation were gone — Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919 and Woodrow Wilson was a broken invalid living in seclusion. Even so, the presidential election of 1920 continued the debate between the nationalistic activism of Roosevelt’s presidency and the global idealism of Wilson’s administration.
On June 8, 1920, the Republicans nominated Warren G. Harding, an Ohio newspaper editor and United States Senator, to run for president with Calvin Coolidge, governor of Massachusetts, as his running mate. The Democrats nominated another newspaper editor from Ohio, Governor James M. Cox, as their presidential candidate, and thirty-seven-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt for vice president.
The presidential election of 1920 was the last election campaign made accessible to the public solely through the use of record albums. By election night — November 2, 1920 — the “election campaign by phonograph” was a thing of the past, superseded by the first commercial radio broadcast coverage of election returns.
The 1920 election took place in the aftermath of World War I, during a period of economic uncertainty and a severe recession. Democratic Governor James M. Cox’s affiliation with the Wilson administration, which many blamed for the post-war economic downturn, proved detrimental to his campaign. Harding, on the other hand, advocated for a pro-business agenda and promised to address the economic challenges facing the nation. This resonated with voters who sought stability and a boost in the economy.
The Warren Harding election scheme of 1920 is often referred to as the “Front Porch” campaign because of the unique approach Harding took to campaign for the presidency. During that time, candidates usually traveled extensively, making speeches and holding rallies across the country to reach voters. However, Harding adopted a different strategy.
Instead of embarking on a nationwide tour, Harding conducted his campaign primarily from his own home in Marion, Ohio. He made use of his front porch as a platform to address visitors, supporters, and journalists who would gather there. Harding would deliver speeches and engage with the crowd from the comfort of his own home.
This approach was particularly significant because it allowed Harding to maintain a controlled and orchestrated campaign environment. He could carefully manage his messages and interactions with the media, ensuring that he presented a consistent and appealing image to the public. By staying at home, Harding also avoided potential pitfalls and controversies that might have arisen from extensive travel and public appearances.
The Miller Center: Warren G. Harding: Campaigns and Elections
Returning to the political strategy associated with the pre-Roosevelt days, Harding conducted a front-porch campaign in which he spoke in overused cliché (urging a “return to normalcy” after the hardships of the world war and the struggle over the League of Nations) to reporters and visitors from his home in Marion. Cox traveled twenty-two thousand miles making over four hundred speeches. The most popular entertainer in American, Al Jolson, stumped the nation for Harding, singing songs that compared the candidate to popular Republican President Abraham Lincoln. Harding won in a massive landslide, pulling over 7 million more votes than Cox.
[By Eugene P. Trani. The Miller Center is a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history, providing critical insights for the nation’s governance challenges.]
Another significant factor contributing to Harding’s victory was the unity within the Republican Party. Unlike the Democrats, who were divided over various issues, the Republicans presented a united front. One of the major issues causing divisions within the Democratic Party was the question of the United States’ involvement in the League of Nations, an international organization aimed at maintaining world peace. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was a strong advocate for the League, but his vision faced significant opposition from a faction of Democrats known as the “Irreconcilables” who were vehemently against joining the League of Nations.
The Democratic Party also had divisions between the progressive and conservative wings. Progressives, who were more aligned with Wilson’s policies, advocated for social reform, increased regulation, and expanded the government’s role in society. On the other hand, conservative Democrats were more cautious about government intervention and favored a more limited role for the federal government.
Racial tensions and divisions within the Democratic Party were also evident during this period. The party consisted of both Northern and Southern factions, with the Southern Democrats largely opposing civil rights for African Americans. Woodrow Wilson held views and implemented policies that have been criticized for their racial biases and contributions to systemic racism. Wilson was adamantly against civil rights and took little action to address the racial injustices faced by African Americans during his presidency.
Under Wilson’s administration, segregation was actively enforced in federal government offices and facilities. In 1913, he allowed previously integrated federal workplaces to be segregated, particularly in the Treasury and Post Office departments, leading to the removal of many African American employees from their positions, and reinforcing racial divisions. In 2020, Princeton University removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. The school’s board of trustees said, “Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake.”
Overall, the Republican Party’s unification and coalescence around Warren Harding during the 1920 presidential election resulted from a combination of strategic candidate selection, party disarray among the opposition, Harding’s personal attributes, and his ability to project a unifying vision for the future. Harding also addressed the racial tensions that had grown during the previous administration.
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) — Warren Harding’s Historic Speech on Race: How Black and White Americans Responded.
It was October 26, 1921. The scene was an assembly of 30,000 people in the heart of the deeply Democratic and Jim Crow South—Birmingham, Alabama. Racial tensions had bubbled up everywhere in the aftermath of race riots such as the Tulsa Massacre only five months before. There in Birmingham, President Harding became the first American president of the 20th Century to openly call for the political equality of blacks in largely white America.
The audience was segregated — 20,000 whites in the front, 10,000 blacks in the rear. When the President finished, the cheers all came from the back.
On race, Warren Harding was in one way a product of his times. He endorsed blacks and whites going their separate ways in social settings if they so chose. He was not a fan of intermarriage.
But when it came to race and the law, he was well ahead of his time. He spurned the notion that the law should treat one race differently than another. He warned the Birmingham audience that he was going to speak frankly “whether you like it or not,” and he sure did.
The American Presidency Project: “Republican Party Platform of 1920.”
The Republican party, assembled in representative national convention, reaffirms its unyielding devotion to the Constitution of the United States, and to the guaranties of civil, political and religious liberty therein contained. It will resist all attempts to overthrow the foundations of the government or to weaken the force of its controlling principles and ideals, whether these attempts be made in the form of international policy or domestic agitation.
For seven years the national government has been controlled by the Democratic party. During that period a war of unparalleled magnitude has shaken the foundations of civilization, decimated the population of Europe, and left in its train economic misery and suffering second only to the war itself.
The outstanding features of the Democratic administration have been complete unpreparedness for war and complete unpreparedness for peace.
[The American Presidency Project, an authoritative, non-partisan on-line source for presidential public documents.]
Arguably the most memorable moment of Harding’s campaign was his “Return to Normalcy” speech, delivered on June 10, 1920. In this address, Harding emphasized his commitment to restoring order, stability, and traditional values in the wake of the tumultuous Wilson years. The speech struck a chord with voters, who craved a return to a more predictable and less turbulent time. The term “normalcy” became synonymous with Harding’s campaign and resonated deeply with a nation longing for peace and security.
The 1920 Presidential election marked a decisive victory for Warren G. Harding, thanks to a combination of factors that favored his campaign. Dissatisfaction with Wilson’s administration, economic concerns, effective campaign strategy, party unity, and Harding’s plea for “normalcy” were all instrumental in securing his win. This election demonstrated the significance of appealing to the collective desires and aspirations of the electorate and remains a pivotal moment in American political history.
There is also a historical caveat to this glowing commentary on the administration of Warren G. Harding … one which should serve as roadway warning signs for any future candidates for the office of the President.
Warren G. Harding’s presidency, which spanned from 1921 to 1923, indeed had some notable achievements, including stimulating business growth, implementing tax cuts, and negotiating disarmament treaties. However, many historians consider him to be inept for several reasons.
The Teapot Dome Scandal: The most infamous episode of Harding’s presidency was the Teapot Dome Scandal. It involved the illegal leasing of federal oil reserves to private companies in exchange for bribes. Though Harding himself was not directly involved, several members of his administration were implicated. The scandal highlighted corruption and cronyism within the government and tainted the reputation of Harding’s presidency.
Weak Leadership and Judgment: Harding’s leadership style was often criticized for being indecisive and lacking in effective management. He appointed friends and political allies to key positions, known as the “Ohio Gang,” who were often involved in corrupt practices. This demonstrated poor judgment on his part and reflected a lack of scrutiny in the appointment process.
Ineffective Progressivism: While Harding campaigned on a platform of progressive reforms, his administration failed to deliver on many of those promises. Instead, his policies favored big business and led to an increase in corporate influence. Many historians view his support for laissez-faire economics and limited government regulation as inadequate responses to the challenges of the time, such as labor unrest and income inequality.
Limited Policy Knowledge: Despite some notable achievements, such as the Fordney-McCumber Tariff and the establishment of the Bureau of the Budget, Harding was often perceived as lacking a deep understanding of policy matters. He relied heavily on his advisors and frequently deferred to their recommendations. This perception further contributed to the perception of him being inept as a president.
Lack of Engagement: Harding was known to be disinterested in the day-to-day responsibilities of governing. He preferred delegating tasks to others and spent considerable time away from Washington, engaging in leisure activities. This perception of detachment from the affairs of the government reinforced the notion that he was an ineffective president.
It is important to note that not all historians view Harding’s presidency in the same negative light. However, the factors mentioned above have contributed to a prevailing perception of his ineptitude among a significant portion of the historical community.
President Warren G. Harding’s administration saw many successes in its earlier years. He was an experienced politician, having initiated almost two decades of service in various legislative roles prior to his election. Under his leadership, he was able to direct Congress to pass major pieces of legislation that continued major economic growth. He brought the country out of the post-WWI recession and returned it to a period of prosperity. His policies for the marine corps, foreign diplomacy, and civil services reform earned him evaluations of success from prominent news outlets and historians alike. The creation of the Bureau of Budgeting and Budget Act of 1921 has had major impacts on the federal budget and its policies. His actions reduced war debts and reduced the national debt, laying the foundations for a strong economic base for the United States.
Other accomplishments included the passage of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, which protected and expanded the nation’s trade networks, while non-interventionist foreign policies secured the United States’ reputation as a peaceful nation internationally. During the majority of his presidency, President Warren G. Harding enjoyed widespread popularity and was respected for his unbiased and effective governance.
All of these accomplishments brought a period of growth and well-being to the nation. His successes as president were overshadowed by the scandals that followed later in his term, leaving much of his accomplishments forgotten. It is clear, however, that President Warren G. Harding had the courage and vision to lead a successful administration.