President Warren G. Harding in June 1920 (Library of Congress photo)
By Joe Powers
I’ve always been a connoisseur of campaign slogans, particularly here in Pennsylvania.
There was 1974 congressional candidate Arthur Berger with his slogan: “One Berger To Go” (He stayed.). And 1998 gubernatorial candidate Ivan Itken came up with the memorable “Itken Happen” (It didn’t.).
And, my favorite, a Northeast Philly legislative candidate in 1996 named Bill McEowen, whose slogan was “You won’t get a screwin’ if you vote for McEowen” (Didn’t work.).
The fact that all three lost is beside the point. Their slogans will forever be enshrined in the Slogan Hall of Fame.
But then there was Warren G. Harding’s slogan in the 1920 presidential race: “Return to Normalcy.”
What? Can you get any more lame than that one? And what does it mean, exactly? And yet, Harding won in a landslide.
It’s only recently that I got it. The America of 1920 was exhausted. World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” had left over 100,000 Americans dead and it was hard to see what they died for.
The Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations ended with President Woodrow Wilson giving European and Asian powers pretty much everything they wanted. And Wilson never got the League of Nations, which was was one of his primary justifications for entering the War.
And then there was the pandemic, the “Spanish Flu,” which actually started on an American military base. Governmental leaders never took the necessary steps to stop the flu, preferring to ignore the carnage and wait for it to go away. That strategy cost 650,000 Americans their lives.
By 1920, Americans had grown accustomed to wearing masks when they ventured out – and to burying their loved ones.
The American economy slid into a deep depression and jobs were hard to find.
As if that weren’t enough, race relations had badly deteriorated. Black servicemen returning to their homes in the South expected a hero’s welcome.
Instead, all too often, they were greeted with a hangman’s noose. And white resistance to the massive relocation of African Americans in the Great Migration sometimes resulted in racial conflict, including the Chicago riots that left 38 people dead.
The Espionage and Sedition Acts had curtailed free speech in the country and protestors took to the streets. Women finally won the right to vote, but not without angry opposition.
Americans were left weary by all the turmoil.
In the midst of all of this chaos, Warren Harding, a bland, white haired man took the presidential oath of office. Not much was expected.
Harding, forever sullied by an out-of-wedlock-child scandal, and by Teapot Dome, has never been highly regarded by historians.
However, as pointed out by historian James Robenalt, Harding’s stature has had something of a revival.
His policies helped to lead to an economic surge and he instituted the Office of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget). He confronted frayed racial relations and traveled to Birmingham, Ala., where he argued that democracy is a lie without political equality for black citizens. He supported a federal anti-lynching law.
The pandemic subsided, the streets calmed, the economy revived, and the Twenties roared.
So, here we are, exactly 100 years later. You have probably noticed the historical similarities. And, once again, the out party has nominated a bland, white haired guy of whom little is expected.
On the one hand are conservatives who are being told that former Vice President Joe Biden is, improbably, a socialist/anarchist/Green New Dealer who is under the control of the extremist wing of his party. On the other are some on the left who view his candidacy with the same enthusiasm as a child who is being told to eat his vegetables.
But what if Joe Biden is precisely the leader these times demand? Someone who will lower the Twitter rhetoric and raise the economic status of the millions left behind?
What if he’s someone who will stop the dog whistles and promote racial balance? What if he’s the candidate who will finally take the steps necessary to control the Virus and to extend health care coverage to those not covered and to give health care providers the tools they desperately need?
While Americans have been distracted recently by bizarre cognitive tests and demon DNA and paramilitary forces on the streets, Biden has been quietly rolling out position papers that actually make a lot of sense.
Those who take the time to read them will be struck by proposals that are reasonable, measured, supportive of diverse communities and long overdue. And you will also find yourself saying that this is exactly what this country needs and what a weary nation wants.
And while, like Harding, the words Joe Biden and charisma will never appear in the same sentence together, maybe that’s not we need now.
Competent leadership and decency will do. Would a Biden administration’s policies be a Harding redux? Of course not. It would probably be much FDR than WGH. But at least the political temperatures would finally cool.
Now, all Biden has to do is get there — despite the many hurdles between today and when the votes are counted.
But, first things first. Biden needs to get a real campaign slogan. Quick, do you know Biden’s current slogan? Didn’t think so.
I have an idea. How about “Return to Normalcy?” It has a certain ring to it.
Joseph R. Powers, a former acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, teaches political science at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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