"What he wanted,” his biographer has said, “what he hoped to be . . . was America’s ‘best-loved’ President.” He was by nature, jovial, jolly even, an outgoing kind of a fellow. He liked going to baseball games and throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the season. He even liked having the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, celebrities and sports figures, children of all ages, shake the Presidential hand. The crowds that came to see him, to “share his presence and shake his hand were a reassurance to him, and he expanded in their presence.” And if eloquence came hard, “The Lord’s Prayer” slipped easily off his tongue. The problem was that he didn’t particularly like all the work that came with being President. Deep thought and concentration required an effort he’d rather forego, preferring instead the golf course. He was by nature a man of instinct; and he trusted his urges, and those who seconded him, supported him, held him up straight. Those were the fellows who did the heavy lifting—and made him look presidential.
He had, however, at least this one advantage over many: He knew he was over his head—way over his head—as President of the United States, and he regretted it. He sincerely regretted it.
And so he surrounded himself with familiar faces, the gang from back home, old pals rather than straight talkers. And, in the end, he presided over the most scandal-ridden administration in a century.
Sound familiar? George W. Bush, perhaps? But, no. Debacle after debacle, Our W seems impervious to regret. After all: What’s to regret when you have an angel on your shoulder? Or Dick Cheney whispering sweet nothings in your ear.
No, this was Harding. Warren G. Harding. Most of us, I suspect, grew up thinking that Harding was the worst president in our history. His Attorney General, the vulpine Daugherty, “brought with him the habits and attitudes of the Ohio political jungle. The vultures and jackals of the Ohio Gang, the politicians of the lower level moving on to Washington . . . flocked to him.” Behind his “impervious mask lurked an uncertain personality.” He was for a time—a long time—unique among Attorneys General of the United States “in that while he headed the Department of Justice he was subject to two congressional investigations.” Following his tenure in office, he was also twice indicted for malfeasance.
The Interior Secretary, the six-gun toting Fall, the villain of Teapot Dome, always considered himself innocent. Sure, he’d taken a loan, a hefty, six-figure loan, from the oilmen who got the contracts to plumb Teapot Dome. But, hell, he was their friend; and what was friendship for, after all? Besides, Fall was a man who believed that the business of government was business.
But then they all did, all of Harding’s closest advisors. They were conservative men, and that was the definition of conservative, as they knew it and lived it.
Eventually, of course, it all blew up. Teapot Dome took its toll. “Wuhrn,” his wife called him, died of a heart attack while on a presidential trip to Alaska—the first President to visit “The Last Frontier.” Fall went to jail. But for a single hold-out juror (bribed, it was said), Daugherty would have too.
The Republican Ascendancy lasted another few years, under Coolidge and Hoover; but then we know what happened: The Crash and the Depression that followed. And for a long time after that, the idea that the business of government was merely business took a back seat to the idea of the government as reformer and regulator, up-lifter and protector. The New Deal gave way to the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. And, among the well-heeled dispossessed, with every passing year, the anger grew, visceral. Something, they murmured, must be done about this. Somehow, we must have our country back!
And so they plotted, and they schemed. If not through the front door, they told themselves, then through the back. No amount of cynicism would be too high a price in order to restore the old, conservative, pro-business Republican Hegemony.
Back to the Golden Days of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover!
But then they wanted more. And the more they got, the more they wanted.
And so the battle cry mounted: Back to the Gilded Age!
How close, how very close indeed, they got to their goal is the story that lies at the heart of Thomas Frank’s splendid new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.
I had been re-reading one of my favorite works of political biography, Francis Russell’s 1968 biography of the hapless Warren Harding, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, when The Wrecking Crew arrived at the house. I finished the two books side-by-side and would urge those with a historical bent to do the same.
For here we are—again—back in the Days of Yore. Thank you, George. Thank you, Dick. Thank you, Karl. And thank you too, Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff, whose combined, inspired skullduggery form the underpinnings of all the rest.
“For a political faction to represent itself as a rebellion against a government for which it is itself responsible may strike you as a supremely cynical maneuver,” writes Frank. “If so, you are beginning to understand conservative Washington. Cynicism is of this movement’s essence.”
Given “the brute fact,” as Frank puts it, that “people like the liberal state,” with all its entitlements (such as Medicare and Social Security), its emphasis on clean food and clean air, safe working conditions and a minimum wage, conservatives had to go the route of the back door. Consider: When they actually confronted the liberal state head-on and shut down Washington, the result was a political and public relations disaster. Thanks to Newt Gingrich, the arch-villain Bill Clinton lived another day.
Gingrich’s failure was DeLay’s (and Abramoff’s and Norquist’s) learned lesson. If it were to work, the game would have to be played undercover. In the guise of bringing down “Big Government,” the new conservative bosses would instead “capture the thing” and run it for their own benefit and that of their economic masters.
But, first they would need to bring the bureaucracy to its knees, routing the professionals and replacing them, Monica Goodling-like, with their cadre of true-believers.
No longer was the goal to shrink the state or shut it down. It was to command it—for themselves—all the while denouncing the bloated bureaucracy run amuck and the “Stench of the Beltway.”
Today, we know where the stench lies, but thanks to Thomas Frank’s carefully drawn out tale, we can see clearly now that the politicization of the Department of Justice was but one manifestation of the broader attack. For the template, everywhere, was the same.
Grover Norquist, that apostle of freedom, put it this way: “First, we want to remove liberal personnel from the political process. Then we want to capture those positions of power and influence for conservatives. Stalin taught the importance of this principle. He was running the personnel department, while Trotsky was fighting the White Army. When push came to shove for control of the Soviet Union, Stalin won. His people were in place and Trotsky’s weren’t.”
Control the personnel department, and all else follows.
So that’s the lesson of Soviet history? I guess that, for Norquist and his ilk, it is too. No wonder I’ve come to think of the Bush White House as the old Soviet politburo writ anew.
That’s how far we’ve come from the American Democracy we once knew.
Thanks to the Wrecking Crew.