"America's present need," Warren Harding said in 1920, "is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity"—and so on, abysmally. Textbook authors George Tindall and David Shi call Harding's prose "clumsy," but that doesn't quite capture the phenomenon. H. L. Mencken said it reminded him of "stale bean soup. … so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it." That's better. The image that comes to my mind is of barely thawed hamburger plummeting to the cold tile below. "Progression is not proclamation nor palaver. It is not pretense nor play on prejudice. It is not of personal pronouns nor perennial pronouncement." Thud.
John Dean, himself no prosemaster, tries to breathe life into this stuff. His more important purpose is to show that, massive opinion notwithstanding, Warren Harding was a good president. It's a daunting task. (I plugged warrenhardingrocks.com into Google and came up empty.) But The American Presidents Series, edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., required a volume on Harding, someone had to write it, and that someone might as well be a person who managed to be both a Nixon aide and, in time, an aide to Nixon's prosecutors (and who thus knows something about executive branch scandal). Dean also happens to have grown up in Harding's hometown of Marion, Ohio. And he has read much relevant unpublished material along with "almost every book written about Harding."
In a biography this short (170 small pages), Dean couldn't rescue Harding's reputation from the abyss labeled "America's worst president." But Dean is persuasive when he claims that the views of early-20th-century Harding haters (such as Mencken) have been accepted ...1
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