A politically inexperienced and highly divisive president, a presidential campaign waged under the shadow of a deadly pandemic, and an establishment candidate from the opposing party who promises to restore the country to a less turbulent time.
Those were the elements of the U.S. presidential election exactly 100 years ago that swept Warren G. Harding into office. The similarities to the 2020 race and Joe Biden’s quest to unseat Donald Trump in November are unmissable.
“I’ve been thinking about the parallels for a couple of months,” said Jim Robenalt, author of a book on Harding. “The coronavirus just added another layer.”
To the extent that he’s remembered today, Harding is best known for the Teapot Dome scandal, lusty letters to his mistress, and dying in office just two years after his inauguration.
But his campaign slogan — “Return to Normalcy” — could just as well have been adopted by Biden, the former vice president, who often says he’ll return the U.S. to the way White Houses operated before the “aberrant” Trump presidency.
Just as Biden is known for the occasional malapropism, Harding was mocked for the supposedly ungrammatical construction of his slogan. But the word “normalcy” conveyed what many voters were looking for after the exhaustion of World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, and the abrasive political style of President Woodrow Wilson.
A newspaper publisher from Ohio who went on to serve in the U.S. Senate — another parallel with Biden — Harding won at the Republican convention on the 10th ballot after none of the leading candidates could put together a majority. In his best-known campaign speech, he promised restoration, not revolution.
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate,” he said.
That promise marked a contrast with Wilson, who was the real target of Harding’s rhetoric even though he wasn’t running for re-election in 1920.
A former academic who’d spent just two years as governor of New Jersey before winning the 1912 election, Wilson is remembered for his efforts to reshape American foreign policy.
But at the time, many Americans disagreed with his goals as well as his approach.
Robenalt said Wilson “had to be the smartest guy in every room” and didn’t work well with Congress, leaving key senators behind as he negotiated the end to World War I in France. That gave an opening to Harding, who pledged to heal the partisan divide in the country.
“Wilson picked fights with people,” Robenalt said. “His arrogance would not let him compromise with anybody. He was a fighter and not a consensus builder, and Harding was just the opposite.”
The similarities between then and now even extend to the modalities of the campaign, in practice if not preference. Harding ran a typical-for-the-time “front-porch campaign,” where he mostly stayed at home, giving press interviews and meeting other politicians and high-profile guests like singer Al Jolson.
Biden, who prefers to be out meeting voters, is currently confined to his house in Delaware because of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread stay-at-home directives. He’s had to give up rallies and whistle-stop campaigning in favor of remote interviews with TV news reporters and the likes of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.
Harding’s campaign came not long after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 500,000 Americans from 1918 to 1919. More than 18,000 Americans have died in the current pandemic, still in its early stages, with the White House projecting tens of thousands more may perish.
Catharine Arnold, author of “Pandemic 1918,” said the Spanish flu paled in the public imagination compared to the horrors of World War I, but the combination of the war and the pandemic may have had a similar effect to the coronavirus today.
“For most of us, this is the most life-threatening thing that we have experienced,” Arnold said. “That’s why the pandemic stands out so much.”
Harding won the 1920 election, defeating Democrat James Cox, who at the time was the governor of Ohio, in a landslide.
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