Bush Is No Reagan; He's a Harding
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Conservatives are claiming the new administration of George W. Bush is less like his father's than that of Ronald Reagan. But a close reading of history suggests it's more like that of Warren G. Harding.
It's not just that Harding was an affable but not too bright politician chosen for office by "fifteen men in a smoke filled room," or that his campaign slogan, "Back to normalcy," reflected his tendency to mangle the English language (he'd meant to say, "normality").
Harding became the 1920 Republican standard-bearer after the front-runners deadlocked at an oil dominated party convention in Chicago. He won the backing of big business based on his pledge to cut the tax rate for the top brackets (what Al Gore would call, "the top one percent"). As President, Harding fulfilled this pledge, even though Americans making below $66,000 saw no tax-relief.
Harding also filled his cabinet with a combination of old cronies and top industry officials. Muckraker H.L. Mencken described Harding's cabinet as "three highly intelligent men of self-interest, six jackasses and one common crook."
Harding, who took a hands-off approach to the presidency, named one of the nation's richest men, aluminum magnate Andrew Mellon, his Secretary of the Treasury. George W. named Paul O'Neill, the multi-millionaire chairman of Alcoa aluminum, his Secretary of the Treasury.
Harding named his friend and campaign boss Harry Daugherty, Attorney General. Bush named his friend and campaign fund-raiser Texas Oilman Don Evans, Secretary of Commerce.
Harding appointed the defeated and destitute Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico Secretary of Interior. Bush appointed John Ashcroft Attorney General after Ashcroft lost his senate seat to a dead man. "I felt like I fell down a sewer and came up with a roast beef sandwich," Ashcroft admitted.
Before being appointed Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall had called for the abolition of the Department of Interior.
Before being appointed Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham had called for the abolition of the Department of Energy.
Albert Fall, like Bush's Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, was a westerner and outspoken enemy of conservationists. He believed that public lands would prove more productive if given over to industry while she has argued that, when it comes to property-rights, "We might even go so far as to recognize a homesteading right to pollute."
The Bush administration, in response to mining lobbyists, decided not to reduce the legal limits of allowable arsenic in drinking water. It's also fighting to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic and in Wyoming.
In 1921, taking advantage of a new minerals leasing law Secretary of Interior Fall secretly leased the Navy's Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming in exchange for a $200,000 bribe.
Told that something was amiss, Harding responded that, "if Albert Fall isn't an honest man, I'm not fit to be President of the United States." Questioned about his senior advisor Karl Rove meeting with a company seeking federal favors while still holding $100,000-$250,000 dollars of stock in that company Bush replied, "My level of confidence with Karl Rove has never been higher."
Progressive Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin pressed for an investigation of Albert Fall. The Teapot Dome scandal that followed shocked the nation, ending with Fall's imprisonment despite his insistence he'd sold off the oil reserves for reasons of "national security." Additional scandals soon rocked the Harding presidency, with investigations continuing well past Harding's death in 1923.
How closely the Bush presidency will continue to track the Harding presidency is hard to tell, but the signs are eerily propitious.
David Helvarg is an investigative journalist and author of Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas (WH Freeman, 2001).