About those presidential polls

07/07/2014 7:53 PM

07/07/2014 7:54 PM

Perhaps you’ve heard that President Obama was named the worst resident since World War II in a recent poll. It isn’t all that surprising. Given the current mood of the country, it’s likely that if St. Francis of Assisi were in the White House, he would be getting terrible ratings, too.

Opinions about presidents change. I am pointing this out mainly because it gives me an opening to bring up Warren Harding.

July is going to be Warren Harding’s month. It’s really exciting, given the fact that Harding hasn’t had a month, or even a day, since around 1928.

“Warren Harding is best known as America’s worst president,” John Dean wrote at the beginning of his Harding biography.

Yes! This is the same John Dean who was White House counsel in the Nixon administration. He knows about terrible presidents, and he is totally on Harding’s side.

Later this month, the Library of Congress is going to open up a huge cache of love letters that Harding wrote to one of his neighbors in Marion, Ohio. They were sent to Carrie Phillips, who was his wife’s best friend and might conceivably have been a German spy.

If that’s not enough of a draw, I will feel forced to reveal that Harding refers to his most private part as “Jerry.”

“He was a very funny guy. Just a nice sense of humor,” said James Robenalt, who discovered copies of the letters and wrote about them in The Harding Affair.

Robenalt, like Dean, thinks Harding is a vastly underestimated president.

Not everyone agrees that he’s due for a renaissance.

“If you had to reach for a great revisionist mountain to climb, that would be it,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said, dryly.

When it comes to the long view of presidential achievement, you have to turn to the historians — people who have managed to acquire strong opinions about Millard Fillmore and Benjamin Harrison. We obviously can’t tell yet where Obama will rank. If the Affordable Care Act works out over the long run, he could do very well. Certainly nothing that’s happened so far in his presidency would put him anywhere near the bottom. Most of the chief executives who dwell there came from the Civil War era — like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who sided with the slave owners on the way in, or Andrew Johnson, who screwed things up on the way out.

It doesn’t seem fair that Warren Harding is stuck with them. His appointees presided over several really juicy political scandals, including Teapot Dome, which was both one of the worst corruption cases in U.S. history as well as the one with the most interesting name. That was definitely bad, but not really in the same ballpark.

His defenders, like Robenalt and Dean, point out that Harding was, for his time, extremely progressive when it came to racial issues. Plus he got the Senate to approve an international disarmament agreement, which seems impressive when viewed from an era in which the Senate is incapable of rubber-stamping the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.

Harding’s longtime lover and correspondent, Carrie Phillips, was a German sympathizer during World War I, and Robenalt thinks she was actually a German spy. Her family disagrees. Either way, it’s pretty clear from the letters that, while Harding loved her “pillowing breasts,” he had very little appreciation for her theories about foreign affairs.

Nothing nearly that interesting appears to be going on in the current White House. Maybe the public is just bored.

“The sixth year is tough for everybody,” said Tim Malloy, a spokesman for the Quinnipiac University poll, which recently announced that it had surveyed 1,446 registered voters, about a third of whom thought Obama is the worst president since 1945.

George W. Bush came in second at 28 percent. This isn’t all that wide a margin, until you ask yourself who was running the show when the economy crashed and Iraq got invaded.

After the results came in, Malloy said, the researchers looked back at recent two-term presidents and concluded that all of them bottomed out in the middle of their second term. It makes sense that in a world of incessant communication, there’s just so much you can take of any chief executive. The guy we’ve been stuck with for a long time seems awful, because he’s the guy we’ve been stuck with for a long time. Our attitude toward him doesn’t improve until we’ve been reminded that things could be much worse.

Nearly half the respondents told Quinnipiac that they thought the country would be better off if Obama had lost the last election. It’s an opinion that could easily be reversed by an actual threat of the return of Mitt Romney.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

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