Embattled former history professor Newt Gingrich has recently delved deep into his impressive store of historical knowledge to tout a precedent for a deadlocked 2012 Republican National Convention that will see the GOP ultimately turn to (of all people) him.
On “Fox News Sunday” Gingrich informed host Chris Wallace: “The fact is that Romney is probably the weakest Republican front-runner since Leonard Wood in 1920, and Wood ultimately lost on the 10th ballot.”
That was Sunday. On Tuesday, after losing primaries in Mississippi and Alabama, Newt elaborated: “The reason I keep citing Leonard Wood is because in 1920, Wood goes into the convention as the front-runner. [Ohio U.S. Senator Warren G.] Harding goes in as the guy who’s in sixth place, and at the end of 10 ballots, Harding is the nominee and Wood is gone.”
As Byron York noted in The Washington Examiner, “More than 90 years later, that’s the scenario Gingrich sees as his own path to victory.”
Well, actually 1920 doesn’t create a Newt path to victory. That year’s events may explain an eventually Mitt Romney loss. But it does not conjure up a realistic picture of how Newt might successfully channel dark-horse Senator Warren Gamaliel Harding.
And that’s because Newt has failed to cite several crucial details.
Unlike 2012, 1920’s election cycle actually began with the GOP essentially united behind a popular, electable standard-bearer: Theodore Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, TR died in his sleep in January 1919.
This threw the process into chaos. Two front-runners quickly emerged: Illinois Governor Frank Lowden and TR’s personal friend, General Leonard Wood. Trailing behind Lowden and Wood was TR’s 1912 Progressive Party running mate, California U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson. Behind Johnson was a collection of favorite-son types that included Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge — and Senator Warren Harding.
Much like Romney and Santorum, Wood and Lowden rendered each other into pulp during the convention run-up. When Wood and Lowden forces deadlocked in Chicago, such bitterness permeated the hall that the two camps could never reconcile. Another candidate would have to be anointed.
But why did Warren Harding emerge as that candidate?
First, there was Harding the man. Unlike Gingrich, Harding was genuinely liked among his associates. In fact, Warren Harding was loved.
“Kindliness and kindness … fairly radiate from him,” observed the often-acerbic Washington journalist Edward G. Lowry of the Ohio senator. “He positively gives out even to the least sensitive a sense of brotherhood and innate good-will toward his fellow man. With it he imparts a certain sense of simpleness and trustfulness, an easy friendliness, an acceptance of people he meets as good fellows. It is in his eyes, in his voice, in his manners.”
Humorist Irvin S. Cobb felt that same way. “Following his election I came to know President Harding fairly well,” Cobb would write, “and with all my heart to like him and before very long with all my heart to pity him. I think I never met a kindlier man or a man of better impulses or one with more generous and gracious opinions of his fellow men.”