Warren Gamaliel Newt? Not!

David Pietrusza Author, "Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography"
Font Size:

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.”

True enough.

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.”

Obviously, whatever his sterling attributes, such things are rarely extended publicly about Newt.

Harding’s abiding strategy could hardly be compared to Newt’s current modus operandi. Harding avoided the fray by skipping most primaries. He entered only the Montana, Indiana and Ohio contests and did not fare particularly well in any of them. But in the process Harding and his campaign manager, the savvy, but suspect, veteran Ohio pol Harry Daugherty, studiously avoided angering anyone. Daugherty wasn’t trying to create a big splash right away. He knew that such a strategy would never work — at least not for Harding. No, Daugherty reasoned, Warren Harding would not be a front-runner. He would not even stand within striking distance of front-runner status as convention balloting commenced, but he would be everyone’s third, or fourth or even fifth choice, rising to the top on the eighth, ninth or tenth ballot when his competition had evaporated. Daugherty even dared to publicly predict a 10th-ballot win — and indeed that is what came to pass.

How far would Harding and Daugherty go to avoid squandering Harding’s storehouse of goodwill? Daugherty even sent the Columbus Glee Club to serenade the rival camps, and while most politicians would have annoyed the opposition with pro-Harding fight songs, the Hardingites never mentioned their favorite son. They merely added a pleasant, friendly, non-confrontational touch to the scene. Nothing would be done to alienate any potential supporter.

It is hard to imagine any contemporary politician possessing such grace, forbearance or charity.

Thus Harding was in some sense akin to Gingrich’s early “Good Newt” debate persona, in which he refused to be drawn into the fray against Romney or whoever assumed the mantle of the then-current “anti-Romney.” And once Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain folded, such restraint paid powerful dividends as Gingrich temporarily vaulted into the lead. But after Romney savaged Gingrich in Iowa, testy “Bad Newt” replaced magnanimous “Good Newt.”

Here is precisely where Gingrich — gambling on his first-ballot chances — tossed away his tenth-ballot opportunities. Those who never anger the rest of the field — the “Good Newts” and the Hardings — may achieve a compromise nomination on the tenth ballot. Those who fail to exhibit such restraint — the “Bad Newts,” the Woods, the Lowdens, the Hiram Johnsons — do not.

But there are more flaws to the Harding/Gingrich comparison than that. Harding and Harry Daugherty knew how to organize their meager forces. Recalled Daugherty:

We put loyal Harding lookouts in every hotel in town and got one or more of our representatives into the headquarters of every rival.

Our staff grew finally to two thousand men and women. They met every train, shook hands with the incoming delegates and made engagements to see them. … We gave out no claims. Made no statements to the press and carefully concealed every move from the reporters.

It remains difficult to imagine that the Newt Gingrich who failed to field a slate in Virginia can send 2,000 staffers into the breach later this year at Tampa.

Thus, Gingrich’s circumstances fit not at all into Harding’s precedents. They do, however, slip more neatly into that of another 1920-era hopeful: the aforementioned Hiram Johnson.

Harding arrived in Chicago in 1920 a distant sixth in delegate strength, not third as Gingrich now stands. It was Johnson who maintained third place just behind front-runners Leonard Wood and Frank Lowden. The self-effacing Harding was a great healer, the bringer of “normalcy.” Johnson, who one historian described as always looking “like a bad-tempered baby,” was, like Gingrich, the fiery ideologue.

In his better days of the early 2012 debates, it must be admitted that Newt exhibited exemplary good cheer. Of late, however, he has appeared less so, and such contenders rarely make good compromise candidates. Those who bide their time and hold their tongues do. Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio may boast no votes on a first ballot. One of them, however, may indeed capture first prize on a tenth.

Presidential election scholar David Pietrusza is the author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon, and 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America.