Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policies impact the daily lives of people in our state. Ron Smith is a fifth-generation Kansan, native of Manhattan, Larned practicing attorney, multiple grandfather, Vietnam veteran and Civil War historian.
It’s hard to become a real political scumbag and then stay.
A mugwump is someone who wants to stay away from partisan politics. I find snake balls more fascinating than a political gathering of like-minded pachyderms and mules who believe in the sacred majesty of their leaders.
As the cowboy poker players would warn, never trust kings and princes: Three triplets take them every day.
The American Constitution was never designed to produce saints. The best we can hope for is good bipartisan leaders.
Kansas is a country of contrasts and first-in-the-country politics. Since the real mugwump doesn’t identify with the parties, let’s celebrate our uniqueness. In 1880, Kansas enacted its own prohibition. It took 40 years for the rest of the country to catch up. However, our ban was a bit unusual. You could buy beer in a saloon, but buying liquor required you to swear an oath that the liquor was for medicinal purposes. Overnight, many Kansanians contracted strange diseases.
My favorite illness from that time was the insidious mental paralysis. That would support a snort or two. Curiously, we find this disease infecting our current political crop. We’ve had our share of mindless politicians who remind us of the Donald Trumps and Joe Bidens of the world. Trump is waiting to be the replacement if a vacancy opens up at Trinity. Biden is still reading Genesis.
In 2022 we chose a group of not-so-great. They are more concerned with stirring up the masses and catching the opposition than with solving problems. The current whack-a-mole contest between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is an example. Republicans used to claim that Democrats created a circle in forming a firing squad. It seems to me that the orbit has changed. Democrats are laughing happily at Trump’s GOP, which is already in a spiral.
All we can hope for in Washington is that the government doesn’t pick the lock.
Can we keep our distance and still admire some politicians? History shows that some of our lesser-known, second-rate presidents have done remarkable things.
Think of Warren G. Harding.
By 1920 the country was fed up with Woodrow Wilson’s Ivy League, professorial cockiness. At home, he lost popularity. While in Europe after World War I, Wilson contracted the Spanish flu, suffered a stroke, stayed and died. That same year, Harding defeated Wilson’s protégé, Democrat James Cox, to win the presidency.
Harding became as popular as Teddy Roosevelt during his presidency, which was cut short by ill health. He promised a return to normal, a slap in the face for Wilson. Harding lowered taxes, left people alone, and let the country’s economy grow. He released the anti-war political prisoners whom Wilson had imprisoned.
These things give hope that we shall find a settlement of the relations between the two races in which both may enjoy full citizenship, full measure of benefits to the country and opportunities for themselves, and recognition and rewards shall be finite distributed in proportion to each desert, regardless of race or color.
The 1920s were roaring. Everything upgraded including farms after the Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to the countryside.
One of the more interesting speeches on race relations in American politics at this time was given by Harding. It took a lot of courage. It was in Birmingham, Alabama, in October 1921, five months after the deadly Tulsa massacre that killed 36 and injured more than 800. Jim Crow laws were widespread in many states, including Alabama, and the Klan was a political power in the 1920s, including Kansas.
Harding addressed a separate audience. While stating that social and racial differences between whites and blacks would not be quickly bridged, the President said black Americans fought in large numbers in France. He pushed for equal political rights, stating that black Americans deserved the right to racial equality before the law.
“These things give hope that we shall find a settlement of the relations between the two races, in which both may enjoy full citizenship, full measure of benefits to the country and opportunities for themselves, and in which recognition and reward come last distributed in proportion to individual deserts, regardless of race or color,” he said.
The audience was dead silent when Harding finished. Then cheers erupted from the back rows.
Harding was the first American president of both parties to openly advocate racial equality in politics. Contrast this with Democrat Wilson’s totalitarianism regarding World War I politics and his blatant racism (he fired all black people from federal government employment). Even Abraham Lincoln failed the equality test before he was assassinated and became President. Lincoln wanted to abolish slavery, but not equality. What he could have settled as racial politics in a full second term, John Wilkes Booth finished.
Instead of another Trump or Biden, maybe we mugwumps can find a Harding wanting a return to normal. In his May 1920 speech to a Boston political club, Harding said what can now easily be adopted:
“America’s present need is not for heroic deeds, but for healing; no panaceas, but normality; not revolution but restoration; not excitement but adjustment; no surgery but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; do not experiment, but balance; not submerging in internationality, but holding onto triumphant nationality.”
After Harding’s unexpected and fatal heart attack, his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, took over the presidency. Silent Cal had no say in anything. He certainly had no opinion about race or what constituted normality.
As the roaring 20s propelled us inexorably toward the Great Depression, Harding showed us that second-rate presidents can outshine the boys who claim a front-row seat.
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