HOW HE SEES IT 'Normalcy' represents victory for Harding
By JAY AMBROSE
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
As I was recently reading a New York Times story about Hurricane Charley, I ran across a sentence saying it could be months before people in some Florida towns "can resume even a bit of normalcy," and realized something.
Warren G. Harding has won.
"Normalcy" is his word, you know -- an oral fumble that he then used in a slogan during his quest for the presidency: "Back to normalcy." He had first used the word in a speech as the Republican candidate, saying:
"America's need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality."
He should rather have said the need was not for alliteration, but for lucidity. If he had, maybe Democrat William Gibbs McAdoo would not have described Harding's speeches as "an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea," and journalist H.L. Mencken would not have gone further, insisting that Harding "writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."
Harding is said to have been an amiable man with an impressive speaking voice, but a major qualification for becoming the 29th president of the United States in 1921, according to one of those who helped get him there, was that he looked presidential. He sought the high office after the country had been through dramatic political and social change, a world war and a messy, disenchanting peace. His message of keeping things calm, cool and conservative --my alliteration, not his -- was well-received.
It didn't hurt his chances, either, that people had a hard time knowing what he was saying. His pronouncements on the League of Nations were so obscure, one writer says, that the people who were for it thought he was for it, and the people who were against it thought he was against it.
If Harding's battles with words have caused some to compare him to George W. Bush, his delight in the opposite sex has caused some to compare him to Bill Clinton. Adultery was a chief preoccupation. The Republican Party paid off one lady friend and sent her on an overseas trip during his front-porch campaign for the White House, it is reported. Once elected, he and another paramour are said to have occasionally celebrated their affection in a closet near the Oval Office.
When he wasn't so occupied, Harding also liked playing golf and poker and attending baseball games, and because he wasn't watching the ship, the ship went aground on scandal. Some of his appointees -- political hacks -- were also crooks enriching themselves by stealing from the public. Harding was himself honest, historians believe, and complained that his friends had hurt him far more than his enemies.
During a speech-spouting, cross-country trip during his third year in office, he died unexpectedly in San Francisco. We don't know exactly why-- a heart attack? Food poisoning? Respectable accounts say it is unlikely his wife murdered her 58-year-old husband for his cheating, as some have speculated, although she did forbid an autopsy. Some writers have wondered whether he may have worried himself to death, so horrified was he that more would soon be publicly disclosed about his thieving pals.
Ah, but this man who has been ridiculed for so much, including his pretentious misuse of language, has secured postmortem revenge. He did what few people of even great literary skills have done: He changed our common vocabulary. "Normalcy" is now frequently used and is listed in the best of dictionaries, even though the word Harding was originally looking for and mispronounced in his speech was "normality." Prior to his repeated use of it, "normalcy" hardly ever poked up its head. It started out in life as a mathematical term and might have stayed pretty much in hiding if not for Harding.
There is a moral here somewhere, and I think it goes like this: When all looks lost in this life, do not give up hope. There's always a chance that one of your mistakes will live on as if no mistake at all. Maybe, in some small measure, you will ultimately win.
XAmbrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard.