Harding the Happy Hooligan

“On the 1920 Campaign Trail” is a series of blog posts documenting the 1920 election season. Paul Durica, the Newberry’s Director of Exhibitions and curator of Decision 1920: A Return to “Normalcy,” is reporting and commenting on the campaigns of Warren G. Harding (Republican), James M. Cox (Democrat), and Eugene V. Debs (Socialist).

Paul will track the ups and downs building up to the election, as the candidates appeal to voters during a time that parallels our own: barely removed from a global pandemic and riven by unrest around racial and economic inequities.

With little more than two weeks before the election, a straw vote conducted at Harvard University showed Republican candidate, Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding favored by a large margin by the students with a slight majority of the faculty supporting his Democratic rival, Ohio Governor James M. Cox.

The straw vote was one of many signs that pointed toward a Republican victory, and the Cox campaign, desperate to change the trajectory of the election, suggested the two candidates meet one another on a shared stage to debate what had emerged as the dominant issue: whether or not the United States should join the League of Nations, the international body formed in the aftermath of World War I to preserve global order and peace. The Harding campaign refused the overture to hold an in-person debate, with one adviser saying, “I would not for a moment consider a proposition so utterly absurd.”

Reflecting the position held by the Democratic incumbent, President Woodrow Wilson, Governor Cox favored the United States joining the League. Senator Harding was less clear on his position, leading Cox to call out his rival’s “wabbles and wiggles” around the issue at a speech in Danville, Illinois.

“The truth of the matter is that the vacillating attitude of Senator Harding justifies neither the American people, nor the nations of the world, in taking him seriously,” said Cox. “It is apparent that he has not a single deep-seated conviction upon the subject and that he wabbles about from one day to the other in the aimless hope that this group or that group of voters can be pleased.”

Adding to the confusion in the waning days of the campaigns were reports that Senator Harding had met with someone purporting to represent the French government who had sought to entice the anticipated next President of the United States into entering a separate agreement with that nation apart from the League. The meeting irked the current president, Wilson, and Harding first claimed the right as a Senator to meet with foreign representatives before suggesting he always intended to inform the administration of the interaction and, ultimately, resolving that he and the whole affair had been misunderstood by the press and public.

Harding’s various responses, all delivered with his usual geniality and garbled grammar, led Cox to make his most stinging rebuke. “Senator Harding, to use his own expression, is the most misunderstood man in America,” said Cox. “He might be likened to the Happy Hooligan of the comic sheet.”

Likening the Republican presidential candidate to Happy Hooligan, the ever-optimistic hobo character created by Frederick Burr Opper and featured in newspaper cartoons across the country, led the editors of the Chicago Tribune to issue a rebuke of their own: “More serious reasons for Mr. Cox’s defeat exist, but the barroom flavor of his campaign, the pusillanimous personalities, the calling of names, the petty malice he has shown are significant tests of a mind and character which do not belong in the White House.”