The Warren Harding Error

Okay. Here’s the deal with the previous post that I had lost. This is something that I have found really interesting. It’s thought-provoking to me. I’m not trying to make any definitive statements. I just thought some of you might enjoy mulling over these questions too. The initial one, as was the title of the last post, is this, “are we being duped?” Here’s why I ask.

Recently I picked up Blink by Malcolm Gladwell again. I like this guy. I hadn’t really read anything of his until I heard him speak at the Catalyst Conference a couple of years ago. I then went and bought his books, The Tipping Point and Blink.

For those of you who don’t know, let me give an extremely brief generalization of what this book is about. It is subtitled “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and is chiefly concerned with the many split-second decisions we make every day. Gladwell argues that these decisions are often just as good if not better than decisions we would make given tons of information and plenty of time to process that information. Blink is about bettering our ability to thin-slice (that’s what he calls making these split-second decisions) and trusting the decisions we arrive at by doing so. Really interesting stuff, huh?

Now, the only problem is that, obviously, sometimes our thin-slicing results in bad or wrong decisions. Gladwell knows this, as we all do. He even devotes a whole chapter to it. The title? “The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall For Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men.”

Evidently, there was a chance meeting in 1899 at the Globe Hotel in Richwood, Ohio. There, two men were both getting their shoes shined. One was named Harry Daugherty. He was a lawyer and lobbyist from Columbus and was a major player in Ohio politics, a Machiavellian genius, actually. The other guy was Warren Harding. Harding was about to win his first election to the state Senate and up until then had simply been a small-town newspaper editor. So, here sits these two guys. They’ve just met. Daugherty really doesn’t know Harding at all. However, while he’s sitting there he can’t help but have one thought: wouldn’t that man make a great President?

What follows is what journalist Mark Sullivan wrote of what Daugherty saw in that moment:

Harding was worth looking at. He was at the time about 35 years old. His head, features, shoulders and torso had a size that attracted attention… an effect which in any male at any place would justify more than the term handsome – in later years, when he came to be known beyond his local world, the word “Roman” was occasionally used in descriptions of him… His suppleness, combined with his bigness of frame, and his large, wide-set rather glowing eyes, heavy black hair, and markedly bronze complexion gave him some of the handsomeness of an Indian. His courtesy… suggested genuine friendliness toward all mankind. His voice was noticeably resonant, masculine, warm… His manner as he bestowed a tip suggested generous good-nature, a wish to give pleasure, based on physical well-being and sincere kindliness of heart.

Sounds like a great guy, right? But a President? Is that all it takes? Daugherty seemed to think so. However, there were a couple of issues.

Harding really wasn’t all that intelligent. What he most enjoyed doing was playing poker and golf, drinking, and chasing women. As he rose through political offices he never once distinguished himself in any way. In fact, he was really vague and ambivalent on any of the issues of the time. His speeches were once described as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.” Once he was elected to the U.S. Senate he was absent for debates on two of the biggest issues of the day: women’s suffrage and Prohibition. Really, the only reason he advanced in politics at all was because his wife pushed him to do so while Daugherty made it happen. That and he only became more distinguished looking the older he got.

In 1916, Daugherty arranged for Harding to speak at the Republican presidential convention. He knew that if people could just see him and hear his voice they would immediately recognize his worthiness for higher office. Daugherty actually convinced Harding, against his better judgment, to run for President in 1920. “Daugherty, ever since the two had met, had carried in the back of his mind the idea that Harding would make ‘a great President,’” Sullivan writes. “Sometimes, unconsciously, Daugherty expressed it, with more fidelity to exactness, ‘a great-looking President.” Going into that year’s convention, Harding was running sixth out of six candidates. However, the delegates couldn’t decide between the top two. So when the Republican big-wigs met in some back rooms to try to come up with someone they could all agree on, who should they turn to but Harding. So, Senator Harding became candidate Harding who, of course, went on to become President Warren G. Harding, the 29th to hold the office. He served two years before dying of a stroke. He’s actually widely regarded as one of our worst presidents.

So, the “Warren Harding Error” is what happens when our thin-slicing somehow gets interrupted and we make a quick decision without ever getting below the surface of the problem.

So, I’m sitting there reading this and two words are constantly running through my mind: Barack Obama. Now, there are a lot of dissimilarities between Harding and Obama. However, I couldn’t help but think that these two guys, separated by decades, also (might) have some things in common.

Let me pause to state the obvious. Senator Obama is not yet the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, but he could soon be. He could also win. He could end up serving two terms. He could end up going down in history as one of our greatest Presidents. He could, but he could not, as well. I don’t want to debate that here. Again, I just think this is really interesting.

So, I ask, “are we being duped,” because I wonder if some of us (or a whole lot of us) aren’t guilty of a Warren Harding error. Here’s why. There are a number of reasons why Obama is currently leading in many polls and could end up being the presidential candidate for the Democrats. There are a lot of very smart people (way smarter than me) who are much more astute at politics who seem to think he’s pretty qualified (but then, again, Daugherty kinda thought the same of Harding). Also, the current young generation of voters (of which, at 29, I am still one) aren’t a bunch of idiots or trend-meisters as some would like to believe. However, a large part of Obama’s appeal for us (yes, I would include myself) is that we look at him and think, “oh, man. This guy would be an awesome President.”

Why do we think this? Like I said, there could be any number of reasons. However, some that seem to be rather universal are as follows: He looks good. He speaks intelligently (which many of us find very refreshing after the past 7 or 8 years). He’s got a cool, sassy wife and great looking kids. He speaks in these sweeping, inspirational generalities about our future. And we love it. We lap it up like dogs.

This doesn’t mean we’re being duped. I’d like my President to be “awesome,” so long as there’s substance to back it up. And I’m not saying Obama doesn’t have that substance. What I am saying is that we’ve got to be aware and make sure that our decision making is based on what’s below the surface whether we discover that in a couple of seconds or after months of careful examination of the facts.

And this doesn’t just apply to Obama. He is the brunt of most of the accusations that he never really says anything of value about any real issues. But here’s the reality. All of the candidates have their stump speeches, and what we hear is some variation of those depending on the audience to whom it is being given. So, again, there is a responsibility we have to look beyond where we typically would (or, perhaps, should have to). There’s a real chance that this next election will be decided by “young” voters. I want to make it a good one.

So, one last time, before I finish, let me stress this is less about any of the particular candidates we currently have running. I’m the first to say that I haven’t done all of the homework I should about anyone, yet. I also get exhausted by the political conversations I usually hear in the crowd I’m around. My recent reading just, kinda, ignited a real drive in me to be better about this kind of thing.

So, there you go. Thoughts?