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Roaring then, whimpering now

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In a shed atop East Pittsburgh's old eight-story Westinghouse plant, five men and the company's chief engineer made history when they broadcast results of 1920's presidential election.

That culture-changing moment ended one of the most dramatic U.S. presidential elections, in which six once-or-future presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt — jockeyed for the White House.

Although the election eventually came down to Harding and James M. Cox, early on, both Wilson and “TR” plotted third-term campaigns — Wilson to avenge his tarnished presidency, Roosevelt emerging as a clear front-runner in a year that soured on Democrats.

“Teddy Roosevelt certainly would have won the office in that very Republican year,” said presidential historian David Pietrusza, “save for his death in his sleep in January 1919.”

Franklin Roosevelt was Ohio Gov. Cox's vice-presidential candidate; Harding's vice-presidential pick, Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge, succeeded him in the presidency when Harding died halfway through his term. And Hoover won several primary contests in that year's Republican nominating process.

Pietrusza calls the election a crossroads moment shaping modern America as it “stops experimenting, settles down, balances its books, and enters a decade of prosperity.”

The noted historian, recently part of the History Channel's “Ultimate Guide to the Presidency,” sees similarities between today's election-impacting technological leaps and those that burst at the end of that earlier election. But a big difference exists regarding the economy: “The 1920s roar, our economy whimpers.”

One reason, Pietrusza explained, is that government got out of the way in the 1920s: less regulation, lower marginal tax rates.

“A guiding light of that move to cut (tax rates) was Pittsburgh's own Andrew W. Mellon, who served as Treasury secretary under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover,” he said. “Today, government punishes initiative, and both rich and poor suffer from that. The poor suffer more.”

Terrorism concerns marked both eras. The 1920s witnessed a series of anarchist bomb plots. “A terrific explosion rocked Wall Street, another bomb damaged the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and body parts landed across the street on the roof of Franklin Roosevelt's home,” Pietrusza recalled.

And today “we are also seeing a very heated debate regarding the targeting of U.S. citizens — and whether their rights should be honored.” In 1920, many foreign-born radicals were simply deported.

The Prohibition debate back then mirrors today's growing debate over legalizing marijuana; in 1920, many Americans supported alcohol's prohibition, while today's trend seems to be marching in the opposite direction for pot.

The 1920 election also marked the end of America's embrace of progressivism, and Pietrusza wonders if we are heading in such a direction now.

“It would be difficult to tell that from the rhetoric emanating from the White House, but at some point the bill comes due and folks wish to put on the brakes, examine what experiments have value and which do not,” he said.

“There is certainly an unusually attractive crop of new Republican leaders emerging — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul and Kelly Ayotte — who might make such a reversal transpire.”

Baylor University political scientist Curt Nichols says that although 1920's election was a low point for progressives, it ultimately demonstrated that it is often darkest before the light.

“By placing a weak and pliant president (Harding) in the White House, the election gave conservative congressional Republicans the ability to wrest complete control of the party from their own progressive wing — driving them into the Democratic Party and reorienting the Grand Old Party from the nationalistic ideology of Lincoln,” he said.

That shift undermined the coalitional foundations of the party and contributed to a massive loss of voters to Democrats in 1928 and 1932.

“What separates today from the leadership and the people of 1920 is that they still possessed a keen sense of arithmetic,” said Pietrusza. “We seem to have lost it. We do not know what a deficit is — or we do not seem to care. We are not ashamed of debt nor fear its consequences enough.”

It may take a dose of deficit-caused galloping inflation to snap voters to attention. The question then will be what remedies will they pursue — neo-normalcy or hyper-progressivism?

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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