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Sunday, December 05, 2010

1920 - THE YEAR WITHOUT A REVOLUTION

I don't believe that Ed Barrow (above) was capable of playing the idiot. Now that the 1920 baseball season was over, the Boston manager made it clear to Red Sox owner Harry Frazee that he wanted out. Frazee, who may have been a fool, was not a mean man. He agreed to give Barrow his freedom, knowing that New York would snatch him up. And on October 29, 1920 Ed Barrow became the General Manager for the New York Yankees.
"Cousin Ed" as Barrow was called, now spent nearly half a million dollars of Col Rupperts beer money buying up every player of talent still on the Red Sox roster, dismatling the Boston team, while building around Babe Ruth a dynasty that would dominate baseball for the next twenty years, winning 14 pennants and 10 World Series, before Barrow retired in 1945. Over that same period Boston did nothing but disappoint.
The American election of 1920 was the most disappointing one of the 20th century. It was women’s first opportunity to add their voices to the political life of the country, and led to the conclusion that they could not sing. In Boston, women eligible to vote even outnumbered eligible men by 10,000. Still, the actual turnout favored men by 18%. And like the men, the women overwhelmingly voted for Warren G. Harding ( above, shaking hands with Ruth) -
 - and his running mate Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge (above), even though, in the inimitable words of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Coolidge looked “as though he'd been weaned on a pickle.”
Harding and Coolidge (red counties) won 60% of the popular vote, and 404 electoral votes. Mr. Cox and his running mate, pre-polio Franklyn Roosevelt (blue counties), won 34% of the popular vote and only 127 electoral votes. Eugene Debs, a labor leader running on the Socialist ticket, won 3% of all votes, and Parley Parker Christianson representing the Farmer-Labor party represented another 1% of the American electorate. The remaining 1% of voters split their support between James Ferguson of the American Party, William Wesely Cox, of the Socialist Labor Party, and Robert MaCauley, representing the Single Tax Party. And, strangest of all, there was Aaron Watkins of Indiana, running for President on the Prohibition Party ticket, in this the first year of national prohibition.
Harding and Coolidge won the Bay State by 40 points, 681,000 Republican votes to 277,000 Democratic votes. Massachusetts merely mirrored the nation. The Harding landslide was the biggest in American history until 1984 when Ronald Reagan took every state in the union, except Massachusetts. But given that success, in the election of 1920, given the hopes of feminists and the subsequent Harding scandals, the reality of suferage remained disappointing.
In a way, it should have been anticipated, given the way women won the right to vote. The entire struggle for women’s rights had come down, by happenstance, to a 24 year old Tennessee State Representative. And Harry Burn, who had a long record of voting against suffrage, had finally decided to vote for the 19th Amendment to the constitution because his mother told him to. That made Tennessee the 36th state to ratify. But in Boston, which had never been cordial to woman’s suffrage, over the next ten years, only three women would be elected to the school board, and it would be 1937 before a woman would be elected to the city council, and then only because her brother had held the seat before her.
So, despite the predictions and the hopes of a social revolution, female suffrage changed almost nothing in American politics. In Beverly, a Boston suburb with 22,500 inhabitants, only 47% of eligible women actually voted. Even more depressing was that in the reality, women voted like men, and less by 3 to 2; “every known instance of available data in the United States has revealed a lower rate of turnout or registration among women as compared to men…the difference between male and female turnout is in the neighborhood of 20 percentage points…”
Of course the news media of 1920 were no more eager to let go of their much ballyhooed image of the election than they are at present. Facing clear proof that no gender gap existed, the media insisted that it did, and that women had voted for Warren G. Harding because he was a handsome ladies man. In fact he was a hound, and his sexual proclivities were not directed toward monogamy with either of his wives. The reality was that women did not “elect” Harding. He won for the simple reason that in 1920 America wanted to go back to sleep.
Harding was helped by the Democrats, who, in shades of the 2000 election, could not decide if they liked their leader enough to vote for him.  Wilson was despised by everybody. German Americans felt he had betrayed them at by going to war, and Irish Americans felt he had betrayed them at the Versailles peace conference. James Cox (above), the Democratic candidate for President in 1920, vacillated between support for Wilson’s League of Nations and rejection of it, and so lost both Wilson’s endorsement and the support of those Democrats who disliked Wilson. But none of that mattered
Harding also “waffled” on the league. But the voters did not care what he thought. Harding never left Ohio. His best known campaign slogan was “A return to normalcy”, although what that exactly meant was never explained.
Over the sixty-one days of the official campaign, over 600,000 people took the train to the Harding homestead in Marion, including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. And despite all that energy pounding on his own door, Warren G. Harding remained proudly boring, defiantly placid and belligerently dull, a vacuous lump at the center of the universe, a black hole if you will, by choice. He was not an idiot, but he was smart enough to play one in public.
The lesson is of 1920 then, it seems to me, is that democracy exists in America both of because and in spite of the venality of the American public. And that only those ammendments to the constitution which enlarge rights, such as female suferage, even when done for the worst of reasons, make the nation stronger. But those attempts to limit freedom, even when done out of the best of motives, such as prohibition, fail, and are doomed to fail, and fail our democracy as well. And 1920 proved that once again.
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