It's fashionable to identify Warren Gamaliel Harding as the 20th century's most notable example of presidential failure. In two recent polls, historians ranked the one-time editor from Marion, Ohio, as the nation's worst chief executive. Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Ulysses S. Grant were ranked above Harding.
Harding's hypocritical attitude toward the Prohibition Amendment, his poor choice of subordinates and resulting scandals, and his general lack of accomplishment in either domestic or foreign affairs provide no little evidence for his consignment to the historical Inferno.
Yet, his popular-vote majority in 1920 (60.2 percent) was the largest recorded to that date, and his first executive order, opening the White House gates to the public, added to his popular acceptance. The favorable public response was aided by Harding's frequent appearances steeped in effusive, and eloquent, oratory. For example, of all the presidential addresses at Arlington National Cemetery on what is now called Veterans Day, Harding's in 1921 was the most stirring commemoration.
Armistice Day (Nov. 11), 1921, had been chosen as the burial date for the nation's Unknown Soldier. Foreign dignitaries, including Marshall Foch, Aristide Briand, Admiral Lord Beatty, and Arthur J. Balfour, arrived in Washington for the dedication, and 90,000 people viewed the plain black coffin of the unidentified American serviceman as it lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol on Nov. 10. The next day a procession of notables escorted the bier to Arlington Cemetery, where 100,000 had gathered to hear Harding deliver the main address.
''Never before, perhaps, has there been such a gathering as assembled on the hills of the national cemetery overlooking Washington,'' read an account of the assemblage. ''While only a small portion who came to do honor to the Unknown could be accommodated within the enclave . . . the vast multitude . . . followed the memorial ceremonies by means of the telephone amplifier, which impressively and with wonderful distinctness reproduced the addresses. Not only the many thousands within the cemetery heard every detail . . . but the nation's message of mourning was carried to distant cities.''
Harding's address, climaxed by his call to the audience to join him in reciting the Lord's Prayer, would not receive the serious attention of historians. But it should, not only because it was moving - so much so that Associated Press writer Kirke L. Simpson won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of the ceremonies - but because it reflects the ideals that have comforted and tormented the American spirit from World War I to the recent occurrences in Lebanon and Grenada:
''Mr. Secretery of War and Ladies and Gentlemen: We are met today to pay the impersonal tribute. The name of him whose body lies before us took flight with his imperishable soul. We know not whence he came, but only that his death marks him with the everlasting glory of an American dying for his country. . . .
''It was my fortune recently to see a demonstration of modern warfare. It is no longer a conflict in chivalry, no more a test of militant manhood. It is only cruel, deliberate, scientific destruction. . . . As this panorama of unutterable destruction visualized the horrors of modern conflict, there grew on me the sense of the failure of a civilization which can leave its problems to such cruel arbitrament. Surely no one in authority . . . could ask the manhood of kingdom, empire, or republic to make such sacrifice until all reason had failed, until appeal to justice through understanding had been denied, until every effort of love and consideration for fellow-men had been exhausted, until freedom itself and inviolate honor had been brutally threatened. . . .
''The loftiest tribute we can bestow today . . . is the commitment of this Republic to an advancement never made before. If American achievement is a cherished pride at home, if our unselfishness among nations is all we wish it to be, and ours is a helpful example in the world, then let us give of our influence and strength, yea, of our aspiration and convictions, to put mankind on a little higher plane, exulting and exalting, with war's distressing and depressing tragedies barred from the stage of righteous civilization. . . ."