One of my favorite finds this year has been Presidential, a weekly podcast from The Washington Post that tells the story of every U.S. president in chronological order. Every episode mixes history, drama, personality, and legacy, as we learn about each of our presidents through his achievements and struggles.
As is the case with most history books, the producers of Presidential highlight what they believe contemporary audiences will find most important about a president’s legacy. Occasionally, the choices they make in storytelling reveal more about our own cultural moment than the president’s.
A good example is the back-to-back episodes on Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) and Warren G. Harding (1921-23).
Woodrow Wilson and Race
Wilson has long been considered one of our most influential presidents, even by scholars and politicians who opposed his philosophy of government. The Presidential episode begins with recent controversies over college buildings that bear his name.
I’ve written before about Wilson’s troubles at Princeton and the contemporary reassessment of his legacy due to his racist policies. For all the good that Wilson accomplished, a serious examination of his legacy cannot ignore how his policies helped to undo and reverse many of the gains of African Americans after the Civil War. The producers of Presidential were right to turn our attention to these debates.
(Readers of The Warmth of Other Suns, an excellent book by Isabel Wilkerson, will be familiar with the Great Migration that took place in the decades following Wilson’s presidency, a sociological phenomenon prompted at least in part by some of the policies Wilson enacted.)
Warren Harding and Adultery
The following episode featured Warren G. Harding, widely regarded as one of the worst presidents in our history due to a number of scandals that took place during his time in office. Presidential focused primarily on a collection of love letters that only recently became public, letters that document his (many) extramarital affairs.
Presidential treats Harding’s adultery quite differently from Wilson’s racism.
The president’s affairs are referred to as “trysts,” and his outlook on sexuality is described as “modern.” The question is raised as to whether Harding’s infidelities should make any difference whatsoever to Harding’s presidency or legacy. Presidential’s host claims that the raw and passionate feelings expressed in Harding’s letters to his illicit lover serve to make him more “real” and “human” to us today. His flaws are part of his charm.
Wilson’s Racism vs. Harding’s Adultery
Far be it from me to denigrate the fine folks at Presidential or their excellent podcast. Furthermore, I have no desire to rally a defense for Wilson or to prepare the pyre for Harding. My point is this: It is intriguing to see the moral certainty regarding the sin of racism next to moral relativism regarding the sin of adultery.
The disparate treatment of these two men reveals the cultural assumptions of our present moment. We live in a time in which sexual sins are seen as acceptable, while racism is not. Were we to be in the 1950s, I dare say most observers of Wilson and Harding would see it the other way around.
Imagine a 1950s radio broadcast on the legacy of Wilson and Harding in which the hosts made jokes about Wilson’s record on race but were appalled at Harding’s infidelity. How would we respond to a host who claimed Wilson’s racism made him more “real” and “human”? Such a broadcast would indicate that racial sins were culturally acceptable (as, sadly, they were in that time), while sexual immorality was not.
I don’t turn to this example to say that we should judge today’s cultural standards by a different era, but to show that every generation has its blind spots. Yesterday’s blindness to the evil of racism should cause us to look for blindness to other evils today. As Christians, we must seek to be formed by the Word of God that stands over us and over against all generations.
Fallout from a Generation’s ‘Acceptable Sins’
Make no mistake. Wilson’s racism was evil. So was Harding’s adultery.
And yes, we might say that Wilson’s policies affected more people and so may be seen as particularly abhorrent. But Harding’s adultery surely affected his relationship to his wife, his lovers, and his illegitimate child. This man broke his wedding vows again and again, acting as a child with uncontrollable urges. It’s hard to imagine his wife of many years chuckling along with the Presidential hosts about how many times he betrayed her.
Racism is not charming. And adultery does not “humanize us.” Sin never makes us more “real.”
Evil always dehumanizes. Wilson’s evil policies dehumanized himself and all the African Americans who paid a price for his prejudice. Harding’s evil actions dehumanized himself and the women with whom he engaged in illicit sex.
But our lack of seriousness toward adultery reveals a society tangled up in the cords of the Sexual Revolution, to the point we do not see the results of our blindness.
And so, our society turns a blind eye to the emotional carnage left behind in the broken marriages, fatherless homes, and split families. We turn a blind eye to the dead bodies of inconvenient humans who fill the “medical waste” bins of the abortion clinic.
God will hold us accountable for our willful blindness. And future generations will hold us accountable as well. The day is coming when those who come behind us will recoil at the fallout from our generation’s “acceptable sins,” just like we are horrified by the “acceptable sins” of a time in which it was not uncommon for black men to hang from trees.