Warren G. Harding photo

Remarks at the Luncheon of the Academy of Political Science in New York City

May 23, 1921

Ladies and Gentlemen, My Countrymen All:

I don't suppose a President ought ever to be embarrassed, except on matters of appointment, but somehow I feel a strange embarrassment today, notwithstanding the friendliness of my greeting.

Somehow, I cannot escape the consciousness that I am standing at the side of one of the outstanding figures, one of the ablest men and most eminent men in American public life. [applause]

If I could only bring to the Presidency his wisdom with my patience [laughter], I know I could serve you well. I am conscious at the same time that sitting at this same table is another outstanding American." [applause]

I'm not just sure what I was going to say, but I think that I was going to say that Mr. Taft brought to the Presidency one of the most lovable characters in American life.

It is a curious coincidence that, my first reprimand in national politics came from the distinguished gentleman at my right and it is connected with the distinguished gentleman to whom I have just adverted. It was in a more or less turbulent period in 1912, when all of us were not at ease about the political course of the party to which I adhered.

On that occasion Mr. Taft did me the honor to ask me to present his name to the national convention. I think I was more honored by that request than I was in my nomination, in my own appraisal. In the turbulence of the moment as I was presenting his name; I unwisely mentioned his. name before I got to the end of my speech; The convention which had long been waiting to express its devotion to Mr. Taft broke into one of those demonstrations that mark the story of political conventions.

If I had been as wise then as I ought to be now, I would have let my speech end there. But having prepared it with great care and much anxiety, I wanted to finish and I turned to the presiding officer, Mr. Root, and I said: "Isn't there some way we can stop this demonstration?"

And he said, "My God, man, do you want to stop it?"

There is another phase to my embarrassment, because I am conscious that I am talking to those of you—all of you, perhaps—who know more of political science than I do. I will make an admission to you. I was once a student of political science. If I knew as much now as I thought I knew about political science at 19 I would be the best President you ever had.

But I rejoice that you are giving the subject your attention. The country needs us. America needs to know more about the science of government, and, knowing more, it must participate more in American politics.

There are men who stand aloof from politics, alleging that it is unclean and unattractive. If it is unclean, it is your business to make it clean. I will warn you now, no popular Government will ever survive when the people most responsible for the weal or the woe of every community fail to play their part.

I contend that the slacker in war is less intolerable than the traitors of peace, who neglect their part in American politics.

They say my English is bad and my style beyond understanding, but I hope I make myself clear. I have ceased to worry about that. Sir Thomas has told me that I am all right as 'Arding, in English.'

I can not tell you how gratifying it is to greet a gathering of such men as I see here, brought together for the purpose that animates you. I recognize among you many men peculiarly equipped to deal with the great questions of Government organization, reorganization, and retrenchment: and as I look into your faces I feel that your special qualifications constitute the assurance that you will understand and sympathize with one who in an immediate relation finds himself grappling with these problems. You have studied and dealt with the affairs of great organizations; you know the power of intrenched tradition and long-established custom: you do not need to be told that, general, inclusive plans are necessary as a preliminary to accomplishment in such matters.

Everywhere we turn we note that Government has in recent time assumed a more complex relationship to the public than it ever sustained before. The mobilization of man power, industrial forces, and financial resources, which was made necessary in the war's exigencies, could only have been accomplished through the exertion of the utmost powers of Government. Those powers were exerted to the extreme limit, and stupendously important results were attained. As a result of that demonstration of Government's capacity to force great results in emergencies, there has grown up a school of thought which assumes that even in time of peace the same autocratic authority might well be exercised in the general interest. Many men thoughtlessly urge that "Governments took over the control, even the conduct, of many industries and facilities during the war: there followed a great increase in wages, a vast expansion of business activity; therefore why not assume that continuance of such control and management in time of peace would enable continuance of the same liberality in compensation and profits, the same intense business activity?"

Those who look below the surface know that the things which Governments accomplished during the war were accomplished at a staggering cost—a cost which society could not bear for long, a cost that has left society burdened with debts which mortgage generations of the future. They know that the feverish seeming of prosperity was not genuine, but was possible only because society was literally burning up its stocks of capital, and that this destruction of capital was responsible for the reaction and depression which are now felt universally. In this process the bureaus of Government were immensely increased, and it is for us now to find means of lightening those burdens.

Government, to a greater extent now than ever before, is under obligation to give the greatest service for the lowest possible cost. But it is for certain obvious reasons difficult to do this, because Government is not under the necessity to earn profits nor to obey laws which regulate competition. These are the prime guaranties of efficiency and fair dealing in-private business. They do not apply to Government, and therefore Government should be placed, so far as possible, under a strict sway of the methods which are applied in private business to secure these ends. Government should be broad, conscientious, and intelligent enough to subject itself to these rules despite that its quality of sovereignty would place it beyond them if it chose to assume that position. Every principle and device which promotes efficiency in private business should be adapted and applied in Government affairs. I will trust the public official who decides his public problem as though it were his very own.

As Senator Root has pointed out, there is responsibility all along the line. Perhaps I can illustrate this by an incident which occurred only a day or two ago. The War Department is driving strenuously to reduce its expenditures. In one of our sovereign States it was decided to abandon a cantonment that had been built during the war.

It was not fortunately located. It was not much needed. There is a prospect of its abandonment. But there came to the Executive a committee from the community interested and I was told, with all solemnity that the greatest service which I could render to the party which had honored me and the greatest work I could do to entrench myself in power was to retain that particular cantonment in that particular place.

To bring economy and efficiency into Government is a task second to none in difficulty. Few people, in or out of the Government, have any conception of the growth of Government business in the last decades before the World War; still fewer at all realize the pace to which that growth has been speeded up since the. war started. The multiplication of departments, bureaus, divisions, functions has resulted in a sort of geometrical increase in the tasks which confront the heads of executive departments when they face reconstruction problems. They find that with their time already mortgaged in favor of tasks which demand more hours than the day provides they must devise means for doing yet more work with less money.

Fortunately the prospect is not so hopeless as might appear, because the present organization is so bad that the insistent application of a few established principles of sound business organization will result in immediate economics and provide a margin of available means to meet new demands. The party in power is pledged to economy and efficiency, and you may be assured that every energy is being directed to redeem that pledge to the last degree and with all promptness.

At the beginning of his administration President Taft secured from Congress the establishment of an Economy and Efficiency Commission. It made a comprehensive survey of activities, organization, and personnel of the whole Government establishment. The report on that survey was never printed: but it is available, and can be consulted to determine where wastages and overlappings of function are. That commission further presented particular suggestions as to how specific economies could be effected, efficiency established, and much money saved.

The problem has been vastly complicated and increased as result of the war. The present Congress has already provided for a Joint Committee on the Reorganization of the Administrative Branch of the Government. A representative of the Executive will serve with this committee, so that there is now in progress a thorough study of the whole problem. The task will require some time, and ultimate results must await it. More, it will demand a resolute courage to effect the abolition of the useless and the coordination of the useful.

But meanwhile we shall, I trust, have a budget system in operation under the law before the opening of the new fiscal year. This is a long step toward introducing into Government the sound methods that great private business establishments have adopted. I need not emphasize to you gentlemen the anomalous situation of the Government heretofore in having a great number of spending committees apportioning moneys to various purposes without any study of the relationship between these various purposes, and regardless of the relationship of these aggregated spendings to the revenue in sight. No business, no humblest household, could be thus conducted without leading into disaster.

Establishment of a budget system is the foundation on which reorganization must be based. It is hardly conceivable, indeed, that a proper budget system could be established and carried on for any considerable time without forcing attention to the evils and effecting the reform of many deficiencies in the present system. But the budget program will not do everything. It must not be accounted a fiscal and efficiency panacea, for it will not be. There must still be much and continuing effort to keep expenses down, to insure full value for every dollar of the taxpayer's money the Government spends.

I note that either this morning or this afternoon you are discussing expenditures for the maimed and wounded Soldiers in the World War. I would like to say that the drive for efficiency and service in the War Bisk Bureau is so well succeeding that hundreds of employes have been permitted to go to other pursuits and claims will be current within sixty days.

At this point, let me say, too much stress can not be laid on the fact that eternal vigilance is the price of economy and efficiency. Nothing is easier in a Government establishment than to continue in existence offices, positions, employments, once they are created. It requires persistent, determined, stony-hearted devotion to the public interest. There must lie utter sacrifice of all sympathy for the place holder whose real reason for keeping his position is that he wants the salary. There must be constant examinations to determine how. in the processes of evolving functions and methods, forces may be reduced and duplications of work eliminated. Inertia, which is easily the greatest force in governmental organizations must be combated at every point. The fact that a thing has existed for a decade or a century—that things have been done in a certain way for a generation—must not be accepted as proving that it ought to continue that way. The men who conscientiously and intelligently do this work must not expect to popularize themselves with the officeholders or with the liberal spenders. Even the administration which devotes itself relentlessly to such work must understand that it will lose a good deal of immediate loyalty on the part of a certain class of politicians, which will not be compensated to it at once in the appreciation of the public, for the public will not have the deep, immediate interest or the active concern which will animate the person who finds himself being pried loose from the purse strings.

Nevertheless, thankless and ungracious as the task will be for most of those who devote their efforts to it, it must, and will be attacked, it is being attacked, with all determination. Something can be done, even pending the effective inauguration of the budget and the survey by the joint committee, toward bettering conditions. In all the departments, I may say to you, this sort of work is already progressing under Executive orders within the power of the Executive. We shall need the full support of enlightened public opinion, and, realizing this, I am glad that such bodies as the Academy of Political Science, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the engineering societies, and business organizations generally are studying and discussing these questions. Out of such counsels will come truer appreciation of the difficulties and magnitude of Government business, a. larger sense of public responsibility, and a highly desirable cooperation between public and private business for the common good.

Senator; you never said a more important thing than in your estimate of public opinion. In a Republic like ours intelligent, abiding public opinion becomes the law.

Let me remind you, my countrymen, no Government can survive that isn't solvent, and in the looseness of our methods today, not only in the Federal Government but more menacingly in our municipal and State Governments we are spending without a thought of the morrow and going headlong to popular governmental bankruptcy.

Warren G. Harding, Remarks at the Luncheon of the Academy of Political Science in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/359816

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