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Yearning for a return to normalcy, the quicker the better

In 1920, Warren G. Harding wanted a return to normalcy; a century later, it’s deja vu all over again

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After a storm delayed the Utah-Weber State football game on Sept. 2, a rainbow welcomed everyone back to their seats.

After a storm delayed the Utah-Weber State football game on Sept. 2, a rainbow welcomed everyone back to their seats.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

One hundred and one years ago, Warren G. Harding, a newspaperman from Ohio, ran for the United States presidency on a platform of returning to normalcy.

He was considered a long shot at best for the presidency, due to lagging far behind the front-runners in the primaries.

But he turned the corner just weeks before the nominating convention when he said these words in a speech in Boston in May of 1920:

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.”

The country was emerging from the devastation of World War I, which claimed 117,000 U.S. lives, and the Spanish flu pandemic, which claimed the lives of another 675,000 Americans (and an estimated 50 million around the globe).

“A return to normalcy” became Harding’s campaign slogan.

He won in a landslide, with over 60% of the vote.

Normal. Nothing like hard times to make it look so good.

As 2021 merges into 2022, it appears things are moving full speed ahead toward normalcy, not nostrums. (In politics, a nostrum, according to Definitions.net, “is a scheme asserted to solve a problem, but with no objective basis for belief in its effectiveness”).

A year that began with lockdowns, mandates, edicts and isolation is ending, despite another COVID-19 variant, with all sorts of indicators that a normalcy comeback is already well underway.

A big revelation for me was at the University of Utah’s first football game of the season, on Sept. 2, at home against Weber State.

The Utes hadn’t played in front of spectators in two years. Who knew how quickly the fans would return? Would anyone show up? Would they sit 6 feet apart? Would they breathe?

But it was almost as if nothing had happened. Thousands poured into the stadium, arriving early, buying popcorn and J Dawgs and sitting right next to each other.

Pandemic? What pandemic? 

But first, in an indicator the universe wasn’t quite yet finished messing with humankind, the game had barely begun when it was postponed because of lightning. Everyone was ordered out of the stadium.

My son Eric and I made our way to a semi-covered spot west of the concourse, where we had a clear view of the black front rolling in from the southwest. We stood there in the wind, occasionally pelted by rain, for an hour and a half, until the storm passed.

When the all-clear was given and the masses flooded back into the stadium, there to greet us was a huge rainbow in the east, encompassing the expanse of the stadium. Clearly an omen of better weather ahead — and that the Utes, down 7-3 to Weber State at the time, would end their season in the Rose Bowl.

Movies, sporting events, concerts, shopping, Broadway plays — all are climbing back toward pre-pandemic levels even if we’re not yet post-pandemic.

Airports, in spite of the constant announcements that failure to wear a mask will be met with consequences such as you can never fly again, or, worse, be banished to walk the Salt Lake airport B concourse forever, are jammed. On a trip my wife and I took to North Carolina at Thanksgiving, the line for Jersey Mike’s at the Charlotte airport was so long it looked like a line for Olivia Rodrigo tickets.

After a 2020 dominated by COVID-19 stories, in 2021 I wrote about people doing what they would have been doing had the pandemic never happened: the world’s oldest heli-skier, one of the last surviving D-Day veterans, a man who caught 45,000 bass at Lake Powell, a writing legend in coal country, an independent bookstore owner defying the big boxes and Amazon, a new mountain bike trail in the Uintas, and on and on. Column writing, for one thing, mostly returned to normal.

As for Warren G. Harding, his was a case study in being careful what you wish for. A return to normalcy for him meant scandals and ill health. The 29th president caught the flu — not the Spanish flu, but a descendant — just two years into his term and never recovered. He died at 57 in August 1923. His vice president, Calvin Coolidge, took over as president.

After Harding’s death, his administration was rocked by the uncovering of widespread corruption, including the Teapot Dome scandal in Wyoming. In rankings of U.S. presidents, Harding always finishes last or close to last. In the most recent Siena College Research Institute poll, he ranked 41st out of 45 presidents, ahead only of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson — and Donald Trump.

But Harding did usher in the Roaring ’20s, a time of excess, indulgence and the most prosperous economic period in American history. Getting back to normal indeed felt great. The crash of Wall Street and the Great Depression followed, which probably should serve as a cautionary tale. But that is tomorrow. Today we’re healing … and the Utes are in the Rose Bowl.