Who’ll Be Head of the Family?

In February 1923, New York Times Magazine asked: who should be considered the preeminent moral leader of the western world? For various reasons, writer Anne O’Hare McCormick cast doubt on then-leaders in the U.S., U.K., France, and even the pope.

Where is the spokeman strong enough to speak for us — the more flexible Wilson, the profounder [Theodore] Roosevelt?

The article ruled out both President Warren Harding and his top foreign policy official.

The voice of Secretary Hughes [U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes] thundered impressively for a while in 1921, but it has sunk to a feeble whisper in 1923.

The article argued that while the prior U.K. prime minister could have qualified, after his recent October 1922 resignation, his new successor was no match.

[David Lloyd George] was endowed with the political knack and cultivated the political knowingness that seemed to call him to a kind of premiership of the world… And Britain appears to have no rival geniuses.

France was also out.

France has been too busy to present a personal candidate. Clemenceau [prime minister until 1920] is too responsible for the old order to create a new.

Various other possibilities were also out.

No hereditary ruler even pretends to fit the bill.

Pope Benedict XV, if he could have developed for ten years more the amazing statesmanship of his seven years’ pontificate, might have reasserted in this second Dark Age a central moral authority. His successor is still new and unknown.

Pius XI had only risen to the papacy a year prior, in February 1922. He would serve for 17 years, until 1939.

Over the next two decades following the article’s publication, the answers became much clearer. On the sheer force of their personas, the preeminent leaders of the western world became FDR and Churchill. Yet both men remained far from that status in February 1923.

FDR held no government office at the time. His prior political career seemed at a possible dead end, after his 1920 Democratic nomination for vice presidential nomination lost the general election. His subsequent political comeback, in which he won the New York governorship, wouldn’t occur until 1928.

Churchill had just lost his seat in Parliament in November 1922. He would return to government in 1924 as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the U.K.’s equivalent of America’s Secretary of the Treasury. But in 1923, after undergoing an appendectomy, he declared himself a man “without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix.”

Who’ll Be Head of the Family?

Published: Sunday, February 25, 1923

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