Term in Office: 29th president, 1921-1923
Home State: Ohio
Ever since the practice of ranking presidents began, we have been led to see the Harding administration as an essay in failure. For most of the early rankings, he held the very bottom place, until supplanted by James Buchanan on a more or less permanent basis in the 1980s. The case seems clear cut- he appointed the crooks responsible for Teapot Dome, one of the greatest scandals in the history of the presidency. He was unable to grasp the particulars of his office, and lacked even a rudimentary working knowledge of the economy and foreign affairs. He did not understand his office and lacked the capability of being a strong, decisive president and was summarily unfit for office by both temperament and capability.
All of these conclusions are true, but they are not quite in the proper perspective. Philip Payne explores our poor treatment of Harding in his book “Dead Last”. He takes note of how Harding’s life has been surrounded by legend and myth in the ninety years since his death: the shrewish wife, his string of mistresses, his small-town naiveté. If you are a cosmopolitan or bon vivant who can’t stand provincialism, Harding is a neat target. If you are a purist who cannot stand corruption, Harding is there as a punching bag. Even if you are a racist, there are those persistent rumors of “Negro blood” that dogged the Harding family for generations.
Because many of these criticisms do not hold up intact under scrutiny, and because many other presidents have done greater damage to our country’s reputation, I am, on principle, keeping Harding just outside of the bottom 10. He may have been out of his depth in the presidency. He may have made many foolish appointments. But consider for a moment that he did not initiate an unjust war, his human rights record is better than many presidents. He did not hold any segment of the public in contempt, and while influenced unduly by corporatists, he was not their toady, which cannot be said of his successor, Coolidge. You can look for a single instance of Harding behaving in a petty or vindictive manner, and you will come up short. In other words, stubborn, ideologically committed presidents with a set agenda are high-risk/high-reward; there’s a limit to the amount of damage someone like Harding could do. If Harding is “dead last,” and our Platonic image of presidential failure, we need to rethink our terms.
Few presidents were more closely linked to small-town America than Harding. He worked as a journalist before becoming the publisher of the Marion Star. He caught the attention of a political Svengali; his own Karl Rove, his own Mark Hanna. This one was named Harry Daugherty, who promoted his political career relentlessly, which included uninspiring stints as state senator, lieutenant governor of Ohio, and finally U.S. Senator from Ohio. Daugherty’s crafty maneuvering took Harding from an obscure congress-critter whose name even politics buffs would not recognize today into the U.S. presidency. With the public weary of Woodrow Wilson’s American messianism and adventurism abroad, the Republicans were almost assured of victory. But they strongly disagreed over whom to nominate, and the sundry factions battled against one another so fiercely that all contenders were irreparably damaged. Clearly, a compromise candidate would be necessary, and in the proverbial “smoke-filled room” in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, Daugherty submitted Harding’s name. He had the fewest enemies and the fewest immediately obvious liabilities, “the best of the second-raters” as one delegate remembered, and he was nominated shortly thereafter. While Harding’s handlers tried to shut him up and keep him off the record as much as possible, the Ohio senator pledged that he would pursue a course of “normalcy.” In 1920, that was not a word; Harding flubbed when he meant to say “normality.” But the public didn’t care; they knew what he meant, and were enamored of this unpretentious Rotarian and Shriner from the small-town midwest. Daugherty’s man and strategy carried the day– Harding won 61% of the vote, at that time, a record since the two-party system began in its present form. The Republicans swept the races down-ballot, including 303 seats in the House of Representatives, just about the highest number plausible in the days of the Dixiecrat South.
One of my favorite political history books that I encountered in graduate school was Robert K. Murray’s The Politics of Normalcy. In it, Murray argues that normalcy was not just a fractured and meaningless phrase; it was a coherent philosophy of government. Harding deliberately moved to executive delegation after the imperious Wilson years, picking talented men to do most of the heavy lifting, with Harding serving as a congenial mediator and facilitator. And to an extent, it worked. Charles Evan Hughes was a slam dunk as Secretary of State, Henry C. Wallace was a very fine Secretary of Agriculture (as was his son), and Herbert Hoover was an inspired pick for Secretary of Commerce. I have problems with Andrew Mellon, his plutocratic pick for Secretary of Treasury, but let’s wait until we get to Coolidge, where his worst offenses took place. He generously granted William Howard Taft his lifelong dream of serving as Chief Justice, and though Taft’s jurisprudence is several notches more conservative than I would prefer, he was a wise, learned, and diligent head of the Supreme Court.
Harding, if you think about it, did a remarkable job uniting a Republican Party that was perilously in danger of permanent fracture eight years earlier, divided between regulars and progressive Bull Moosers. (Arguably, however, Theodore Roosevelt helped the cause of unity even more by dying prior to the 1920 election.) While Wilson viewed Congress as an ancillary limb of the presidency at best, or a craven group of obstructionists at worse, Harding tried to work more constructively with the body, although his tentative results on farm bills and foreign policy points to limited success.
While we underrate Harding’s ability to find good men to serve his administration, there is no denying that he made several very serious blunders. Harding’s sloppy style had consequences, and too many scandals went undetected until it was too late. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall wrested control of oil reserves from the Navy Department, and sold drilling rights to his friends in exchange for kickbacks in six-digit figures. Charles Forbes, a deserter from the army whom Harding puzzlingly put in charge of the Veterans’ Bureau, embezzled millions of dollars while denying legitimate claims from injured veterans who needed the money. Over in the Justice Department, Harding’s old patron Harry Daugherty, now the Attorney General, took numerous payoffs to dismiss cases of fraud and war profiteering. While there is no evidence that Harding ever personally stole from the public purse, his appointees clearly did. Here, we see the downside of Harding’s lackadaisical hands-off management style– it promoted an atmosphere where such shameless graft could thrive and go unnoticed for months, even years. As Nathan Miller puts it in Star-Spangled Men, “he drifted lazily over the bubbling morass of corruption like a hot-air balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
Similarly, we have to take into account Harding’s failings as a husband. As I stated in my write-ups on Kennedy and Clinton, this is not out of Victorian prudery, but rather, out of recognition that a president so compromised creates opportunities for blackmail and manipulation, and this is not in the national interest. More than that, a president has an obligation that to serve as a role model, an while this is an extraconstitutional responsibility, this cannot be abrogated lightly. So, Harding’s White House dalliances with Nan Britton and other mistresses can’t be dismissed, especially when you consider Harding’s history of paying them off to keep them quiet.
This is why my rehabilitation of the Harding presidency only goes so far. And yet, there are a number of commendable tics in Harding’s administration that get lost in the historical shuffle and amidst the scandals that brought down the reputation of his presidency. I love that he unpretentiously signed the treaty that formally ended our involvement in World War I in between holes while playing a round of golf. He called for civil rights for black Americans on Southern soil, although he did little to back up his lofty words. He scaled down American imperialism and Latin American bullying, withdrawing troops from Cuba and Santo Domingo, and even signed a treaty which gave Colombia some well-deserved reparations for our role in Panama’s revolution. He freed Eugene Debs, who had been wrongfully imprisoned during the World War I-era crackdown on civil liberties. His dealings with congress show a willingness to compromise and an instinct for knowing when he was pushing too hard for a futile cause.
Eventually, Harding became dimly aware of how badly he had been swindled by members of his “Ohio Gang,” the cronies and good-time Charlies he brought with him and appointed to high offices. His already precarious health took a turn for the worse as he slowly realized the gravity and breadth of the scandals rocking his administration, and he died on a cross-country trip in 1923. While some have alleged that foul play was involved, including, most strikingly, the charge that his wife had poisoned him, all available eyewitness accounts and doctors’ reports suggest that Harding was a sick man with a severe cardiovascular problem. At the very least, Harding had the posthumous mercy of of being mourned before the litany of graft that took place under his watch became public knowledge.
Warren Harding gave the nation what it wanted in 1920, and perhaps what it needed as well: a retreat from intervention, idealism, and mucking up affairs abroad, a period of simplicity and calm after an era of tumultuous, if gravely necessary, reform. In a way, Harding’s campaign was a McGovernesque “Come Home, America” sort of moment, with small-town parochialism and mythology, of course, replacing McGovern’s emphasis on social justice. Unfortunately, like many myths, it was built on a faulty foundation. To quote Nathan Miller again, Harding “clung to a vision of a small-town America that had never existed, a utopia of the mid-Victorian dream.” It’s like mistaking Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland for how an actual town square functioned at the turn of the century. His election and his bad appointments gave a number of two-bit, small-market, corner-store crooks and swindlers the chance to pillage on a larger, national scale. Harding was a careless president, and perhaps he should have been self-aware enough to decline a presidency that was beyond his meager talents. But he was not an evil man, or a catastrophic failure as president. With some costly, but in the grand scheme of things petty theft happening under his nose, I just can’t put him in a bottom 10 filled with imperialists, incurable racists, megalomaniacs, borderline-treason cases, and warmongers. Warren Harding might have been a poor judge of character, but the company he kept in life wasn’t quite that bad.
~Incidentally, a number of letters between Harding and his mistresses are scheduled to be released to the public this year, so keep your eyes on the news pages. They are bound to be interesting.