Is America's So-Called Worst President Unfairly Condemned?

A Review of John Dean's Warren G. Harding


Friday, Jan. 09, 2004
John W. Dean Warren G. Harding (Times Books 2004)

Don't look for the visage of Warren Harding, our twenty-ninth President, on your pocket change, and don't expect to find it there any time soon. As is conceded in the opening line of John Dean's monograph, "Warren G. Harding is best known as America's worst president."

Dean's Warren G. Harding, an installment of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s American Presidents series, proves Dean a loyal adoptive son of Marion, Ohio -- the town where he spent a fair chunk of his youth and which was the political wellspring of Harding. Dean makes a convincing case that Harding has gotten a bum rap - he was not the best President, but surely not the worst.

The Harding Administration: Brief, and Beset by Scandal

With Lanny Davis as our model, let's start by trying to make the old bad news simply old news. Yes, the Harding administration was ethically challenged. Worse yet, Harding had the terrible misfortune that his lieutenants' marquee scandal possessed a media-genic shorthand name: Teapot Dome. Teapot Dome may not have been as good a moniker as Watergate, at least in terms of its ability to spawn sequels (Irangate, Travelgate, etc.), but it sure beats the pants off Whitewater.

Teapot Dome was a bit (though a big bit indeed) of straightforward corruption. Harding's trusted Secretary of the Interior awarded a sweetheart lease on oil fields to a consortium willing to pay his price on the side, which they did to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

Harding died 882 days into his only term, and only the broad outlines of Teapot Dome and a handful of other, smaller scandals were apparent at the time of his death. They were brought to life, just as later scandals would be, through the energetic use of the Senate's investigatory powers.

When that occurred, Harding was not there to defend himself and the few truly close confidantes he had were caught up in their own problems. His reputation swooned from mediocre to crooked, though there was never any evidence of graft or corruption in the Oval Office itself.

Out in the departments, however, the evidence was considerable, and criminal convictions followed. This is one more bit of evidence that all life is like college basketball - it's almost never the coach, it's the boosters you have to watch out for.

The Drama of Harding's Early Life in Turn-of-the-Century Ohio

That bit of unpleasantness out of the way, one of the charms of Dean's book and the Schlesinger series as a whole is that even the obscure are humanized. In this volume, Dean takes us back to one my favorite periods in American history, when the country was not close to the fairly continuous whole that is the contemporary experience.

During the fifty years spanning the turn of the Twentieth Century, the United States was the equivalent of a small sea, dotted by hundreds of semi-autonomous ships of state -- each of which constituted its own political, social, and economic subculture, and each of which was presided over, as often in benevolence as tyranny, by a homegrown ruling class. In every city of a certain age you will find the Victoriana-clad mansions, ornate cemeteries, and, where they have survived, the public institutions created by these micro-aristocracies.

Such places were the setting of many a great drama, both in fiction (think of, say, The Magnificent Ambersons) and as a matter of historical fact. Marion, Ohio was such a place, and Harding's early years presented just such a drama.

Warren Harding made him name through the newspaper business. The young Turk railed mightily in hundreds upon hundreds of editorials against the economic tyranny of Marion's wealthiest citizen, the formidable Amos Kling. A tin pot dictator, Kling refused all entreaties to lift his daughter and (alas, illegitimate) grandson out of poverty. Kling reversed course only when his daughter agreed to hand the lad over to her father, to be raised as the son Kling had always wanted.

With the scene thus set, one imagines that young Harding will bring down Kling, and rise to political prominence himself. But here, there is a plot twist. Instead, Harding marries Kling's daughter and is drawn to the bosom of old Amos -- who ends up signing his letters to his son-in-law with an affectionate "Daddy." Imagine if, in "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey --(famously played by Jimmy Stewart -- had decided to shack up with Mr. Potter's daughter.

This was the same "Daddy" who responded to Warren's courting of his daughter by spreading the explosive rumor that he was of African-American heritage, and organizing an economic boycott of his newspaper. What made him change his mind about Harding? Kling may have recognized that his dynasty needed the young politician as much, or more, than Harding needed Kling.

Over the years, it became clear that Florence Kling DeWolfe Harding was her father's daughter and a formidable force in her own right. She earned a fierce -- though apparently affectionate nickname -- from the future President: "The Duchess." As Dean sums it up in a typically taught turn of phrase, "the [nickname is] revealing, and the new pressures of married life, not to mention life with an extremely demanding woman, soon stirred in Warren his love of traveling - alone."

Harding's Uneventful Career in the Senate, and His Nomination for the Presidency

In various state offices and in the United States Senate, Harding showed himself to be a capable public speaker, an amiable poker companion, and an utterly inconsequential legislator. Reading about Harding I was reminded of a Congressman from my hometown whose career was hastened to an end by his candid remark that he considered his career to have been spent "doodling in the margins of history." (Note to politicians: candor is dangerous; self-deprecating candor is often deadly.)

Harding, too, occupied the margins of history during those years. It is likely that his most important decision during this period was to stick with William Howard Taft when Theodore Roosevelt formed his Bull Moose insurgency.

But when Roosevelt died in 1919, the 1920 Republican nomination was put into play. The result was that Harding was propelled from a potential Vice President, to a dark horse contender for the top spot.

Dean provides a fascinating account of the political strategy that delivered the nomination. This was not an era of "retail" politics - the handful of primaries were largely inconsequential and viewed as something of a tawdry embarrassment. Bare-knuckled "wholesale" politics, conducted among bosses, was the order of the day. And Harding's handlers and the Duchess had a strategy tailored to those realities.

Those in Harding's camp correctly foresaw a deadlock between the major candidates, and thus, they spent their time in the months leading up to the convention securing not first-ballot commitments, but second- and third-ballot commitments. This was genius, as it turned out. Harding never had a chance of winning on the floor, but his aides had positioned himself as the fallback. And when the bosses convened in the famed (and literal) "smoked filled room" at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago to bring the process to a close, Warren Harding was the last man left standing, with Calvin Coolidge as his running mate.

Harding and his handlers ran a strikingly sophisticated campaign, built around what we would today term sound bites, and a sophisticated engagement with the press. He made more than 100 campaign appearances around the country, but did most of his campaigning from the front porch of his home in Marion.

Harding's vanilla appeal for a return to normalcy, coming on the heels of the grandiose internationalism of Woodrow Wilson, found a receptive audience. Truth be told, though, it may be that one of Harding's most lasting contributions to American political culture is the (deservedly) oft-repeated verdict of William McAdoo on Harding's stump speeches: "an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and over work."

In any event, the army scored a dramatic landslide victory over James Cox and his running mate Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And Harding's substantial coattails secured and augmented Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, to boot.

Assessing Harding: Accomplishments that Were Modest at Best

If Harding was not a crook, was he anything more than a mediocre President, passing time much as he had in the Senate?

While Harding's campaign was thoroughly modern, his administration was a throwback. As Dean recounts, Harding vowed from the start to "offer Congress his best advice and let the legislative branch work its will." So much for a legislative program.

It would seem that everything that T.R. and Wilson had taught about an activist executive was lost on Harding. Ever loyal to the party's chief politicos, he failed to appreciate that the opportunity and responsibility to lead was now his. "Normalcy" may play as campaign pap, but as a policy it can readily be mistaken for ineffectualness, inattention, or worse.

Harding lacked the "vision thing" and his achievements were, shall we say, modest. When a major selling point of the historical relevance of your administration is the creation of the precursor of today's Office of Management and Budget, well . . . that's not exactly Rushmore material.

The 1921 Washington Conference was a groundbreaking disarmament treaty that probably made the world a safer place for a period. But rightly or wrongly, Harding's Secretary of State, Charles Evan Hughes, has been accorded the lion's share of the credit for it.

Dean makes much of the fact that Harding's recently discovered and long-thought destroyed personal papers vindicate his character. Unfortunately, however, no one seems to have found much in those papers that reveals more than what little meets the eye in terms of Harding's accomplishments.

Dean's Reassessment: Giving Harding Credit When It Is Deserved

As with any president who does not live out his term, one can look back and see the potential seeds for change. This may be simply a generous parallax of history, but there is some hard evidence in Harding's case.

By the time Harding died, he had come to understand both that he had been betrayed by various of his trusted lieutenants, and that he needed to put his own mark on the administration. He had embarked on a barnstorming "voyage of understanding" (a la Hillary Clinton's "listening tour") across the country, which held promise for change but ultimately hastened his death.

And even before that time, there were a few fascinating glimpses of the man and president Harding might have been, given more time. For example, Harding went to Birmingham, Alabama, and "unflinchingly," as Dean chronicles, told his audience that political and economic equality for African-Americans was only a matter of time, and that any other course would make a lie of democracy.

More concretely, Harding reversed the Wilson Administration's policy of excluding minorities from federal positions. This was, to say the least, heady stuff for the 1920s, and was part of Harding's plan for attracting the African-American vote to the party of Lincoln, and ending the democratic stranglehold on the South.

An Appealing, Well-Written Account of Harding's Presidency, But No New Revelation

Dean is a gifted writer and clearly his production of this volume was the culmination not of a few years' effort, but a lifetime spent staring down the enigma of Warren Harding. Fortunately, this familiarity has not by any measure impacted his scholarly impartiality.

In taking up Harding's cause, as he concedes early and often, Dean faces a tough sell. But he pulls no punches and has produced a readable and reliable history. In the end, though, in order to dislodge a received historical convention, we generally demand a revelation, and there is not one here.

As Dean acknowledges with a wink in his preface, he knows more than the average bear about administrations tarred by scandal. The unfortunate bottom line is that the only enduringly newsworthy event of the Harding administration was Teapot Dome. A former cabinet secretary in prison for his conduct in office makes for enduring news.

Matt Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C. Full disclosure: John Dean is a columnist for FindLaw.