Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding

by John W. Dean

Harding may be best known as America's worst president.

Showing a talent for local politics, he rose quickly to the U.S. Senate.

His presidential campaign slogan, "America's present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy," gave voice to a public exhausted by the intense politics following World War I.

Read the Book "Warren G. Harding" Online

Just like Harding, John Dean of Watergate fame was born and raised in Marion Ohio albeit 20 years after the President had passed away. Not surprisingly this book is a bit too slanted towards Harding but after plodding through many boring biographies of lesser known presidents I was ready for some good writing. Dean points out that the Teapot Dome scandal did not involve Harding but rather a cabinet official (actually two). Nan Britton claimed that she started an affair with a middle aged Harding while she was a teenager, this from her tell all book from 1927.

Dean makes no effort to hide his intention to rehabilitate the image of Warren Harding, who is generally considered to be Americas Worst President. Ill admit he somewhat succeeds in rehabilitating Hardings character (even though he basically glosses over his affair), but I think he falls short in his attempt to rehabilitate his administration. For all his faults, he read the national mood better than anyone, orchestrated a brilliant strategy for winning the GOP nomination, and used his interpersonal skills to great effect in securing passage of legislation and treaties he wanted. Harding is best known as Americas worst president. The author argues that later accounts were unfairly biased against him because a) he was no longer alive to defend himself b) other Republicans sought to avoid association with scandal and didnt rise to his defense, and c) his presidential papers were assumed to have been destroyed by his wife (they werent) so his enemies felt free to exaggerate his failings without fear of detection (3). Harding turned the Star a viable business, hiring reporters, installing telegraph lines, and acquiring new printing presses. Amos also believed (mistakenly) that Harding possessed African-American heritage and he set out to end their relationship. However, Flossie was a demanding woman (her nickname was the Duchess) and Harding found himself traveling more frequently for his paper. Harding bid for county auditor fell short in 1895 (Marion county was controlled by Democrats). Harding proved a gifted politician and he was asked to campaign for William McKinleys 1896 presidential campaign. In 1899, the 33 year old editor won a seat in the Ohio Senate, where he quickly became one of the most popular men in the General Assembly (23). Running his paper again full time back in Marion, his friends Jim and Carrie Phillips lost a two year old son. Jim was admitted to a sanitarium and the grief stricken Carrie began an affair with Harding while Flossie was bedridden (26). With Flossie back on her feet, Harding was restless and he made a failed bid for Ohio Governor in 1910. Harding placed Tafts name in nomination at the convention. Because of TR and Wilsons aggressive presidencies, the Senates power had waned as Harding entered it. After Wilsons reelection, Harding spent the next 4 years in the Senate positioning himself to be a presidential contender. In 1919 after the GOP retook the Senate, he was assigned to the Foreign Relations Committee, giving him an important role in the resolution of WWI issues (like the League of Nations). Overall, Harding did not distinguish himself in the Senate; he often missed votes on controversial issues so as not to make enemies or waste political capital (44). The frontrunners included General Leonard Wood, IL Governor Lowden, and CA Senator Hiram Johnson. It is a historical distortion that Harding was selected by his Senate colleagues in smoke-filled room. As a newspaper man himself, Harding cultivated a strong rapport with the media which served his Front Porch Campaign well. Harding deftly straddled the most divisive issue of the campaign (the League of Nations) and won the largest landslide victory in Republican history. He began filling his cabinet with respected names (Henry Wallace to Agriculture, Pittsburgh Millionaire Andrew Mellon to Treasury, Herbert Hoover to Commerce, Charles Evans Hughes to State) though it included duds (Albert Fall to Interior). Wilson had been seriously ill for 17 months when Harding took power. On Hardings coattails, the GOP had won wide margins in both houses of Congress. Congress passed and Harding signed a bill restricting immigration in 1921 (101-2). Harding delivered a special message to Congress, calling for an end to lynching that drew praise from the NAACP (123). Many black Americans had turned to the GOP because of Wilsons racist policies. Harding hoped to reshape his party and draw the South, including blacks, into the GOP. Hardings role is often overlooked, but his hidden hand (both his leadership and influence with the Senate) was instrumental to this success. Unlike Wilson, Harding accepted a few token Senate reservations to get the treaties passed. Within months of his passing, the Teapot Dome Scandal erupted and Hardings fall began. This investigation generated a steady stream of headlines alleging rampant criminal activity across the administration (though none implicated Harding directly). This generated a market for critical (and unfounded) accounts of the Harding administration. Mrs. Harding claimed shed burned his presidential papers so sensational accusations were leveled without fear of being refuted. The papers were discovered in the Hoover Administration but not given to the Ohio Historical Society until 1963.

Dean makes a case that Harding was much beloved in his time and actually deserves a lot more credit. I didn't appreciate Dean using this book like a bully pulpit in making a case for Harding.

For my next assignment I decided to read consecutively the Times series biographies of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, treating them as one continuous Republican administration. Throughout the book the author is making two basic arguments: Warren Harding's legacy has been unfairly, and incorrectly, tied to corruption. The case Dean makes against Harding being corrupt is actually very solid. As for the case that his subject is an under-appreciated President, (the same argument most authors make in this series), Dean's argument is weaker.

A revisionist biography of a much-maligned president, written by a White House insider from another failed presidency.

To that end, he marshals the available evidence to depict Harding as a canny businessman and conscientious president who does not deserve to be judged by the criminality of his subordinates.

The author tries to make an argument for his presidency being more amazing than Harding is normally given credit for, but I wasnt terribly convinced.

John Dean does a pretty good job of making Mr. Harding seem more upstanding and less of a louse. If you want a juicy, scandal-ridden hatchet job expose of the scurrilous Harding administration (sex in broom closets!

Regular readers of The American Presidents series will find the style and structure of Deans biography very familiar: it is clear, concise (with 170 pages) and provides a competent, if not exhilarating, review of Hardings life. But rather than providing a carefully balanced assessment of Hardings life and presidency (something seemingly unique in the world of Harding-related scholarship) Dean views his primary mission as the enthusiastic rehabilitation of Hardings legacy. As is customary for books in this series, Deans biography moves rapidly through Hardings life. But Dean also spends as little time as possible discussing Hardings fifteen-year affair with Carrie Phillipswho was married to one of Hardings best friends. And the elephant in the room the political scandals which continue to haunt Hardings legacy are largely reserved for the books final chapter. The books last chapter is also where the reader finally learns of Nan Britton, the woman with whom Harding fathered a child just before his election as President. And while the author tries too hard to repair Hardings legacy, his biography does provide a provocative and often well-reasoned defense of Harding as somewhat better than our worst-ever president.

Dean served as White House Counsel for United States President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973.