Warren Gamaliel Harding, twenty-ninth president of the United States, was elected in 1920 by a huge majority of Americans who wanted presidents to leave them alone. He obliged them for two and a half years and then, fifty-seven years old, died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Later it was rumored that First Lady Florence Harding, known to her husband and his close associates as “the Duchess,” had poisoned him in a murderous onset of jealousy.
This was nonsense but by the time it appeared in book form Harding had become the subject of so many bizarre tales that the public eagerly read anything titillating about him and believed a lot of it. For twenty or thirty years after his death Harding was notorious even among schoolchildren as our most scandalous president. No longer; history has now joined Latin in the graveyard of American education. Younger Americans to whom I mention his name these days are not only ignorant of the once-famous scandals but also astonished to learn that we once had a president named Harding.
The scandals were about money and sex, and by modern standards they seem decidedly small-bore. Harding himself was not taking dirty money; his friends were. The amounts they took would be dismissed as “chump change” by our prodigious swindlers of the Enron Age. Oil men paid Harding’s secretary of the interior some $400,000 in bribes. That was substantially more than it seems today, because of inflation’s withering effect on the dollar, but it was a mere trifle in the annals of American corruption.
Our truly great buccaneers prosper most when presidents and congresses grant them boons (the nation’s land and treasure, and licenses to rifle the treasury) in the name of free enterprise, though sometimes just to show gratitude. It was under President Grant, not Harding, that looting was conducted on the industrial scale. (What animates today’s generous handouts to private corporate interests is still not fully understood but president and Congress both endorse the lavish gifting.) Like Harding, Grant got none of the booty and would have died broke had Mark Twain not underwritten publication of his memoirs.
As for sex, Harding was not so innocent but, again, modern Americans are harder to astound than their grandparents were. We have been too well marinated in tales of goatish presidents. We are well-read in Franklin Roosevelt’s infidelities to Eleanor and the extramarital pastimes of Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. After such a steamy diet, served up in Clinton’s case by an officially certified prosecutor with a gift for pornographic prose, who will be shocked by thoughts of Warren Harding in a state of lust? One thinks of W.C. Fields in pursuit of Mae West.
Not that Harding’s pursuits were futile. After circulating for eighty years the story about his making love with Nan Britton in a White House closet remains unconfirmed, but we now have documentary evidence that before the presidency he conducted a love affair with a friend’s wife off and on for fifteen years.
Unexciting though they now may seem, the scandals blackened Harding’s reputation so thoroughly that many historians still rank him as America’s worst president. But can he be worse than such incompetents as Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan, who did the country much harm? Harding did the nation no damage at all to speak of. Why does he deserve an iron wreath on his grave?
To examine the question Arthur Schlesinger has had the mischievous idea of bringing him together with John W. Dean, no stranger to scandal himself. It was Dean who warned President Nixon that Watergate was “a cancer growing on your presidency.” Dean was then White House counsel, a job that led to a four-month prison term, one of the lighter sentences distributed among various loyal Nixon assistants. Nixon himself was spared judicial scourging when President Ford granted him a preemptive pardon.
Dean is a blooded veteran of presidential scandal, and Schlesinger, as editor of the American Presidents Series, needed just such an expert to write the Harding volume for this valuable set of short histories of the presidents. The result is a careful lawyer’s defense of a client he believes has been unjustly and cruelly abused by history.
The Watergate experience has left Dean wise about how to survive when a serious presidential ruining is in progress. Thus he rarely makes the potentially deadly error of stating as fact what cannot be proven. When politicians and press are in hot pursuit of presidents the smallest misstatement may pave the road to jail. Though clearly sympathetic to Harding, he does not demand admiration for an administration that was obviously of little consequence or ask us to salute Harding as a man of sagacity. Like others who have taken the view that Harding was just another luckless sinner more to be shriven than cursed, Dean’s Harding is a politically skilled but ordinary man of modest talents who promoted himself to the level of his own incompetence and fell to ruin because the job was utterly beyond his limited abilities.
Dean dismisses the famous story of “the smoke-filled room” at the Chicago convention of 1920 where the supposedly cunning Harry Daugherty, an Ohio political hack, supposedly maneuvered the party’s canniest elders into giving the nomination to Harding in dead of night. Daugherty’s shrewdness, says Dean, has been overpraised and was never equal to Harding’s. Harding engineered his own nomination. He “spent his last two years in the Senate doing little more than making himself a potential presidential candidate,” says Dean.
And he thought rather well of his talents. In a 1919 letter he wrote, “I expect it is very possible that I would make as good a President as a great many men who are talked of for that position and I would almost be willing to bet that I would be a more ‘common sensible’ President than the man who now occupies the White House.” He referred to Woodrow Wilson.
Anticipating a possible convention deadlock, he and Daugherty cultivated the delegates, asking them to make him their second choice if their favorites should fail. When the three leading candidates deadlocked at Chicago, their refusal to compromise doomed all three, and Harding’s strategy paid off.
Harding’s early years have been most fully described in Francis Russell’s huge 1968 biography, The Shadow of Blooming Grove. (Blooming Grove, Ohio, was Harding’s birthplace.) Russell suggested that Harding’s character was affected by rumors that he was of African-American heritage. Dean is impatient with Russell’s theory. He says Harding “had been dealing with the false accusation of African ancestry since childhood.” A tart footnote makes it clear that he is no admirer of Russell’s work:
Historians have treated this subject not unlike most relating to Harding, with few seeking the truth and many distorting it. For example, Francis Russell makes Harding’s rumored black ancestry the backdrop, subtext, and implicit title of his 1968 Harding biography…and he claims it explains Harding’s psychological makeup. In a rare footnote in the book, Russell half-heartedly refutes the truth of the gossip (which he has labeled “the shadow” of Blooming Grove) as improbable if not impossible.
Dean cites another Harding biographer, Robert Murray, on the same subject. In The Harding Era, published in 1969, Dean writes that Murray
traces the roots of the story to the fact that when the pro-abolition Harding family first migrated to Ohio, “they lived in the same area with some Negroes, and it was rumored that the two groups were more than just neighborly. Later the enemies of Harding’s father expanded this tale by claiming that his grandmother was ‘black as ink.’ In reality, she was blonde.”
Born six months after Appomattox, Harding came of age during Reconstruction. In a rustic childhood he learned farm work, went off to Ohio Central College in Iberia at age fourteen, graduated at seventeen, taught in a one-room schoolhouse for a year and hated it, tried reading law and hated it, then at the age of nineteen found his true calling in journalism. By then his family had moved to town—Marion, Ohio, population 4,000.
At his urging his father bought the bankrupt Marion Star, and young Warren turned it into a good newspaper. Harding seemed born to be a small-town newspaperman. Journalism was the ideal career for a smart, ill-educated, gregarious young man who liked people and was easy to like, and he drifted naturally into politics. As the Star‘s editor he went to the 1884 Republican convention and saw “the plumed knight,” James G. Blaine (a.k.a. “the continental liar from the State of Maine”), challenged by the young New York upstart Theodore Roosevelt. He was bitten. After that he became a familiar figure wherever Ohio Republicans gathered and was never long away from politics. Very rapidly he became a state senator, then lieutenant governor of Ohio. Eventually, United States senator.
It helped that he had a gift for political oratory. Americans in those days still loved a good political “speaking,” and Harding was a master of speech that entertained while saying nothing of consequence. Senator William McAdoo described his mature speeches as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” He could keep an alliteration in the air until plain folks whooped with joy and intellectuals begged for mercy. “Progression is not proclamation nor palaver,” began his speech nominating William Howard Taft at the 1912 convention. “It is not pretense nor play on prejudice. It is not of personal pronouns nor perennial pronouncement. It is not the perturbation of a people passion-wrought, nor a promise proposed….”
In the 1920 campaign he used a memorable stream of alliterations to tell the country what to expect of a Harding presidency:
not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
Newspapers reduced it to “normalcy,” a word hitherto unknown to dictionary makers. American voters immediately knew what it meant, though. In 1920 they were a nation desperate for relief from greatness. They had had nearly a quarter-century of it by then: President McKinley’s imperial ravaging of the old Spanish colonies with war in Cuba and the faraway Philippines; Teddy Roosevelt’s new swashbuckling, globe-girdling kind of presidency; Woodrow Wilson’s astonishing plan to make the whole world safe for democracy. Wasn’t all this precisely what George Washington had cautioned against? And the result: thousands of American boys killed trying to “pull England’s chestnuts out of the fire” in a distant European war.
Americans were tired of heroics, agitation, the dramatic, and submergence in internationality. Harding was the ideal man for the moment: an ordinary, commonplace fellow and proud of it. Americans elected him in a landslide with over 60 percent of the vote, fully expecting a return of the good old days, of “normalcy” as Harding called it.