A Naughty President

The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding

by Charles L. Mee Jr.
M. Evans, 248 pp., $14.95

Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding; drawing by David Levine

By general consent Warren Gamaliel Harding has come to be considered the sorriest of our presidents, remembered chiefly for the scandals that came out after his death and for the mysteries that continue to surround his life. Yet other presidents have tolerated scandals without being branded by them, and one can scarcely maintain that Harding’s administration was shot through with scandal when it included such men as Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover, and the elder Henry Wallace in the Cabinet, and the Harding-appointed chief justice William Howard Taft.

Franklin Roosevelt’s reputation never suffered from his children’s marital vagaries or from their financial exploitation of his name. That Lucy Rutherfurd, for whom he once wanted to divorce his wife, was with him when he died did not discredit him when the knowledge of their affair leaked out two decades later. Truman’s “five-percenters” now require identification by footnotes, along with such egregious figures as General Vaughan, the lachrymose future convict Assistant Attorney General T. Lamarr Caudle, and the exconvict White House intimate John Maragon. Nor has Truman’s close association with Kansas City Boss Pendergast remained held against him, any more than Sherman Adams’s debacle has left its mark on Eisenhower.

That Kennedy owed his election to fraudulent vote counts in Texas and Illinois has been as little unsettling to the Thousand Days saga as has been the belated knowledge of his casual amours. The roguery of Jesse Smith, hanger-on of Harding’s attorney general Harry Daugherty, was small-scale compared to that of Johnson’s Bobby Baker, and Harding at least repudiated Smith. Watergate seems to have branded Nixon more than it has affected him, but the outlines fade. Carter’s Atlanta cronies and his relations—his beer-swilling brother and two sisters, one a faith healer and the other a blue-jeaned motorcycle-rider with a jailbird son—are as bizarre as any of Harding’s intimates.

Yet the ad hominem argument that Harding was not the only president touched by scandal fails to explain why the lapses of others have been shrugged away and forgotten, while his remain a lasting reproach. Were there more scandals under Harding? Their number can be exaggerated, but I think the real answer is that they lasted for so long. The various fraud and conspiracy trials went on for years after his death.

In 1926 Harding’s attorney general Harry Daugherty had gone on trial charged with conspiracy to defraud the government. He refused to testify on the grounds that, as former attorney for Harding, he might give self-incriminating testimony. The implication of his refusal was that he was shielding Harding. That same year Samuel Hopkins Adams published his roman à clef, Revelry, in which Harding, under the transparent pseudonym of “Willis Markham,” was depicted as a good-natured sloven surrounded by conniving hangers-on, grafters, and thieves. Adams had his fictional president, finally aware of his gross betrayal by his intimates, commit suicide. The book gave…

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