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

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.

The idea of a past bright with small-town contentments was hokum of course. The American reality before McKinley involved, among other unpleasantness, frequent lynchings, bloody suppression of labor, industrial blight, corrupt courts, and murderous destruction of the Indian tribes. The reality of 1920 was a young generation throbbing with eagerness to escape the old culture. The more daring were fleeing all the way to Europe. The less adventurous dreamed of maybe getting into one of Henry Ford’s machines and hitting the road to the big city where the jazz was hot, illegal booze was plentiful, and a good time was being had by all.

What Americans did not want was another president who refused to leave them alone. Harding understood what his big landslide meant and gave the country the relief it wanted. Dean makes an effort to find achievement, but Harding’s is a thin record. He presided over a naval disarmament conference which aimed to stop an arms race among the great powers. He brought some admirable men into his cabinet, notably Charles Evans Hughes and Herbert Hoover. He supported a tariff act which set the highest rates in American history and produced a trade war with Europe. He completed the American retreat into diplomatic isolationism, begun by Henry Cabot Lodge and the Senate in 1919.

Politically he ended the Republicans’ turbulent affair with Teddy Roosevelt’s progressivism. It had split the party and elected Wilson in 1912. With Roosevelt now dead, Harding could end that progressive nonsense and restore the old-time religion of McKinley, Mark Hanna, and devotion to big capital.

He had always opposed Roosevelt’s progressive impulse and his efforts to restrain the power of huge corporations, for he was proud to be an old-fashioned Republican regular. The Growth of the American Republic by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager defined his political philosophy with splendid economy: He was “convinced that the Republican party was the only one fit to rule and that the ‘Old Guard’ had accumulated most of the wisdom in the United States.”

By 1923 he knew that Charles Forbes, an old poker-playing pal in charge of the Veterans Bureau, was stealing. Dean tells of a newspaper reporter walking in for an appointment to find the President, his hands around Forbes’s neck, “shaking him ‘as a dog would a rat,’ while shouting, ‘You double-crossing bastard.'” Clearly a crook, Forbes would eventually be convicted, but Harding may have already sensed that there was worse to come. At this time he told William Allen White, “I have no trouble with my enemies, I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends… they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.”

Against this background he set off on the fatal journey to Alaska and San Francisco with his wife Florence, his inadequate family physician Charles Sawyer, and the usual White House entourage. It was to become a journey into infamy, for the incompetent reporting of his death stirred public suspicion that the White House had something to cover up.

The suspicion eventually spread so widely that in 1930 a rogue named Gaston Means published a book titled The Strange Death of President Harding, asserting that his wife, angered by his infidelity, gave him a fatal dose of poison.” Means’s ghostwriter, May Dixon Thacker, later said that while there were some truths in Means’s book the poisoning story was not among them.

Mrs. Harding’s refusal to allow an autopsy promoted dark speculation; so did Sawyer’s curious misdiagnosis of food poisoning. A medical doctor subordinate to Sawyer realized that the President had heart disease but was brushed aside; Sawyer was zealous of his privileged position.

It now appears that Harding had had symptoms of cardiac disease since youth. Cardiology was a relatively primitive science in 1923 and heart disease a far more scary and mysterious ailment than it is today. Having had no treatment at all for heart trouble, and having just endured an extremely strenuous trip, Harding may have been dying when he arrived at San Francisco so exhausted that aides wanted him to use a wheelchair.

The funeral train’s journey back to Washington produced shows of public affection “the likes of which had not been experienced by the nation since the death of Abraham Lincoln,” Dean writes. Even his critics wrote extravagantly of him: “the greatest commoner since Lincoln,” “a Man of the people,” and such. As H.L. Mencken, one of his harshest critics, wrote, “No man ever passed into the Eternal Vacuum to the tune of more astonishing rhetoric.”

A few months after the funeral the Teapot Dome story broke, and the destruction of Harding’s reputation began. The scandal involved oil, a subject often apt to rouse American suspicions of devious doings. The name attached to the scandal—Teapot Dome—may have been more damaging than the scandal itself. It was one of those “catchy and unforgettable name[s]… (like Watergate a half century later),” Dean writes. It was easy to say, and fun to say, and “Teapot Dome” was soon on every tongue and destined to become a generation’s code name for presidential corruption.

It was the name of a Wyoming oil field marked by a teapot-shaped rock formation on top of an underground geological dome containing oil. An executive order from Harding had empowered the interior secretary to lease oil reserves there and in California to commercial interests. It was hard to fault leasing to experienced oilmen, as Interior Secretary Albert Fall had done, but Senator Thomas Walsh, a Montana Democrat, seemed sure that something about it was corrupt. As Dean tells it, Walsh

had been provided background information…that Fall’s Three Rivers Ranch [in New Mexico] suddenly started prospering in 1922, when Fall paid off back taxes and purchased an adjoining property that enhanced his water rights. A financially strapped Fall had become flush, and Walsh wanted to know why. When Walsh found the answer his hearings exploded into front-page stories—the Teapot Dome Scandal.

The leases at Teapot Dome were made in return for payments—said to be “loans”—made to Fall. On one occasion Fall received $100,000 in cash delivered in a black satchel. “The leases reeked of bribery,” Dean writes.

All this produced months of headlines; plans for prosecuting Fall produced more. Even after Fall eventually went to prison the words “Teapot Dome” lingered on, a curse that never lifted from Harding’s name.

Then there was the Daugherty problem. A veteran Ohio political hack, Daugherty had long been close to Harding, who eventually made him attorney general. In the scandal time Daugherty was investigated for years but never convicted of anything, “which does not mean he was innocent,” Dean writes. Charged with profiting from the illegal disposal of alien property, he was tried twice; first there was a hung jury, then an acquittal.

Daugherty had been in cahoots with another Harding appointee, Colonel Thomas W. Miller, who ran the Office of Alien Property. Miller had illegally transferred a German-owned American company to a business syndicate in return for $274,000, of which $50,000 landed in an account belonging to Daugherty and his old friend and private assistant, Jesse Smith. Dean says Smith was Daugherty’s “bagman.” Miller was convicted. Though Daugherty was acquitted, he was ruined when he refused to say what had become of the $50,000.

To enrich the public’s picture of an “Ohio Gang” robbing the country there were stories of a “little green house on K Street,” where the late president’s Ohio pals schemed to enrich themselves at public expense. The house belonged to an Ohio newspaper editor, who was close to Daugherty’s “bagman,” Jesse Smith. Dean thinks the Ohio Gang was actually a bunch of small-time rascals looking for “a quick buck, and not sustained graft.”

Still, Teapot Dome remained in the news for years. Fall was not convicted until 1931. He served some nine months, becoming the first former cabinet officer in history to go to prison. That Harding had not been involved in any criminal activities became irrelevant, Dean writes:

The endless stream of negative headlines about two of his cabinet officers and his purported Ohio friends took its toll. It created a climate and a market for critical—and unfortunately often unfounded—appraisals and accounts of the Harding administration, which soon made Harding little more than a punch line. Harding’s reputation became inseparable from the bad apples in his administration. Their disgrace became his disgrace.

What started as a political scandal proceeded to develop into an unrelated sex scandal—a “trashing of Harding’s personal life,” as Dean calls it. Conceding that the young Harding was an occasionally unfaithful husband, Dean also suggests that small-town life in old Ohio was not the idyll fancied by popular poets and hacks of the 1890s.

Harding’s wife Florence, daughter of the richest and probably meanest man in Marion, had a child out of wedlock when she was twenty. The father, says Dean, was “Marion’s youngest drunk.” He soon abandoned Florence; her father refused to take her in; and, penniless with a baby boy to support, she began giving piano lessons at a friend’s house. Eventually her father relented a little, and took her son to raise as his own.

Florence and Warren were married in 1891. She was five years older than he and apparently more disciplined, for she successfully managed the business side of his newspaper. Dean thinks she “may have brought to the marriage more than Warren had bargained for.” She was “orderly, organized, and demanding.” He called her “the Boss” and later “the Duchess,” after a character in a popular newspaper serial who kept an eagle eye on her husband and their money.

Dean finds the names revealing. The pressure of married life, “not to mention life with an extremely demanding woman, soon stirred in Warren his love of traveling—alone.” Alone he traveled to Washington and to the great Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where stories about the exotic dancing of Little Egypt were scandalizing the country.

The one documented story of Harding’s extramarital love life involves a long affair with Carrie Phillips, the wife of a close friend. It began in 1905, the fourteenth year of his marriage. Here Dean plays lawyer for the defense more vigorously than the facts seem to justify. He asks us to suppose that Harding—though forty years old, long married, and then lieutenant governor of Ohio—was vamped by Mrs. Phillips.

She was “said to be the most beautiful woman in Marion” and possessed “a statuesque body and a quick, smart, and tough intelligence,” he says. Moreover, she and her husband were “a conspicuous mismatch, for she was a foot taller” and he “was not a particularly striking man.” And so, “when the blue- eyed and blond Carrie reached out for Harding, he hardly resisted.”

Carrie seems to have suffered a depression after the death of her two-year-old son. Dean would have us believe that she “found a way out of her depression in the arms of Warren Harding; she seduced her husband’s best friend.”

Aware perhaps that he may have overdone the portrait of Carrie as wily aggressor, Dean quickly concedes that “it takes two to tango.” And a long tango it was. The affair lasted for the next fifteen years, until the demands of his presidential campaign required putting Carrie behind him.

This affair remained largely unknown outside Marion until the biographer Francis Russell found Harding’s love letters to Carrie some half a century later. By then there was no public left that cared, but the Harding family has long prevented publication of the letters.

The ultimate devastator was Nan Britton’s 1927 book, The President’s Daughter, alleging that Harding had fathered the author’s daughter Elizabeth Ann. During many White House visits, she wrote, in a small closet off the White House cabinet room, “evidently a place for hats and coats…in the darkness of a space not more than five feet square the President of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love.” Helped by a good review from Mencken, the book sold over 100,000 copies. It is still easily available in secondhand bookstores.

Nan Britton was an adolescent schoolgirl in Marion and Harding was a middle-aged married man when she first decided she loved him. She was thirty-one years younger than Harding, and the story of her teenage infatuation with an apparently heroic figure makes us think of modern “groupies” pursuing rock musicians. Remarkably, though, Nan’s passion seems never to have worn off, and her rather sweet insistence on the truth of her story makes her an appealing figure whom many have believed despite lack of evidence that she was telling a true story. She lived to be nearly one hundred and in her last years was still “winsome, even in a short skirt,” according to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding’s biographer.

Harding being four years dead when her book appeared, his side of the story remains untold, and it is very hard to guess where truth lies. The best Dean can do is point out that there is still no evidence to support it.

He does observe, however, that the truth can at last be determined by DNA testing of Elizabeth Ann’s progeny and some offspring of Harding’s many siblings. Investigative reporters may already be hunting down heirs to Elizabeth Ann’s genes, for the possibility of a book confirming Nan’s famous story must surely entrance all publishers with what in Harding’s day was called “moxie.”

Harding was made president because the man fitted the time. A genial, ordinary small-town businessman without much intellectual baggage offered the relief from “heroics” and the return to “normalcy” which Americans briefly craved in 1920. Such moments are rare in America. We are a people who usually tend to exult in “heroics,” who enjoy adventure, who quickly become bored with “normalcy’s” peace and quiet.

At Harding’s death in 1923 the time was already shifting in directions that would leave him out of date, if not obsolete, and rapidly change him from a figure of dignity and admiration to a victim of abuse and ridicule. The small-town persona was fast becoming unfashionable, and in some places contemptible. During his brief turn on the stage American writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals were already beginning a full-scale onslaught against small-town values. “Silver Threads Among the Gold” was giving way to “Yes We Have No Bananas.” Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio discarded the romance about small-town life for what William Allen White called “the picture of a maggoty mind.” In Babbitt Sinclair Lewis had created a man of small-town business mentality much like Harding and made him a man to be satirized.

H.L. Mencken’s attacks on “the booboisie” seemed to speak not just of Harding but of all who took him seriously. To Mencken he was “a tin horn politician with the manner of a rural corn doctor and the mien of a ham actor.”

Fiction writers used plots that denigrated fictional presidents startlingly like Harding. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a play in this vein and Samuel Hopkins Adams a novel titled Revelry in which a fictional president is done in by his wife. Dean notes that Heywood Broun, reviewing Revelry for The Nation, said it was “better than fact because ‘a novel fires the imagination far more than a news report.'”

The ordinariness that made Harding a landslide winner in 1920 was losing its political value as the culture shifted. In Ohio, Dean notes, a reporter wanting to praise Harding described him as “a regular he-man according to the [standard] of the old days—a great poker player, and not at all averse to putting a foot on a brass rail.” In Washington the stories of poker games and bootleg whiskey in the White House struck some as excessively ordinary.

“Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob,” Alice Roosevelt said. Here is an insight into how not-so-ordinary Republicans must have felt, for Alice Roosevelt was not of the ordinary classes, and her father, Teddy, would surely have been insulted had anyone called him ordinary.

The zeal with which the country took to the sport of ruining dead Harding’s reputation probably reflected more than disgust with the Ohio Gang. Americans were also attacking the small-town culture they had embraced so passionately in 1920. Maybe they were doubly angry at Harding because he reminded them that they had once aspired to so little—to ordinariness.

Never mind that he may have been, as John Dean says, “one of the most kindly men to ever occupy the Oval Office.” He had given Americans what they wanted, and he had to pay. Such is politics.

This Issue

February 12, 2004