1923 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On October 22 the Senate Committee on Public Lands held its first hearings on the affair popularly known as Teapot Dome. The inquiry related to two parcels of oil-bearing land, Teapot Dome in Wyoming and Elk Hills in California. The parcels had been set aside to provide petroleum for naval vessels, and in 1921 Interior Secretary Albert Fall had secretly leased them to a pair of oil drillers without soliciting bids.

The first week of testimony was a disappointment for anyone seeking scandal. Geologists reported that wells on neighboring land were sucking oil out of the area, which explained why Fall had found it necessary to start drilling. A few days later Fall (who had resigned as Interior Secretary) testified that he had not asked for bids because he knew he could get a better price without them. In any case he had wanted to avoid publicity for fear of making other countries think America was beefing up its Navy.

Next to take the stand was the Navy Secretary, Edwin Denby. The senators asked why he had let the Interior Department lease out the Navy’s land. Denby said he had no idea. Further questioning revealed that he was being completely honest: He paid very little attention to what went on in his department and was so guileless that he never suspected anything underhanded. Denby’s repeated “don’t knows” and “can’t recalls” made clear that he was too dumb to be crooked, which by itself made him one of the late President Warren Harding’s best appointments.

Just when its inquiry was looking like a series of dry wells, the committee struck a gusher. Late in the year it learned that immediately after leasing the oil reserves, Fall had paid off ten years of back taxes and made expensive improvements to his New Mexico ranch. Fall explained that his friend Ned McLean, publisher of the Washington Post , had lent him one hundred thousand dollars. It turned out that McLean had indeed sent Fall checks for that amount but Fall had returned them uncashed. McLean’s testimony and eccentric behavior showed him to be just as dim as Denby, but fortunately for the country he was not in government service. Being independently wealthy, he had no need to join the Harding administration.

If McLean had not given Fall the money, who had? In January 1924 Edward Doheny, the Elk Hills lessee, admitted having made a large cash “loan” to Fall. Harry Sinclair, the Teapot Dome lessee, had also given Fall money, it turned out. Fall took the Fifth Amendment, and from then on the public was disposed to believe any accusation leveled against Harding’s “Ohio Gang” of cabinet members, advisers, and hangers-on.

The accusations were plentiful. As Teapot Dome was unfolding, another Senate committee heard how the Veterans’ Bureau had inflated hospital construction costs and skimmed off the excess as graft. A custodian of Alien property seized during World War I had taken bribes to divert some of it to improper hands. The Director of Federal Prisons was said to have covered up sales of narcotics to inmates. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was accused of obstructing justice in numerous ways.

In the end the multifarious batch of investigations simply petered out. President Coolidge, having no obligations to his predecessor’s cronies, did not hesitate to clean house, requesting Denby’s and Daugherty’s resignations. Then, with all the protagonists gone from office, the scandals became old news for Congress and the public. In a string of trials stretching into the early 1930s, some of the accused were convicted but more were acquitted, and the Ohio Gang came to be remembered as more buffoonish than wicked. In his recent book The Strange Deaths of President Harding , the historian Robert H. Ferrell dismisses all the fuss by saying, “The Harding scandals lacked large historical importance. The participants displayed no remarkable skills.” The fact that this pallid statement puts Ferrell among Harding’s fiercest supporters is as telling a comment as any on the record of the Harding administration.