The Most Scandalous President

Everyone who knows anything at all about American history believes that Warren G. Harding was our worst President—Harding, the affable fool from Marion, Ohio, who, after passing two utterly undistinguished terms as state senator and one as lieutenant governor, went to the U.S. Senate in 1914 and, having done little but get along with people, came out of the deadlocked 1920 Republican National Convention headed for the Presidency. His friend the politico Harry M. Daugherty had helped him get there, and in return Harding put him and his pals—the “Ohio Gang”—in a position where they could plunder the government while the trusting Harding pursued his vision of “normalcy,” which involved the very vigorous pursuit of his mistresses. Eventually the scandal broke, but Harding died suddenly (seventy-five years ago this August) at the end of a tour of the West in time to escape the worst of it.

He has not escaped the judgment of history. In every poll—the most recent was conducted just last year—the twenty-ninth President comes at the very bottom.

For years I shared this general opinion of Harding. But then I started to study him. Actually I began with his wife, Florence, working on what has just become a published biography of her. Naturally it became clear to me that I couldn’t know Florence Harding without becoming well acquainted with Warren. I was initially struck by the way Americans reacted to his death. He was the object of national grief and reverence, and in his gentleness, geniality, and warmth he was even considered Lincoln’s equal. As I read about him, it began to dawn on me that possibly these tributes were not entirely undeserved.

Warren G. Harding may not have been a great President, but he was a good man. And as I read more, an oddly modern figure began to emerge. Here was someone sensitive to problems facing women, minorities, and workers, someone who enthusiastically and intelligently embraced his era’s technology and culture. Here was a man of considerable gifts, all of them largely forgotten today.

From the outset I wasn’t entirely comfortable with simply judging the man by the company he kept. The claim that Harding imported an Ohio Gang of criminals is disingenuous. The notorious appointments of his Ohio friends, many at Florence’s urging, were to relatively minor positions: George Christian became his secretary; his doctor was the grossly incompetent Charles Sawyer; and his military aide Ora Baldinger had been Florence’s newsboy back home. Other Ohio friends, like Howard Mannington, who later became enmeshed in scandal, cashed in on their access to Harding as lobbyists rather than as officeholders.

Most startling to me is Harding’s strikingly progressive attempt to change white America’s attitude toward minorities.

Two words will be forever linked to Harding’s administration: Teapot Dome, the name of the Wyoming naval oil reserve that Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall secretly leased to the oil tycoons Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair in return for more than four hundred thousand dollars in bribes. Because Harding had approved Fall’s request that the oil reserves be transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior, he has been considered implicated in the scandal, even though the transfer wasn’t judged an illegal act until some years after the fact.

When Harding learned of the influence peddling, bootlegging, and other nefarious activities of Jess Smith, the male companion and closest friend of his Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, he immediately removed Smith from his inner circle. The most damaging scandal of all, though a less colorful one, involved the exorbitant profiteering of Charlie Forbes, the head of the Veterans’ Bureau, a department Harding had created. Enjoying the confidence of both Hardings, Forbes was able to dupe the President for some months after the first reports that he was getting kickbacks from resold medical supplies and hospital building-site contracts. Because Harding knew of Forbes’s misdeeds long before demanding his resignation, he could technically have been tried for criminal conspiracy, a felony. But no evidence has ever turned up that he was more deeply involved in the scandals that darkened his administration or that he personally profited from any of them.