The Most Scandalous President

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As I delved further into the Harding archives, I kept finding evidence of a more positive side to his administration. For instance, he is rarely credited for his best appointments, like that of Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, or for convening the Washington Naval Conference on the limitation of armaments, the first global peace summit. Nor is he remembered for creating the Bureau of the Budget, headed by Charles Dawes, which first gave the federal government an operational budget. Such high-caliber choices as Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Secretary of Labor James J. Davis certainly counterbalance those of Fall and Daugherty. Some historians, most notably Robert K. Murray in his authoritative The Harding Era , do note some of the President’s achievements, but they usually neglect the single most remarkable side of his Presidency: his total lack of racial prejudice in a highly intolerant era. Most startling is his strikingly progressive attempt to change mainstream white America’s attitude toward minorities.

Harding’s appointment of Albert Lasker as head of the Shipping Board was the first ever high-profile presidential appointment of a Jew. Lasker was also one of the President’s closest friends, accompanying him on Florida golfing vacations and ever present at White House poker games. Harding’s biographer Andrew Sinclair claims that one reason his subject had to be prejudiced at heart was because he was “one of those rural old-stock Americans.” In fact I found in the Warren Harding papers a letter from Alfred Cohen, a lifelong friend whom Harding first met in the Ohio legislature, in which Cohen wrote to a would-be Harding biographer that Harding was “devoid of racial or religious prejudices.” The same attitude guided his appointments of Rabbi Joseph S. Kornfeld as minister to Persia and Father Joseph M. Dennig as agent and consul general at Tangier.

 

Tolerance shaped Harding’s foreign policy as well. “I am very glad to express my approval and hearty sympathy for the effort of the Palestine Foundation Fund, in behalf of the restoration of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people,” the President wrote to that organization in an unpublished letter that I found in his papers. “I have always viewed with an interest, which I think is quite as much practical as sentimental, the proposal for the rehabilitation of Palestine and the restoration of a real nationality. . . .” This was a significant discovery; no published works on Harding even hint at his interest in turning Palestine into a Jewish homeland.

Perhaps the most surprising single event of Harding’s Presidency was his blunt speech on October 26, 1921, to a segregated crowd in Birmingham, Alabama, stating that democracy would always be a sham until African-Americans received full equality in education, employment, and political life. The first President to discuss civil rights in the South so frankly, he was loudly cheered by blacks and met with silent stares from whites as he declared: “I want to see the time come when black men will regard themselves as full participants in the benefits and duties of American citizenship. . . . We cannot go on, as we have gone on for more than half a century, with one great section of our population . . . set off from the real contribution to solving national issues, because of a division of race lines. . . . Let the black man vote when he is fit to vote, prohibit the white man [from] voting when he is unfit to vote.” In part this was a politician’s attempt to increase his party’s base in the South by allowing blacks, traditionally Republican, to vote. In the speech, Harding also promoted his view that “on both sides there shall be recognition of the absolute divergence in things social and racial.”And yet in Birmingham Harding went further than any of his predecessors since Lincoln to call for “an end to prejudice.” Reaction was swift: Alabama’s senator Tom Heflin, for instance, castigated him for threatening God’s plan for racial separation, but in Florence Harding’s papers I found dozens of editorials from Northern newspapers praising the speech.

Weeks after his inauguration, with the support of the NAACP, Harding proposed an anti-lynching bill and an interracial commission to recommend ways to improve race relations. This alarmed Southern white Republicans who were trying to purge their party of any black influence so they could wrest the South from the Democrats. The malleable Harding heeded his party’s views and didn’t make good on his promise to appoint African-Americans to high federal positions, while a Democratic filibuster killed his anti-lynching bill in the Senate and one in the House finished off his interracial commission. Nevertheless, Harding persisted. I came across two fascinating speeches he made just before his death. In them he launched what the New York Tribune called “a direct attack” on the Ku Klux Klan, condemning “factions of hatred and prejudice and violence” that “challenge both civil and religious liberty.”

No President until FDR welcomed women more strongly into politics—or more firmly defended their interests. In 1921 Harding defied opposition from medical interests, states’ rights proponents, and conservative members of Congress to sign the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided funding and federal oversight for state programs on infant mortality and health care for women and children.