The Most Scandalous President

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It is in his private life that Warren Harding fully lives up—or down—to his deeply tarnished reputation. Harding’s death was followed by rumors that his wife had poisoned him because of his adulteries. He had long carried on a love affair with Nan Britton, who was thirty-one years his junior and, as she wrote in her shocking 1927 book, The President’s Daughter , the mother of his child. One of Harding’s aides, Walter Ferguson, remembered the time he escorted Nan Britton to the White House and stood guard in front of Harding’s office, deflecting Florence’s attempts to gain entry. “She stood and glared at me like she couldn’t believe it. Finally she spun around and returned to the White House. . . . As soon as I thought it was safe, I went to the car and took the girl to a hotel.” Many years later, recalling this event provided Alice Roosevelt Longworth with much wicked amusement: “I don’t think the Duchess [Florence Harding’s nickname] ever found him in the moment,” she said, “but that summer afternoon in his office, I understand—it was really rather a close call. Stumbling in closets among galoshes, she pounding on the door, the girlie with panties over her head. That sort of thing. My God, we’ve got a President who doesn’t know beds were invented, and he was elected on a slogan of ‘Back to Normalcy.’” Nan Britton represented his most famously scandalous attachment in a long history of womanizing (and the only one the First Lady didn’t know about). One of Harding’s letters to another mistress, Carrie Phillips, contains evidence that just three years into his marriage he fathered another child; another letter shows that he paid for a woman’s abortion. An agent of the Bureau of Investigation, Gaston Means, later claimed that Harding had actually been present at the death of a prostitute. As Means told the story, this happened at a private party when a table was being uproariously cleared of bottles and glasses to provide a stage for dancing girls. A few of the celebrants, impatient for the performance to start, began throwing glasses and then bottles. One of them hit a girl, and she fell unconscious, to die later in the hospital. Rumors swirled about the event for years; some witnesses even claimed the President himself had thrown the missile that killed the girl.

 

Carrie Phillips, the love of Harding’s life for fifteen years and Florence’s former best friend, blackmailed him. During the 1920 campaign Republican supporters collected twenty thousand dollars to pay her off and send her out of the country until after the election. When news of this came out, in a privately printed book, the administration sent Bureau of Investigation agents to seize the plates and printing press and destroy copies—the only known case of government suppression of a book in peacetime. Daugherty’s friend Jess Smith kept a secret bank account that apparently served as a blackmail fund to buy the silence of still other Harding mistresses. Daugherty was forced to drop a Justice Department case against the former Attorney General Mitchell Palmer because the man knew of one such payoff and might speak out.

Is all of this enough to make us judge Harding as dismal a failure as history has? Is his record of accomplishment in twenty-nine months really worse than that of his successor, Calvin Coolidge? Coolidge, after all, dropped Harding’s plan for a biracial commission, even as the Klan was gaining strength. When we look at his official record, Harding seems at least as competent as Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, and William and Benjamin Harrison, all of whom historians rank above him.

On his fatal Western tour, during which he was hailed by the public and the national press with nearly universal praise, Harding seemed close to achieving one ambition. “I cannot hope to be one of the great Presidents,” he said, “but perhaps I may be remembered as one of the best loved.”

In the end his popularity proved ephemeral. Still, Warren Harding doesn’t deserve to be rated America’s worst President—even if he was our most scandalous.