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Tempest Over Teapot
When the wheeling and dealing of some of President Harding’s closest friends was revealed, the mud spattered Cabinet members, the heads of oil companies, the chairman of the Republican party, and eventually the President himself
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
In the spring of 1920, very few realistic Democrats expected to win that autumn’s presidential election. Their party had been in power for nearly eight years, including the World War, and had accumulated all the assorted resentments invariably incurred in wartime. Their situation was not helped by the fact that President Wilson lay ill and and incapacitated in the White House while his wife and his doctor ran the Executive branch of the government.
The Republicans were correspondingly optimistic, as I knew better than most people. In that year I was managing editor of the liberal New York afternoon newspaper, The Globe , and naturally, as an editor who really preferred to write, I assigned myself the juicy job of interviewing all the potential presidential candidates of both parties, asking them identical questions so that their answers could be compared. I found most of the possible Democratic candidates lukewarm indeed. When I went to Miami to talk to Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, the cold-faced, weary, hard-driven man who finally got the Democratic nod, he breathed fire for public quotation: privately, he was pessimistic. He considered the nomination as hardly more than a plaque presented for meritorious past service, to be hung on the wall of his den along with the gilded golf ball with which he had once made a hole-in-one.
This impression was confirmed when I went out to San Francisco to cover the Democratic national convention. The delegates fell in love with the city—who doesn’t?—and they were happy with the excellent connections with bootleggers that their hosts had provided; but I found nobody who fell that the party had any real chance of winning. Having picked Cox to head the ticket, the delegates rather casually chose as his running mate a tall, athletic young unknown with a good political name—Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But there had been a very different attitude when I made my rounds among the GOP possibilities. General Leonard Wood, Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois, Herbert Hoover, and Senator Warren G. Harcling of Ohio all took the hope of nomination very seriously indeed, and none more so than the last.
I interviewed him in his suite in the Senate Office Building, and like everyone else I instantly perceived that this man, who talked like somebody invented by Sinclair Lewis, looked more like a President than any President who ever lived, with the possible exception of George Washington. With his leonine head of white hair, his huge, mobile, frank and friendly face, and his portly dignity, it was hard to see why Harcling had not been chosen by acclamation years earlier.
Two of his remarks in that interview stand out in my memory. The first was his answer to my stock question as to what he would do, if elected, about the American tariff system that was holding back the restoration of Europe and making it harder for the Allies to pay their war debts—even if they had wanted to. His reply startled me so that I asked him to repeat it, and wrote it down verbatim.
“The United States,” he said earnestly, “should adopt a protective tariff of such a character as will best help the struggling industries of Europe to get on their feet.”
The other memorable remark came when he was talking about the general tendency of people to spend more money than they could afford. He lumbered from his chair, opened the door a crack, and pointed to the back of a young woman sitting at a desk twenty feet away. “That girl,” he told me in a conspiratorial whisper, “owns a five-hundred-dollar fur coat. That’s twice as much, by George, as I can afford to spend on a coat for Mrs. Harding.” I have often wondered since if, with a touch of pixieish humor, he was pointing to Nan Britton, mother of a baby whose father, she claimed long afterward, was Harding himself.
Not long thereafter, following a deadlock between Wood and Lowden, Harding was nominated and went on to win the election handily, sixteen million votes to nine million. Then the country settled back to enjoy itself. “Normalcy,” as Harding called it, with characteristic ineptitude in the use of language, was the new order of the day, but it took almost a decade for the country to learn all the chief facts of what really happened during the Harding administration. He had brought with him to Washington one of the most astonishing collections of crooks, grafters, and blackmailers ever assembled. They came to be known as “the Ohio Gang,” though not all of them were from that state.
The key figure was Harry Micajah Daugherty, whom Harding made Attorney General. A corporation lawyer from Columbus who already had an unsavory reputation as a lobbyist and fixer, he had managed his friend’s presidential campaign. He had come from the little Ohio crossroads of Washington Court House, where his brother was president of a bank, and had brought with him a devoted henchman, Jess (or Jesse) Smith, who had owned a dry-goods store there. Smith, though he had no title, promptly commandeered an office in the Department of Justice near that of Daugherty and began issuing orders, orally or in writing, in the Attorney General’s name.