July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
You've always heard he was the worst President. Sex in the White House. Bribes on Capitol Hill. Was he really that bad?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Working conditions for all Americans deeply engaged Harding’s sympathies: He supported the right to bargain collectively and he spoke against strikes only when public safety was at risk, as when the railroad workers and coal miners went out in 1922. Early in his administration he tried to abolish the twelve-hour workday and the six-day workweek, putting persistent pressure on the steel industry. “This is far too heavy a draft upon the energies of the workmen employed in any industry,” he said, and went on to call for the “abolition of excessive hours and excessive days in order that the working forces may have time for leisure . . . and . . . family life . . . which is essential to the full enjoyment of American freedom and opportunity.” Just hours before his sudden death, the big steel producers did eliminate the twelve-hour workday, and they credited the President with having spurred them to their action.
Harding’s era teemed with young industries that grew to dominate our century, and the President had the perspicacity to see their importance. Throughout his career he promoted businesses growing up around radio, civil aviation, the movies, and the automobile. He and his wife were the first White House residents to install a radio, and he felt strongly that the quickly proliferating stations needed federal regulation. He introduced a radio bill just months before his death; five years later it gave rise to the Federal Radio Commission. Florence Harding was the first President’s wife to fly in an airplane; her husband never did, but he proposed an air commerce act and a bureau of aeronautics, which came into being five years later. The 1921 Federal Highway Act he pushed through Congress provided a generous seventy-five-million-dollar appropriation for a national highway system. In 1923 the sum grew to eighty-eight million.
Outside of the automobile, the movies most fascinated Harding. Florence Harding was behind the first use of movie stars in a presidential campaign, the first invitations of movie actors and executives to the White House and the first showing of films there Harding began a White House movie library. As he explained to one theater manager in a previously unpublished letter, “The screen will most securely establish itself as an accepted and useful factor in national life in proportion as it shall recognize its duty in behalf of the widest concerns of the community. It possesses potentialities of vast service, civic, educational moral. . . . To present on the screen the industrial, commercial, and intellectual activities of the country can not but widen the vision of the great audience that you daily serve.”
As I sifted through his papers, I saw how seriously Harding took the educational possibilities of film. Indeed, he was first to articulate an issue that continues to compel us today. In a letter to Will Hays, director of the Motion Picture Association, he wrote: “Next to studying geography by seeing the world . . . would be studying it with the aide of the moving picture. . . . I do not want to be understood as assuming that education can or ought to be made a mere pleasure, a titillation of the fancy, by making it too easy. I would not by any means turn the school room into a moving picture theater. . . . On the other hand, I would use the picture as a means to enlist the pupil’s interest in the real work that must be involved in acquiring any education worthy of the name.”
Despite later claims that Harding read only Zane Grey novels and the funny pages, he was extremely well read, counting Dickens, Carlyle, Pope, and Shakespeare among his favorite writers. He was also devoted to early American and European history and thought the movies could help plant similar interests in other Americans.
“I do not know whether anybody has presented Henry Esmond in a screen drama,” he wrote Hays. ”. . . I should think that if it were done in a series of reels, and if these, gradually unfolding the story, were interspersed with studies and lectures on the history of the period, it would constitute an ideal method. . . . The European of the latter middle ages, of the period just before and at the beginning of the Renaissance, would be wonderfully portrayed in a similar series of pictures dramatizing The Cloister and the Hearth .” Seeing great movie possibilities in the American Revolution, he suggested that Irving Bacheller’s In the Days of Poor Richard , George Trevelyan’s History of the American Revolution , Paul Leicester Ford’s Janice Meredith , and Francis Parkman’s Histories of the Indians all could be made into one “screen and lecture presentation of the dramatic things in our country’s history.”
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.