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Saving Warren G. Harding

A new book by celebrates the life of a former president
/ Source: The Associated Press

John W. Dean, the former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, has written a book that upholds the life and work of a president ruined by scandal.

Warren G. Harding.

Ranked at the bottom of the presidential list by most historians, Harding has long been dismissed as an amiable but lazy administrator who played a fine game of poker while his cronies looted the country. Writing in 1923, shortly after Harding’s death, journalist H.L. Mencken summed up his legacy as one “so horribly bare of achievement, and also so bare of intelligible effort.”

But Dean argues that Harding was an honorable man and a capable, hardworking executive. Dean, famed for the encyclopedic, devastating detail of his televised Watergate testimony, says he had read virtually everything about Harding and found him a far different man from the popular legend.

“What impresses me is how few people know anything about Harding. They know he’s supposed to be our worst president, but they don’t know why,” says Dean, whose previous books include the memoirs “Blind Ambition” and “Lost Honor.” Dean’s own involvement in Watergate led to a four-month prison term for obstruction of justice.

Not the best, but not the worst either“Warren G. Harding,” which comes out this winter, is part of “The American Presidents,” a series of short biographies published by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the general editor for the Times biographies, is a longtime liberal and a former aide to Nixon’s nemesis, John F. Kennedy. But he and Dean are friends and soon after the series was announced, in 2001, they agreed on the Harding project.

“I followed his Watergate testimony with great interest,” Schlesinger says with a laugh, “and later on we met and got along very well.

“Dean, of course, knows about scandal in the White House and he wrote a balanced book on Harding. I don’t think Harding was a great president, but I don’t think he deserves to be called the worst. Other presidents — Buchanan, Hoover, Nixon — did much greater harm.”

In his introduction to “Warren G. Harding,” Dean notes a personal fascination with his subject. Born in 1938, Dean grew up in Harding’s native Marion, Ohio, and recalls hearing “fascinating stories about the president and his wife. It was old gossip still being whispered decades after the fact.”

The stories, and Dean believes they were only stories, included fathering a child out of wedlock; being murdered by his wife, Florence, and being a hack yanked from obscurity by Republican bosses plotting in a “smoke-filled room.”

The Teapot Dome scandal
But nothing defines the president more than Teapot Dome, the 20th century’s greatest political scandal before Watergate. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, had secretly leased naval oil reserves to commercial interests, leading to extensive public hearings not long after Harding’s death. Fall was jailed for bribery, other officials were implicated and both Harding and Teapot Dome became synonymous with high neglect and corruption.

Dean says that Harding knew nothing about Teapot Dome — critics see this as a sign of his general ignorance — and that he died before he had a chance to defend himself. Instead, Dean argues, his image was fixed by a wave of unfavorable books, including Samuel Hopkins Adams’ “The Incredible Era” and Gaston Means’ “The Strange Death of Warren Harding.”

“A lot of these books are laced with so much that didn’t happen,” Dean says. “But you’d find later historians picking up on this work. When I looked at the original material, I’d find third-hand and fourth-hand hearsay.”

Recovering reputationsElevating Harding to the ranks of the respectable might seem an impossible task, but virtually all presidential legacies change over time.

Harry Truman, for example, left office widely disparaged as the inept successor to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But thanks largely to a handful of Pulitzer Prize-winning books, including David McCullough’s “Truman,” he now is considered among the greatest presidents.

Some leaders benefit simply by access to material about them. The standing of Theodore Roosevelt and John Adams both improved greatly as more of their papers became available. Dean says that Harding’s reputation suffered because, for decades, his papers were thought to have been destroyed.

“Even now, few have bothered to look at them,” Dean says.

Several other Times biographies attempt to boost their subjects. In an upcoming publication, Douglas Brinkley will make a case for Gerald Ford, whom the historian says was nothing like the clumsy fool immortalized by Chevy Chase on “Saturday Night Live.”

Hans Trefousse defends Rutherford B. Hayes, nicknamed “His Fraudulency” because he was elected in 1876 despite losing the popular vote. Kevin Phillips argues that William McKinley has been unfairly remembered as the bland, conservative predecessor to Theodore Roosevelt.

“After the Civil War, there was a wave of presidents from Ohio, including Hayes and McKinley and James Garfield and they all have been seen as weak presidents connected to industry and controlled by the robber barons. But McKinley, for instance, was a successful opponent to the robber barons,” says Phillips.

“Harding was the last of the Ohio presidents and became a symbol of graft and industrial protection. He’s seen as a pleasant mediocrity, and that’s what people said about McKinley.”

The smoke-filled roomHarding, a doctor’s son, was born in Marion, Ohio, in 1865 and established himself in his 20s as the owner and editor of the local Marion Star. Although a friend to the rich in his latter years, Harding was capable of rebellion as a young man. His newspaper columns often attacked Marion’s wealthiest man, Amos H. Kling, a banker and merchant, and, eventually, Harding’s father-in-law.

For the most part, Harding followed the Republican line and was increasingly viewed as a prospect for office. He served as a state senator and as lieutenant governor and then was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914. Two years later, he was keynote speaker at the Republican presidential convention.

The so-called “smoke-filled room,” the quintessential political image for behind-the-scenes dealmaking, originated at the 1920 Republican convention. Unable to agree upon a candidate, Republican leaders gathered in a Chicago hotel room, likely smoke-filled, and settled upon Harding, who went on to win easily.

Harding had not overtly sought the nomination and was supposedly dragged into the race. But Dean writes that he had long desired the presidency and had positioned himself as a compromise candidate, a man able to get along with everybody.

“It has been my own judgment not to go at it too vigorously,” Harding confided to a friend in early 1920. “Some enterprises make such a booming start that they fizzle out later on.”

Early civil rights advocateElected on a campaign of restoring “normalcy” after World War I, Harding’s two years in office were relatively uneventful. Notable acts included rejecting bonus pay for World War I veterans, signing into law a restrictive immigration policy and supporting a tax cut for the rich that Dean claims helped put the “roar” in the “Roaring Twenties.”

Harding was a conservative, but he occasionally defied his peers and even his wife, fearfully nicknamed “The Duchess.” Over the objections of Florence Harding, he pardoned Eugene V. Debs, a socialist jailed for his opposition to World War I. He also spoke out for civil rights before a stunned, segregated audience in Birmingham, Ala.

“(Harding) squared his jaw, and pointed straight at the white section,” The New York Times reported at the time, noting that Harding then declared: “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality.”

Mencken's punching bagHarding’s most memorable detractor was not a politician but Mencken, in whom the president inspired disgust, albeit disgust of the highest order. The great wit and newspaper columnist never had a better muse than Harding, especially the president’s loose, verbose oratory style, which Harding himself labeled mere “bloviating.”

“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights,” Mencken wrote.

Dean says historians have devoted much time to Mencken’s admittedly inspired prose, but overlooked impressions of those who knew Harding better. He cites McClure’s Magazine writer William H. Crawford, a Democrat who spent extensive time with the president in 1923 and found him both hard working and independent minded, “quite a different man from the one he is popularly conceived to be,” Crawford wrote.

In the summer of 1923, Harding traveled West on a speaking tour, but fell ill and died on Aug. 2 of a heart attack. Dean disputes rumors that Harding was murdered, noting that he had a long history of health problems and had looked unwell before starting the trip.

Millions turned out to watch Harding’s funeral train pass by. Editorial writers also mourned, with the San Francisco Chronicle declaring that “great as were the tasks a nation set for him, the tasks he set for himself were infinitely greater.”

Mencken dissented.

“Certainly no man ever passed into the Eternal Vacuum to the tune of more astonishing rhetoric,” he observed. “A kindly and charming man, honestly eager for popularity, he lacked the qualities which awaken the devotion of multitudes.”

“The plain fact,” he concluded, “is that the plain people took little interest in him until he fell ill and died.”

A sampling of books that have affected the reputation of ex-presidents:

  • Parson Weems’ “Life of Washington, the Great”: George Washington left office, in 1797, as a disputed figure. He was revered for his war record, but under attack from the emerging, and populist, Republican party as an elitist champion of federal power. The “I cannot tell a lie” Washington emerged in the 1800s, in a fanciful biography by Weems, who was responsible for such apocryphal, but widely believed stories as young George’s confession to cutting down the cherry tree.
  • Carl Sandburg’s “Abraham Lincoln”: Sandburg’s multi-volume biography attracted a wide readership and won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1940. But Sandburg’s sentimental epic also led to a famous response from critic Edmund Wilson: “The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth was to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”
  • Henry F. Pringle’s “Theodore Roosevelt”: The 25th president is now ranked among the country’s best, but in the 1930s and 1940s, he was looked upon much more skeptically, thanks to Pringle’s biography, winner of the Pulitzer in 1932. “I was an undergraduate in the 1930s,” says historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “and many of us thought Roosevelt a mere boy scout.”
  • “Truman” and “John Adams”: Right now, the surest way to improve a president’s standing is to have David McCullough write about him. His million-selling books on Truman and Adams both won Pulitzer Prizes and enormously helped the legacies of two presidents who were highly unpopular when they left office.