President Warren Harding died suddenly in 1923 while on a much publicized trip to Alaska and the West Coast. He was immensely popular and his passing was seen by most citizens as a great loss to the Nation.
Yet not many years later, he was adjudged by a panel of historians to be among the worst presidents in the history of the United States. With the centennial of Harding’s election at hand, this is the time to reconsider Harding and to see his life and his administration in a clearer, fairer and more balanced light. In Harding’s case—like with almost all of our chief executives—there are plenty of pluses and minuses.
Let’s get the bad stuff, much of which you probably already know, out of the way first.
Handsome, Warren Harding was a ladies’ man. Women, voting for the first time in the 1920 presidential election, were largely Republican and likely contributed to Harding’s landslide victory over his opponent, Democratic Ohio Governor James Cox, by a wide margin. Women liked him, and he liked women. It’s a fact that he had extramarital affairs. One of his relationships was a friend of Mrs. Harding. In recent years it has been put forward that Carrie Phillips was possibly a German spy during World War I causing the US government to be concerned that she was compromising Harding, then an Ohio US Senator. And after his death, Nan Britton, who was 31 years younger than Harding, wrote a book disclosing that Harding had fathered her child on the cusp of his 1920 campaign. Denied for years by Harding’s defenders, this has proved, by family DNA testing, to be true.
Harding’s administration had its bad apples. Harding had a knack for surrounding himself with friends, many of them from the Buckeye State. These men were later dubbed the Ohio Gang. They gathered frequently to socialize with the president and Mrs. Harding, playing cards and sharing cocktails (during the early years of prohibition the Hardings routinely served alcohol to guests in their private quarters at the White House). The Attorney General, Ohioan Harry Daugherty, survived Harding, but was soon let go by President Coolidge and was later tried twice for improperly receiving funds from the sale of confiscated foreign owned property. He was acquitted when both juries failed to reach verdicts. Daugherty’s deputy, Jess Smith, from Washington Court House, committed suicide weeks before Harding’s own death. Many believed Smith was about to be exposed (possibly by Harding himself) of dealing with licenses to procure liquor from government warehouses during prohibition.
The worst scandals of Harding’s administration began to unravel before Harding’s fatal heart attack. Charles Forbes, a friend of Harding’s, was the administrator at the Veterans Bureau. Harding found out Forbes was stealing and reselling vast quantities of medical supplies and taking kickbacks from venders. The president ordered Forbes to stop, but soon Forbes was stealing again. Harding had had enough. After an ugly row, Forbes agreed to resign but pleaded with the president to allow him to first leave the country. Harding consented apparently feeling sorry for his friend. Later Forbes was tried and sent to prison.
The worst scandal was called Tea Pot Dome, referencing one of two western sites where government owned land containing oil deposits were leased to political insiders in exchange for bribes. This sparked a Senate investigation into what’s considered the worst political scandal of the 20th century before Watergate. Two cabinet officers were implicated and one was convicted and sent to prison. It should be remembered that in these matters it was not alleged that Harding himself knew or profited. His worst sins seem to have been being lenient in the supervision of subordinates and sometimes turning a blind eye to their sordid conduct. Still he was responsible for their appointments and their wrongdoings sullied his name in the years after his death.
If Harding’s legacy is a record of such misdeeds, in fairness, it should also include his many accomplishments.
Harding’s cabinet included many stellar public servants. One statesman was Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes who organized the Washington Naval Conference, intended to secure the peace in an era before the rise of Europe’s and Japan’s dictators. The conference’s success secured America’s new standing as a leading world power.
In October 1921—little more than six months into office—Harding traveled to Birmingham, Alabama where he spoke publicly on behalf of expanding civil rights for African Americans. Warren Harding was the first president in the 20th century to make such a bold statement. It was applauded by African Americans in the segregated audience while whites in attendance fell silent. Violence against African Americans had been on the rise for decades. Harding gave vocal support to an anti-lynching bill which passed in the House, but a Southern-states filibuster in the Senate kept it from enactment.
Harding was a vigorous proponent of the eight-hour day. A long-time goal of the American Labor Movement had been for workers to receive a living wage that would enable them to support their families, yet still be present in the home to raise their children. President Harding personally pushed steel company executives to change their policies, believing that action should be taken inside the industries themselves. Just before Harding’s death the steel industry announced its shift to the eight hour day (the standard had been twelve).
Harding was the first president to establish a federally funded effort to supply infant and maternal health care. The Sheppard-Towner Act addressed issues uncovered by the Department of Labor. Its Children Bureau found that 80% of expectant mothers did not receive any prenatal education or care. On November 23, 1921, President Harding signed the Act that had, during its time, a tremendous positive impact, lowering infant mortality rates in the United States.
Harding advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and appointed Jews to important positions. He was among the few national political leaders at that time to be so supportive of the Jewish community both in the United States and abroad.
He and Mrs. Harding were the first to have a radio in the White House and his administration worked to lay out regulations for use of the airwaves. Understanding the power of the new medium, Harding was the first to deliver his Annual Address to a Joint Session of Congress by radio.
Harding was the first to undertake federal budgeting in a comprehensive fashion and established the Bureau of the Budget (now OMB).
The 1921 Federal Highway Act, a centerpiece of Harding’s time in office, pumped money into creation of a national network of well-maintained highways. Harding proclaimed this the age of the “Motor Car.”
Under Harding the post-World War I economy emerged out of a very deep recession to boom. Jobs were easy to find and consumers enjoyed all sorts of new appliances and a higher standard of living. Harding’s years launched the period F. Scott Fitzgerald called the Jazz Age. Bootlegging crime became front page news, but so did the cultural vibrancy of the 1920s.
Harding will never be seen as a first, or even second tier president. But fairly, with the factoring of his many accomplishments, he should now emerge from the shadows of infamy that has so long clouded Americans’ recollection of him. Harding’s reputation deserves a rebound.
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