Robert K Murray. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
With these words, “I cannot hope to be one of the great presidents, but perhaps I may be remembered as one of the best loved,” Warren G. Harding began one of the most corruption-riddled and discredited administrations in the nation’s history. Since his day, the name of Harding, rather than evoking praise and admiration, has conjured up scenes of smoke-filled rooms, evil machinations, and raucous poker parties. Few recall anything concrete about his administration except for the infamous Harding scandals. His performance has been rated consistently by American historians as the worst in the national experience, worse than that of Ulysses Grant, worse even than that of the one president who was forced to resign, Richard Nixon. There is both justice and injustice in this historical verdict.
Warren Gamaliel Harding was born on 2 November 1865 in a tiny clapboard house on the edge of the small village of Blooming Grove, Ohio. His ancestors had migrated from Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley years before. Harding’s father was a self-educated veterinarian who in 1873 attended the Homeopathic Hospital College in Cleveland and thereafter turned his attention from animals to people. His mother, Phoebe Dickerson, who began as a Methodist but became a convert to the Seventh-Day Adventist faith, provided the family with a fundamentalist background and devoutly read her Bible, as Warren’s middle name suggests.
Little is known of Harding’s boyhood, which was spent in and around Caledonia, Ohio. He was nicknamed Winnie by his family, attended the village school, swam in the local creek, played scrub baseball, and loved animals, especially dogs. As an adolescent, he served as a printer’s helper and learned how to stick type, feed press, make up forms, and wash rollers. In 1882 he graduated from Ohio Central College in nearby Iberia. This college’s major function was to prepare students for rural teaching, and its curriculum was as meager as its instruction was poor. The year Harding completed his work, there were just three graduates; no records exist to reveal whether he stood at the head, middle, or foot of his class. There is evidence that he did not take his studies too seriously. His main interest was in editing the school paper, the Iberian Spectator.
Finding rural teaching not to his liking, Harding left the battle against juvenile ignorance in 1883, tried selling insurance for a year, and then, with two partners, bought a decrepit five-column, four-page newspaper called the Marion Star. This paper rapidly expanded under Harding’s direction and ultimately achieved an unchallenged position in the bustling Ohio community. Seven years after taking over the Star, Harding married Florence Kling De Wolfe, a divorcee with an eleven-year-old child. Flossie, as she was called, was five years older than Warren, plain-featured, somewhat ungraceful, and sharp-tongued. But what she lacked in beauty she compensated for in determination and ambition.
Moving into a wide-porched, gable-roofed house that Harding had built, Florence complemented her husband by further expanding his newspaper. While he concentrated on editorial policy and securing advertisements, she reorganized the carrier delivery system and introduced a streamlined bookkeeping plan. And as the Star prospered, so did the importance and influence of its editor. Harding’s journalistic activities and his deep involvement in community matters provided an excellent base for launching a political career. Marion offered Harding a suitable background for the projection of his personality and his ideas. For Harding, this small midwestern town represented the common denominator of the nation. Here the farmer and the businessman met on equal ground; here there was no great gulf between employer and employee; here conflict was minimized and divisions were healed. Cooperation, friendship, and local pride constituted a splendid harmony—a harmony that Harding believed was essential for both economic and political success.
Rise in Ohio Politics
Ohio politics needed some harmony at that time. During those years, Senator Marcus A. Hanna, Senator Joseph B. Foraker, and Boss George B. Cox dominated the Republican party in the Buckeye State. When their interests coalesced, they pooled their collective majorities to achieve stunning victories. At other times they leaped at each other’s throats, causing defeat through violent intraparty feuds. In this atmosphere, Warren Harding quickly became one of the best-known party pacifiers. He firmly believed that conciliation was a political weapon superior to obstruction and strife, and this fact alone made him increasingly valuable in the acrimonious environment of Ohio politics.
In 1899, Harding ran for his first elective office, the Ohio Senate, and won. He was returned in 1901 for a second term and was elected floor leader. In 1903 he was elected to the post of lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Myron T. Herrick and for the ensuing two years served as the amiable moderator of the Ohio Senate. At the conclusion of his term as lieutenant governor, he voluntarily returned to Marion and to the Star. However, through his editorials he continued to exert considerable influence on Ohio Republican party politics.
Harding was induced to leave his “retirement” in 1910 to run as a compromise gubernatorial candidate against Judson Harmon, the Democratic incumbent. He lost, but not before making additional friends within Republican ranks because of his sensitivity to the desires of all factions. In 1912, William Howard Taft selected him to place his name in nomination at the Republican National Convention, primarily because of Harding’s known conciliatory qualities. Although such soothing tactics did not prevent the Bull Moose secession, Harding returned to Ohio from the 1912 convention an even bigger political figure than when he left. Two years later, he was the party’s favorite to succeed incumbent Republican Senator Theodore E. Burton and won the 1914 senatorial election by a stunning majority of one hundred thousand.
The year 1915 was not a propitious one in which to enter the United States Senate. The major legislative battles over Wilson’s New Freedom program had already been fought, and fears of war were beginning to overshadow normal partisan activities. During the war itself, there was little opportunity for a junior senator to make much of a reputation, and it was not until the League of Nations question emerged in 1919 that there was an issue capable of evoking serious partisan debate.
What modest reputation Harding acquired before 1919 was secured within the fold of the party rather than on the floor of the Senate. He delivered the Republican National Convention’s keynote address in 1916 and was elected its permanent chairman. His call for unity and moderation struck just the proper chord for a party still suffering from the 1912 defeat.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, he carried his committee load, shunned acrimonious debate, and generally followed the old guard—or popular opinion, if that proved more beneficial. He voted for returning the railroads to their private owners after the war and pushed for high tariffs. He was dubious about government subsidies to agriculture, opposed excess-profit taxes and high surtaxes, and took a dim view of strong executive authority. He was mildly conservative in his attitude toward unions and was not swept off his feet by the “Red Scare” of 1919-1920. On woman suffrage and Prohibition he swam with public opinion, personally being committed to neither.
On the League, Harding was generally towed along by the more influential Republican senators. But his position also rested on expediency, since he believed that his Ohio constituents opposed it. He signed Senator Lodge’s “round robin” anti-League statement in March 1919 and, as a member of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, was privy to all discussions regarding the League question. He was also one of the senatorial group that called on the White House, in mid-August 1919, to air its differences with Woodrow Wilson. In the end, Harding declared himself in favor of the Lodge reservations and voted accordingly. Although never one of the “irreconcilables,” he joined with such anti-League diehards as William E. Borah, Medill McCormick, and James A. Reed at the home of Nicholas Longworth after the anti-League vote on 19 November 1919 to eat scrambled eggs and celebrate the victory.
Presidential Election of 1920
Harding’s emergence in 1920 as a presidential possibility resulted from a confluence of disparate events. First, as a senator and favorite son from Ohio, “the Mother of Presidents,” he automatically was a factor in any presidential equation. Second, continuing acrimony in the Republican party encouraged constant speculation about a compromise candidate. Third, the inability of the major contenders in 1920 to outstrip one another in garnering a majority of the eligible delegates played into the hands of the dark horse. Finally, Harding’s cause was pushed by a dedicated and skillful group of supporters, the foremost being Harry Micajah Daugherty.
Daugherty, a Washington Court House, Ohio, political manipulator and lobbyist, had known Harding since the turn of the century, but it was not until after Harding had become senator that their friendship deepened. Sizing up the confused political situation in 1919-1920, Daugherty strongly urged Harding to enter the race and ignored his first negative responses. Contrary to later popular myth, neither Harding nor his wife sought the presidency, and even after Harding was swept along by the enthusiasm of his friends, Florence Harding remained opposed to his running. Although Daugherty later exaggerated his own role in the final decision—”I found him sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water,” he once bragged—Daugherty’s insistence, along with the favorable circumstances and Harding’s own belated ambition, did finally make him an active contender.
Even so, Harding’s nomination required considerable luck. Later, when asked by reporters how he would describe his success in capturing the nomination, Harding replied, “We drew to a pair of deuces, and filled.” There was much truth in this statement, since only a continued deadlock between front-runners Frank O. Lowden and General Leonard Wood at the convention itself kept open the way for an alternative. That possibility had already prompted Daugherty, who was running Harding’s campaign headquarters, to woo both sides assiduously and to prophesy:
When both realize they can’t win, when they’re hot and sweaty and discouraged, [they] will remember me and this little headquarters. They’ll be like soldiers after a battle, who recall a shady spring along a country road, where they got a drink as they marched to the front. When they remember me that way, maybe both sides will turn to Harding.
Some four months before, Daugherty had made another prophetic statement that, in view of the Friday night activities at the convention (the height of the Lowden-Wood deadlock), gave birth to the smoke-filled-room myth. Said Daugherty:
I don’t expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second or third ballot, but I think we can well afford to take chances that about eleven minutes after 2 o’clock on Friday morning at the convention, when fifteen or twenty men, somewhat weary, are sitting around a table, some one of them will say, “Who will we nominate?” At that decisive time the friends of Senator Harding can suggest him and can afford to abide by the result.
Such a meeting was in fact held on Friday night, 11 June 1920, in a hotel suite rented by the Republican party chairman, Will Hays, and attended by a circulating group of party leaders at which various alternatives to Wood and Lowden were discussed. Among those suggested was Warren Harding, although, contrary to some later accounts, this loosely formed and ever-changing meeting broke up before a consensus was reached. Representing neither a cabal nor a formal gathering, these Friday night discussions did set the stage for the continuation of a search for a solution on the floor of the convention on Saturday morning, which finally resulted in the nomination of the Ohioan on the tenth ballot. Given the circumstances, Harding’s selection was no fluke. From the Friday deadlock on, he had emerged as the most available candidate.
Despite caveats in some quarters as to the wisdom of the convention’s choice, it was generally agreed that Harding would make a strong candidate. With him on the ticket was Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, who had gained widespread fame for his antiradical stand during the Boston police strike the year before.
Opposing Harding for the Democrats was another newspaper editor, James M. Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News and then governor of Ohio. Cox’s running mate was the thirty-eight-year-old assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New Yorker. Hampered by certain aggressive personality characteristics and by President Wilson’s insistence that the campaign be a “great and solemn referendum” on the League, Cox failed to strike sparks with the public. War-to-peace conversion traumas, the soaring cost of living, widespread labor unrest, alleged radical subversion, and a threatening postwar recession also combined to promote a public desire for change.
Harding capitalized on all of these factors and ran an able campaign. Under the tutelage of Daugherty and other party advisers, he eschewed the temptation to tour the country “bloviating,” as he described his free style of speechmaking. Instead, he stayed at home in Marion, reading carefully prepared speeches from his front porch to delegations that came to visit him from across the country. Contrary to some later assertions, Harding was the dominant figure in this campaign, making his own pronouncements, which often were specifically tailored to particular delegations. And the whole tone of the campaign was also distinctly his. The emphasis on pacification, on conciliation, on restoration, and on harmony was not characteristic of most of the aggressively anti-Wilson leaders of his party. Harding said, “America’s present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy”—words that the public apparently wanted to hear in the 1920 campaign.
At least that is what the election returns showed on 2 November. It was an astonishing victory, and newspaper headlines groped for superlatives. Whether a result of Harding’s own performance or a reaction against Wilsonism, the 16,181,289 votes for Harding, in contrast to the 9,141,750 votes for Cox, represented a resounding mandate. After savoring this victory for a month while on vacation in Texas and Panama, Harding returned to Marion in December to begin the task of selecting his official family. Great time and care were devoted to this job. Calling Marion “the Great Listening Post,” Harding sought advice from all quarters and elicited suggestions from all factions. Even leading Democrats were requested by Harding to offer advice.
Presidential Appointments and Style
The result was a curious blend of the best and the worst in cabinet making. Harding shocked many old-guard supporters by naming Charles Evans Hughes, a proponent of the League of Nations, as his secretary of state. Harding considered him as having one of the “finest minds in the country.” Similarly, he gave conservative Republicans “gooseflesh,” as one phrased it, by appointing Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. Somewhat of a political maverick, Hoover was distrusted by a sizable number of powerful old-line Republican politicians, but Harding selected him over their protests because, as he explained to one of them, “I believe he’s the smartest ‘gink’ I know.” In another independent decision, Harding chose Henry C. Wallace, editor of Wallace’s Farmer and a member of one of the most famous farming familes in the United States, as his secretary of agriculture.
Some of his other appointments were more to conservative liking. Andrew W. Mellon of Pittsburgh was given the nod for secretary of the treasury, a selection that delighted such old-guard stalwarts as senators Boies Penrose and Philander Knox of Pennsylvania. The post of secretary of war went to John Weeks of Massachusetts, who was sponsored by Senator Lodge. James J. Davis, an active union member, was made secretary of labor. Will Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was offered the position of postmaster general. Edwin Denby, a former member of the House Naval Affairs Committee, was named secretary of the navy. Albert Fall, senator from New Mexico and a personal friend of Harding’s, was given the job of secretary of the interior, despite the cries of some conservationists who were disturbed by his anticonservationist views.
Harding appointed his campaign manager and confidant, Harry Daugherty, as attorney general. Even some old-guard members balked at this selection, being concerned about Daugherty’s questionable lobbying past. But Harding was adamant, once telling a disapproving Senator James W. Wadsworth of New York, “I have told [Daugherty] that he can have any place in my Cabinet he wants, outside of Secretary of State. He tells me that he wants to be Attorney General and by God he will be Attorney General!”
The change between the Wilson and the Harding administrations was immediately noticeable. Following a subdued and unostentatious inauguration, the Hardings threw open the White House gates, which had been closed in the last years of the Wilson administration, and quickly chased the gloom of the Wilson illness from the executive mansion. Portions of the White House were even opened to the public. Brighter colors were added to the furnishings and flowers appeared everywhere. Mrs. Harding reinstituted White House teas and gave three garden parties during the first summer. The president immediately restored regular White House press conferences, which Wilson had abandoned. Unquestionably, Harding had the best working relationship with the press of any chief executive in history.
It has often been said that the Hardings represented Main Street come to Washington. The Hardings did move into the White House with their small-town background and ideas intact. They did not hesitate to admit to being “just folks” or to practice small-town ways. To a critic like H. L. Mencken this seemed gauche, but to a majority of citizens it was welcomed as a breath of fresh air. The personality of the president contrasted markedly with that of his predecessor. Gregarious, affable, and handsome, Harding, in the parlance of his own time, “looked like a president.” Standing a little over six feet tall and weighing 210 pounds, he had a high forehead, heavy square jaw, and calm, sympathetic gray eyes. His nose was large but in proportion with the rest of his face. He was vain about his person; his straight silver hair was always well brushed, his heavy dark eyebrows neatly trimmed. His suits were immaculate and well pressed, and he varied his dress considerably, more so than most presidents, to fit the occasion. Sometimes he dressed more “sporty” than Mrs. Harding liked.
Harding had a magnetic quality that made both men and women like him. His was not the charisma of a leader but the simple attractiveness of a friendly and engaging individual. Next to Lincoln, Harding was probably the most human man to occupy the White House. As one close associate put it, “W. G. always wore the human side of him out.” Harding also had a temper that could vent itself in outbursts of profanity, but he always quickly repented and labeled such lapses with one of his favorite words—”unseemly.” Kindliness, friendliness, and generosity were his most winning traits and undoubtedly sprang from his dislike of contention and disharmony and from his compulsive need for friends. Given these traits, it is not surprising that Harding placed a high value on loyalty. An acquaintance once said, “He liked politicians for the reason that he loved dogs, because they were usually loyal to their friends.” Harding’s fear of offending anyone, his desire to grant requests, and his indiscriminate loyalty placed him in constant danger. Harding’s father once remarked that it was fortunate he was not a girl; he would have been in a family way all the time because he could not say no.
Although known at the time and not occasioning any particular adverse comment, certain of Harding’s habits were later blown out of proportion and their impact on his presidency exaggerated. Harding liked to play poker and, as a senator, had had a group in every Saturday night for “food and action.” After becoming president, he continued playing poker approximately once a week. Beginning sometime after dinner, these games rarely lasted beyond midnight and were for relaxation, not profit. Limited to eight at one sitting, the White House poker group had a fluid membership. Even Hoover and Hughes were invited to play. Later charges that the poker crowd “ran” the government or exercised a hypnotic influence over the president were untrue.
Harding’s love of cards was matched by his love of golf. While president, Harding made every professional golfer who came to Washington give him a command performance. The first hint of spring found Harding out on the south grounds of the White House practicing tee shots. There Laddie Boy, a homely Airedale whose affection for Harding caused much comment in the press, chased and retrieved the president’s practice balls. On the golf course, the dog was usually at his side while his master, despite all the practicing, struggled to break a hundred. It was fashionable to claim in later years that Harding spent all his time on the golf course, but, again, this was not true. The demands of the presidency clearly prevented him from playing the game as much as he would have liked. During his first two years in the White House, he did play about twice a week, but toward the end of his tenure, he barely had time to play at all.
Harding’s drinking and smoking habits while he was in the White House were far more controversial. Harding used tobacco in all forms. He smoked two cigars a day, interspersed with a pipe and cigarettes. Harding also chewed, although he tapered off somewhat after entering the White House because of his wife’s nagging. To many, chewing was a filthy habit, but not to Thomas Edison. Harding once shared a plug of tobacco with the famous inventor, causing Edison to remark, “Harding’s all right. Any man who chews tobacco is all right.”
More controversial was his use of liquor. Throughout his adult life Harding drank and saw nothing wrong in it. He was never personally committed to Prohibition, even though he had voted for it and, like many Americans, pretended the law did not apply to him. He was careful to serve liquor only in his private rooms in the White House and would sometimes take visitors there for that purpose. It was later claimed that Harding was a heavy drinker, although no one ever reported seeing him drunk. Still, such “sneaking around” by the president to break the law, when added to smoking, chewing, and poker playing, raised in some minds the specter of low-life carousals.
In the end, it was the quality of Harding’s mind, as much as any personal habits or character traits, that limited his effectiveness as president. Wilson claimed he had a “bungalow mind,” and to some extent this was true. Harding tended to accept the pat answer rather than reason through to a more sophisticated solution. His mental powers were undisciplined by hard thought, and he lived his life in the realm of clichés, maxims, and emotionally held opinions. He had never been required to study hard; neither were his closest associates and Senate colleagues noted for their intellectual prowess. Personality counted more with Harding than ideas.
Philosophical discussions and impersonal technical matters like economic theory did not appeal to him. There is no indication that he ever spent much time reading, although his personal library was rather well stocked. He did not possess a deep knowledge of public questions or of their foundations in history, economics, or law. He had managed quite well without such knowledge as a senator. But as president this limitation was constricting. A major difficulty during the Harding years was that the best people in his cabinet had to funnel their collective intelligence through his untrained and ambivalent mind. Sometimes Harding did not understand, other times he was too cautious, occasionally he was too fearful. Often he simply endorsed a solution worked out by others.
Domestic and Foreign Affairs
President Harding inherited from Wilson problems that even the wisest and best-trained chief executive would have found daunting. Calling Congress into special session in April 1921, he delivered to it perhaps the best speech of his career. Declaring that Congress should first turn to domestic problems and put “our own house in order,” he mentioned not only increased tariff protection and lower taxes as prime issues but the necessity for a national budget system and economy in administration. He also called for agricultural legislation to help the farmer, construction of “a great merchant marine,” encouragement of aviation for civil and military purposes, further development of radio and its effective regulation, passage of an anti-lynching law, and creation of a department of public welfare. With respect to foreign affairs, he expressed hope for some kind of an association of nations “binding us in conference and cooperation for the prevention of war,” but he flatly declared that the United States should not enter the League of Nations. He stated that peace should quickly be established with all former enemies and that an orderly funding and liquidation of war debts should be undertaken.
Harding had fully expected to get along well with Congress, but he did not even enjoy a brief honeymoon. Difficulties with congressional leaders over priorities, continued animus emanating from the League struggle, the desire of some congressional leaders to reduce the presidency to a cipher, and Harding’s own reluctance to exercise strong leadership combined to get his administration off to a slow start. Indeed, because of the squabbling and indecision, Congress was forced to remain in almost continuous session from April 1921 to September 1922 in order to complete its consideration of Harding’s various proposals.
In June 1921, Congress did pass the Budget and Accounting Act, which met Harding’s desire for a budget system and opened the way for economy in government administration. Harding’s subsequent appointment of Charles Dawes, a Chicago banker, as budget director was a wise move, and under Dawes’s leadership a savings of almost $1.5 billion was realized during the first year. In July, after skillful behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Secretary of State Hughes, Congress approved the Knox-Porter Resolution, ending the state of war with Austria and Germany; peace treaties were subsequently concluded with both countries and accepted by the Senate. Following weeks of wrangling over the size and nature of a tax cut and the successful intervention of Harding to prevent passage of a budget-busting soldiers’ bonus, Congress finally endorsed the Revenue Act of 1921, reducing the surtax rate from 65 percent to 50 percent and providing for the ultimate elimination of the wartime excess-profits tax.
Under intense prodding from the farm bloc and with the approval of Harding and Secretary of Agriculture Wallace, by early 1922 Congress passed six farm bills that controlled discriminatory practices by packers and stockyard owners (Packers and Stock-yards Act); regulated market contracts involving “puts and calls,” “bids,” and “offers” (Futures Trading Act); expanded the maximum size of rural loans (two amendments to the Farm Loan Act); provided new loans to farmers for the raising and marketing of livestock (Emergency Agriculture Credits Act); and protected farm cooperatives from the operation of the antitrust laws (Capper-Volstead Act).
Congress, reacting to the Harding administration’s desire for an “America First” policy, passed both the Tariff Act of 1921 (designed to be only a temporary measure) and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922, which increased for industry and agriculture the rates contained in the old Under-wood-Simmons Tariff Act of 1913. Along this same line of protecting “America first,” Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1921, which restricted European migration annually to 3 percent of any nation’s nationals living in the United States in 1910. This law resulted in a decrease in the number of admitted immigrants from 805,228 in 1921 to 309,556 in 1922.
Despite his various difficulties, Harding had reason to believe that his administration had acquitted itself rather well by the time of the fall congressional elections of 1922. He had quickly shown his humaneness and his desire for “normalcy” in 1921 by pardoning Eugene V. Debs, who had been placed in jail by the Wilson administration for antiwar activities, and by issuing a general amnesty for other political prisoners of the Red Scare period. Moreover, many of the requests contained in his opening speech in April 1921 had by 1922 been granted by Congress. Actually, the only one flatly rejected by that body was the one to create a new and expanded merchant marine. In the process of compiling this record, Harding and his administration had aroused considerable animosity. Harding’s ineffective handling of a railroad shopmen’s strike in the summer of 1922 and Attorney General Daugherty’s recourse to the infamous Wilkerson injunction to break it enraged organized labor. Further, Daugherty’s handling of certain war-related legal matters involving the Justice Department antagonized numerous other elements and kept alive suspicions regarding his competency. Patronage problems also continually plagued the administration, creating some severe internal disputes. But above all, Harding’s consistent refusal to support a soldiers’ bonus bill, together with his veto of one just prior to the fall elections, angered veterans’ organizations and vote-seeking congressmen alike.
The elections of 1922, although not a total rebuff to the administration, did show serious reverses. Such Republican party stalwarts as senators Harry New, Porter J. McCumber, Frank B. Kellogg, and Miles Poindexter were defeated. In the Senate, the Republicans lost seven seats, cutting their majority from twenty-four to ten. In the House, the party lost seventy seats, reducing the Republican majority to twenty. Now more than ever, strong leadership was needed from the White House to keep the depleted Republican congressional ranks working together. There is evidence that Harding increasingly tried to provide it in his brief remaining time in office. But all such attempts would prove to be too little too late. For example, Harding failed once again in getting Congress to consider a merchant marine expansion bill. Congress also turned a deaf ear to his suggestions for a department of public welfare. Although he strongly supported the farm bloc in pushing for new agricultural credits, he demurred from its desire for some sort of direct government subsidy.
Harding’s earlier appointment of William H. Taft as chief justice, along with his later selections of George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, and Edward T. Sanford as associate justices, indicated he was still “no friend” of organized labor and wanted the nation to remain “business safe” on economic matters. Further, while he continually supported the passage of an antilynching law (which Congress steadfastly refused to consider), he was not successful in promoting a greater degree of racial justice, and despite his many promises, his appointment policy was not especially pro-black. Finally, even though he officially backed Prohibition enforcement, his own drinking habits vitiated a consistent and forceful stand on the matter.
Some of the successes of Harding’s administration by 1923 were as much a result of the efforts of his best cabinet appointees as of himself. Secretary of State Hughes masterminded the successful Washington Naval Disarmament Conference of 1921-1922, which resulted in a strengthening of the Open Door in the Pacific and a reduction in the navies of the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. Hughes also succeeded in improving strained relations with Mexico, left as a legacy from the Wilson years. With Harding’s support, a program of military disengagement was begun in the Latin American and Caribbean areas, especially in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. A “heart balm” of $25 million was given to Colombia to atone for precipitate American action in the Panamanian revolution of twenty years before, and in 1922-1923 a Central American conference, held in Washington, began a redefinition of the Monroe Doctrine. Amid trying circumstances, Hughes also formalized the funding of European World War I debts to the United States and secured the necessary congressional agreement. Neither Hughes nor Harding was able to convince the Senate that the United States should join the World Court.
Secretary Hoover added luster to the administration by his skillful handling of the Commerce Department. The successful Unemployment Conference of 1921, whose efforts enabled the nation to weather the last stages of the postwar recession, was essentially Hoover’s idea. Hoover’s attempts to rejuvenate American overseas trade, his drive for the standardization of measures and products, and his promotion of industrial and scientific research helped restore prosperity and achieve the president’s goal of benefiting business. Hoover’s initiation of aviation and radio regulations and his cooperation with Harding in forcing an eight-hour day on the steel industry were also major contributions to the Harding years.
Scandals and Illness
Despite his belated attempts at more effective executive leadership and some rather impressive administration successes, Harding found the presidency to be an increasing burden from the summer of 1922 on. He liked the pomp, the ceremony, the attention, and the glitter of the office. But continuing labor strife, protracted wrangling with Congress, squabbling over patronage, mounting Prohibition enforcement problems, concern over the fall election reverses, and the need for constant executive decisions—in short, the magnitude of his presidential responsibilities—threatened to overwhelm him. His old friends found him more solemn and less buoyant around the poker table. He once remarked to the National Press Club, “I never find myself done … I don’t believe there is a human being who can do all the work there is to be done in the President’s office. It seems as though I have been President for twenty years.” From the fall of 1922 on, he spoke increasingly of the day when he could return to Ohio, and once, in an off-the-cuff statement, he declared, “A great many people think it is a fine thing to be President … But I know better, and I would like nothing better than to be a Marionite again.”
By the fall of 1922, Harding’s growing mental depression rested not merely on political factors nor on the demands of the presidency; his own personal problems had begun to mount. Mrs. Harding, who had lost a kidney a number of years before, suddenly became ill with hydronephritis in late August, and for a time her life hung in the balance. Not long after, his own health began to disintegrate. A severe flu attack that felled him in mid-January 1923 seemed to trigger a visible decline. By April he was complaining that he barely had enough energy to complete nine holes rather than the usual eighteen on his infrequent trips to the golf course. By late spring of 1923, his normally ruddy color had become a pallor and his stamina was at low ebb. He told Hughes at that time that his blood pressure was consistently above 175, which caused the secretary of state to tell his wife, “We have been worrying about Mrs. Harding, but I think it is the President we should be more concerned about.”
Harding had other worries. Scandals of serious import were beginning to be rumored in the spring of 1923. Attorney General Daugherty and his activities lay at the root of some of this concern. Several attempts had already been made by Daugherty’s enemies, both inside and outside Congress, to force his retirement from the administration. One congressional investigation into the Justice Department had come to naught in January 1923, but it had not deterred many from thinking that despite the lack of damaging evidence, Daugherty was a serious liability to the administration.
Ironically, the first truly disturbing situation arose over Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, and not over Daugherty. Appointed by Harding on a whim, Forbes had illegally been selling government supplies from the medical supply base at Perryville, Maryland, to private contractors and at ridiculously low prices. He also was engaged in under-cover deals relating to hospital building contracts and site selections. His accomplice in these matters was Charles F. Cramer, general counsel of the Veterans’ Bureau.
Brigadier General Charles E. Sawyer, Harding’s personal physician and longtime Ohio friend, first suspected Forbes’s motives in handling bureau business and voiced his fears to Daugherty, who passed them along to Harding. Shaken by these disclosures, Harding finally summoned Forbes to the White House, grabbed him by the throat “as a dog would a rat,” and shouted at him, “You double-crossing bastard!” No record remains of the rest of the conversation, but evidently Harding demanded his resignation, giving him the opportunity to leave the country first. Forbes hastily booked passage for Europe and, once there, resigned on 15 February.
Forbes’s resignation took on a more sinister meaning when, on 14 March, Cramer committed suicide by putting a .45-caliber bullet through his right temple while standing before his bathroom mirror in his Washington, D.C., home. At the time, all the public and the press were told was that Cramer had been depressed because of “recent financial reverses.”
The Forbes resignation and the Cramer suicide provided natural grist for Washington’s rumor mills, but their impact was eclipsed by the sudden death of Jess W. Smith ten weeks later. A diabetic with flabby jowls, scraggly mustache, and large, pleading brown eyes made larger by black, round shell-rimmed glasses, Smith was Harry Daugherty’s private secretary and general factotum. As such, he was also a friend of Harding’s. Living with Daugherty in the attorney general’s Wardman Park Hotel apartment, Smith had used his close contact with the administration to engineer his own scams, which involved the selling of liquor licenses, the granting of paroles, and the arrangement for other types of “fixes.”
Helping Smith was a small group of petty scoundrels, collectively known as the Ohio Gang, who used a “little green house on K Street” as a kind of racket headquarters. Just how much of this activity was known to Harding prior to Smith’s death is conjecture. But he knew enough to have a long and emotional argument with Smith at the White House on the day before Smith died. Early the next morning Smith was found slumped on the floor in his bedroom in Daugherty’s apartment, still clad in his pajamas, his head in a wastebasket, a pistol in his hand, and a bullet through his temple. The assistant White House physician, Dr. Joel T. Boone, told the press that Smith had had a very severe case of diabetes, had not fully recovered from an appendicitis operation of a year before, and in a state of depression had killed himself.
These events, along with Harding’s declining health, did not provide an auspicious background for a much-publicized presidential trip to Alaska in mid-June 1923. The decision to make this trip rested on both medical and political grounds. No fewer than five cabinet officers and twenty-eight bureaus exercised authority over the territory, and the president hoped that a firsthand inspection would help him resolve some of these conflicts. His doctors thought a vacation from the cares of Washington would do him some good.
Later it was claimed that the whole Alaskan venture was suffused with a sense of foreboding and that there was morbid talk of death. The Forbes, Cramer, and Smith tragedies, coupled with Harding’s sudden decision to sell the Marion Star just before his departure, added credence to these contentions. But if there was no air of morbidity about the presidential party, it was subdued by the realization that the president was very tired and appeared nervous and worried.
During the outward-bound phase of the journey, Harding seemed to recapture some of his old bounce. According to Hoover, as they neared Alaska, Harding displayed the attitude “of a school boy entering on a holiday.” Still, Hoover recalled that on the way north Harding once asked him in the privacy of the presidential cabin what Hoover would do if he were president and knew of a scandal brewing. Hoover replied, “Publish it, and at least get credit for integrity on your side.” When Hoover pressed for particulars, Harding mumbled something about irregularities in the Justice Department and then “abruptly dried up.” When the party turned south toward home, the president became noticeably more morose and his nervousness again increased. By the time he arrived in Vancouver on 26 July, it was obvious that he was again entirely exhausted, and members of the presidential party were deeply alarmed.
A day later, as his train moved down the west coast toward San Francisco, the president complained of pains in the upper abdominal region. By the time the train reached San Francisco, it was clear that he had a cardiac malfunction. Put to bed in the Palace Hotel, he was apparently on the mend when, on the evening of 2 August, while his wife was reading to him from the Saturday Evening Post, he suffered an acute coronary artery occlusion, otherwise known as an infarct. In any case, death was instantaneous.
The ensuing cross-country funeral procession allowed Warren Harding for the moment to achieve his goal of being one of America’s best-loved presidents. Hundreds of thousands of grieving citizens lined the tracks, singing softly his favorite hymns, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Lead, Kindly Light,” as his flag-draped casket, displayed in a specially designed railroad car, passed slowly by. Back in Washington, his coffin was placed in the center of the Capitol rotunda at the exact spot where Lincoln had lain in state. Ten truckloads of flowers lined the walls as thirty-five thousand mourners filed by and another twenty thousand waited in vain outside in lines that were four abreast. Similar scenes were repeated at his burial ceremony in Marion a day later.
Death should have brought Warren Harding’s problems to an end, but in some respects they were just beginning. Even while the press was eulogizing him as a “man of peace,” “an ideal American,” and “the greatest commoner since Lincoln,” events were in motion that would destroy the Harding reputation almost completely. The general outline of the Harding scandals was known to only a few at the time of his death, but this knowledge spread quickly after his demise. Within three months of his burial, a Senate investigation into the Veterans Bureau uncovered Charles Forbes’s improprieties, resulting in his conviction and a two-year jail sentence.
Before this investigation was completed, another was begun into unconfirmed rumors of alleged “oil deals” involving top Harding officials. Centering on Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, this Senate probe unearthed evidence of the transfer of certain oil reserve lands (the most famous being Teapot Dome in Wyoming) from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. Fall then had leased them for development to two oil men, Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, without competitive bids. Fall was later convicted of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the government, and was sentenced to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. Secretary of the Navy Charles Denby, while not a party to the granting of the leases or the exchange of bribes, was finally forced out of the cabinet because of his naïveté and stupidity.
Far more sensational was the final investigation growing out of the Harding years, one involving Daugherty and the Justice Department. Begun by the Senate in March 1924, it clearly established the perfidy and machinations of Jess Smith and the Ohio Gang, but it was not able to establish “beyond doubt” Daugherty’s rumored involvement in these activities. A fortuitous fire destroyed the records in Daugherty’s brother’s bank in Washington Court House (where the attorney general and Jess Smith kept a joint account) and eliminated evidence that might have proved crucial. Nonetheless, some witnesses (most of them admittedly unreliable and one even known to be a perjurer) told tales of bacchanalian orgies at the little green house on K Street in which both Daugherty and Harding allegedly took part. In the end, the only government official to be convicted as a result of this investigation was Colonel Thomas W. Miller, alien property custodian, who had accepted bribes arranged by Jess Smith to illegally transfer a German-owned American subsidiary to an American firm. He ultimately served eighteen months in jail and paid a $5,000 fine. Daugherty, in turn, went through two trials in 1926-1927, the first ending in a hung jury and the second declaring him not guilty because of insufficient evidence.
All of this naturally raised questions about Harding’s own involvement in the scandals. It was diffi-cult for many to believe that the president was not somehow connected with this skulduggery. Even if he were not personally involved, most citizens believed that he must have known about it. Actually, he did not know about Fall, but as we have seen, he did know about Forbes and Smith and had done nothing to expose their corruption. In any case, continued doubts and uncertainties left Harding’s reputation badly tarnished.
But it was also Harding’s own questionable past that further damaged whatever reputable image he might otherwise have retained. In 1927 there appeared a book entitled The President’s Daughter, written by Nan Britton, a former Marionite who was years younger than the dead president. In this book, Britton claimed that Harding had fathered a child by her in 1919 and that their illicit contact had continued on into the presidential years. Rumors also circulated that Harding had had extramarital relations with still another Marion woman who was the wife of one of the town’s leading businessmen.
There is considerable doubt that Harding was the father of Nan’s child, because medical evidence exists to indicate that he was probably sterile. There is some possibility that the two of them may have maintained a relationship during his senatorial career, but it most certainly did not extend into the White House period. There is no doubt whatever that Harding and Mrs. Carrie Phillips, the business-man’s wife, did maintain an intimate relationship for a number of years prior to his becoming a senator.
Whatever the precise truth surrounding these various relationships, they, together with the corrosive effect of the scandals, produced a devastating reaction that prompted much muckraking and mythmaking. Wholly fictional exposés of Harding’s life and his alleged carousals now made the rounds. So did increasingly exaggerated stories of the activities of the Ohio Gang. As a result, rumors about Harding’s private life and knowledge about the scandals remained, while many of the achievements of the administration were lost to view.
Unjustifiable in some respects as the final verdict may be, Warren Harding must bow to the adverse judgment of history. Extramarital matters aside, fatal flaws obviously existed not only in some of the friends around him, but in Harding himself. Kindliness, friendliness, generosity, and loyalty are not necessarily bad traits for a president to have, but in the case of Harding they were liabilities. Under the circumstances, he probably should never have sought the presidency, and a more discerning electorate would not have elected him.
As it was, throughout the remainder of the 1920s, Warren Harding represented an acute embarrassment for the nation and the Republican party. The great colonnaded marble monument that was erected to him outside of Marion through contributions from his friends immediately following his death stood undedicated because no major Republican figure had the nerve to appear there. Fittingly, President Herbert Hoover, a man who owed much to Harding, finally screwed up his courage, journeyed to Marion in the summer of 1931, and delivered a brief dedicatory address. Standing before a battery of microphones and with Harry Daugherty seated on the platform directly behind him, Hoover faced the issue squarely:
Here was a man whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment … Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men whom he believed were his devoted friends. It was later proved in the courts of the land that these men had betrayed not only the friendship and trust of their staunch and loyal friend but that they had betrayed their country. That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.
Perhaps no better or more judicious epitaph for the Harding years exists.