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Warren Gamaliel Harding, our twenty-ninth President, served from 1921 to 1923, and is generally seen as the worst president ever... well, so far. Ironically, perhaps, it's not all the scandals that plagued both Harding's private and political lives that gave him such a bad reputation, but that he had no vision for where he wanted the country to go. (Warren G. Harding: Life in Brief) In all fairness, not many people at the time wanted the country to go anywhere. To put Harding in perspective, he followed Woody Wilson, whose presidency included World War I and the Great Influenza pandemic. It's debatable which killed more, the War or the Flu, but the end result was that tens of millions of people died all over the world, including the United States. It wasn't a pleasant time. The country was ready for a return to "normalcy," and Harding was the ticket.

Harding was born in the same year the Civil War ended, on November 2, 1865, in the present-day town of Blooming Grove, Ohio. In 1891, Harding married the wealthy Florence Kling De Wolfe, who had a child from her previous marriage. Harding and his wife had no children of their own. (Warren G. Harding." History) All Harding wanted from life was to publish a small town newspaper, which he did. But his wife wanted more for her husband, so she encouraged him (as only a wife can) to go into politics. (Freidel and Sidey) Indeed, his wife once remarked, "I have only one real hobby-my husband." (Warren G. Harding." History)

Harding did well in Ohio politics, mostly because he did as he was told by the "machine bosses." He served both in the Ohio state Senate and as the Lieutenant Governor (though he lost his bid to be the Ohio Governor in 1910). (Warren G. Harding." History) Doing "well" meant that Harding basically did nothing. As a senator, he was absent for more sessions than he attended, bowing out of debates on such issues as prohibition and women's suffrage. The up-side was that he "had few enemies because he rarely took a firm enough stand on an issue to make any." And that eventually led to his presidential nomination. (Warren G. Harding: Life in Brief)

Harding was groomed for the presidency by his close friend, Harry Daugherty, if for no other reason than Harding "...looked like a president." And apparently he did. Harding gained national recognition by delivering the nominating address at the 1912 Republican Convention, for President Taft. Then, in 1914, he was elected to the US Senate, where he served until his inauguration in 1921. (Freidel and Sidey) When the principle candidates in the 1920 Republican Convention became deadlocked, they turned to Harding, who became their candidate and won the general election by a landslide - an actual landslide, not what Harding thought was a landslide. (Freidel and Sidey)

The Republicans could pretty much put anything in front of Harding and he would sign it. Among other things, they slashed taxes (mostly for corporations and the wealthy), restricted imports, opposed organized labour, and put strict limitations on immigration. But who could complain? After all, he was only fulfilling his campaign promise to have "Less government in business and more business in government." (Freidel and Sidey) But then came the scandals.

Harding once admitted to his close friends that the presidency "was beyond him." Even though he did appoint a few capable men to high offices, such as Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon, the majority of his appointees became known as "the Ohio gang" - a bunch of "dishonest cheats." (Warren G. Harding: Life in Brief)

Perhaps Harding's worst political appointee, and "one of the slickest," was Harry Daugherty, who became his political manager and was later named Attorney General. Daugherty was almost impeached by Congress, and had two indictments for frauding the government. (Warren G. Harding: Domestic Affairs)

Then there was Charles Forbes, the director of the Veterans Bureau, who "diverted alcohol and drugs from Veterans hospitals to bootleggers and narcotics dealers and took payoffs from contractors building hospitals." What a guy! Forbes served two years for that. (Warren G. Harding: Domestic Affairs)

And let's not forget Albert Fall, who gave us the Teapot Dome Scandal. Fall was Harding's secretary of the interior, who "secretly allowed private oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and the Elk Hills oil reserve in California..." making at least $300,000 in bribes. With inflation, that would be over four million dollars today. Like Forbes, Fall was one of the few who went to prison, and even then, it was for less than a year. (Warren G. Harding: Domestic Affairs)

Possibly Harding's biggest flaw as a politician, and even a person, was that he "could not say 'no' to his friends." Even Harding's own father said it was good that Warren was a man. Had he been a girl, said his father, he never would've said "no" to the boys, and would've been "in the family way all the time." (Warren G. Harding: Domestic Affairs) As such, Harding seemed more concerned with being liked by his friends than being an effective president. He enjoyed playing poker, drinking whiskey (which was illegal at the time), smoking cigars, and generally hanging out with the boys. (Warren G. Harding: Life in Brief) During one game of cards, Harding lost the entire White House china set. (Warren G. Harding: Domestic Affairs)

Harding also enjoyed the women. Plural. One of the women, Carrie Phillips, who was a German sympathizer during WWI, was paid "hush money" by the Republican Party. (Warren G. Harding: Life in Brief) Explicit love letters confirmed in 1963 Harding's 15 year affair with Phillips. (Warren G. Harding Biography) Another woman, Nan Britton, who was 30 years younger than Harding, "was given a job in Washington, DC, so that she could be near Harding." Suffice it to say, if Bill Clinton had sex in the Oval Office... he wasn't the first.  Their affair continued until Harding's death. (Warren G. Harding: Life in Brief) Is it me, or does a lot of this really sound familiar? Following Harding's death, Nan Britton publicly admitted that the father of her daughter was Harding. However, it wasn't until 2015, through DNA testing, that it was conclusively proven. (Warren G. Harding Biography)

No matter how bad Harding was, and he was bad, he did accomplish a few good things. He established the General Accounting Office to audit government expenditures, he was pro-farm, and unlike Wilson, who he followed, "Harding was generally tolerant on civil liberties, honestly criticizing the unfair treatment of African Americans." He even once delivered an address to a segregated crowd (at the University of Alabama, no less), "on the virtues of racial equality and the evils of segregation. (Warren G. Harding: Domestic Affairs)

Harding's Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, once urged Harding to make "a great scandal of [his] administration" public, but Harding didn't, fearing "the political repercussions." And those repercussions would come, only not to Harding, just to his reputation. Harding died while in office, suffering a fatal heart attack on August 2, 1923, while in San Francisco. (Freidel and Sidey) Had Harding survived, his memory would probably be worse than it already is, well, for those of us who remember him, for many scandals came to light once he was safely removed from prosecution six feet under. (Harding's Scandals.)

Even Harding's death wasn't without scandal. The gossip mill speculated that Harding hadn't died from a heart attack at all. The rumour was that he was poisoned by his wife - either to save him from the inevitable corruption charges, (Warren G. Harding Biography) or because fidelity was apparently not a term that Harding was very familiar with. There was no autopsy. (Warren G. Harding Biography) Harding was followed in office by his Vice President, Calvin Coolidge. (Warren G. Harding. History)

 

Work Cited

Freidel, Frank, and Hugh Sidey.  "Warren G. Harding."  The Presidents of the United States of America.  The White House: (2006)  n. pag.  Web.  02 Feb. 2017  https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/warrenharding

"Harding's Scandals."  History:  Warren G. Harding.  A & E Television Networks, LLC (2017): n. pag.  Web.  02 Feb. 2017 http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/warren-g-harding/videos/hardings-scandals?m=528e394da93ae&s=undefined&f=1&free=false

"Warren G. Harding Biography."  Biography.com.  A & E Television Networks, LLC (13 Aug. 2015): n. pag.  http://www.biography.com/people/warren-g-harding-9328336#the-harding-administration

"Warren G. Harding:  Domestic Affairs."  American President.  The Miller Center (2017): n. pag.  Web.  02 Feb. 2017  http://millercenter.org/president/biography/harding-domestic-affairs

"Warren G. Harding."  History.  A & E Television Networks, LLC (2017): n. pag.  Web.  02 Feb. 2017  http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/warren-g-harding

"Warren G. Harding:  Life in Brief."  American President.  The Miller Center (2017): n. pag.  Web.  02 Feb. 2017  http://millercenter.org/president/biography/harding-life-in-brief