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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: One of America’s Worst Presidents

By Tom Morrow

Warren Gamaliel Harding was the 29th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1921 until his death on Aug. 2, 1923.
Although Harding died one of the most popular presidents in history to that point, the subsequent exposure of scandals that took place during his tenure — such as the infamous Teapot Dome scandal — eroded his popularity. In historical rankings of the U.S. presidents, Harding has been rated among the worst.

Historians generally agree that if Harding was guilty of anything it was poor judgment of character and choice of appointments. He famously took care of his friends, but many of them were either unqualified for their positions or took illegal advantage of their office.

Harding was born in Blooming Grove, Ohio, Nov. 2, 1865. Except when political service took him elsewhere, he lived in rural Ohio all of his life. When not yet 20 years of age, he settled in Marion and bought the failing The Marion Star newspaper, building it into a successful publication. In 1899, he was elected to the Ohio State Senate, and after four years in office successfully ran for lieutenant governor. He was defeated for governor in 1910, but four years later Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate.

In 1920, when Harding ran for the Republican nomination for president, he was considered an “also-ran” with little chance of success. The leading candidates could not gain a majority in order to secure the GOP nomination, leaving the convention deadlocked. Harding’s support gradually grew until he was nominated on the 10th ballot. Harding conducted a “front porch campaign” from his home in Marion, allowing supporters to come to him. Running on a theme of “return to normalcy,” Harding was victorious over Democrat James M. Cox and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs. Harding became the first sitting U.S. senator to be elected president.

Harding preferred a low-key inauguration without the customary parade celebration. He was sworn in as President on March 4, 1921, in the presence of his wife and father. There was a brief reception at the White House where he gave a short inaugural address.

“Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much from the government and at the same time do too little for it,” he said.

Harding appointed a number of well-regarded figures to his cabinet, including Andrew Mellon as Treasury Secretary; Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce; and Charles Hughes as Secretary of State.

A major foreign policy achievement came with the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, in which the world’s major naval powers agreed on a naval limitations program that lasted for 10 years. But Harding’s success was overshadowed by two of his cabinet, Interior Secretary Albert Fall and Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who were implicated in corruption.

The two Harding cabinet appointees who darkened the reputation of his administration for their involvement in scandal were Harding’s Senate friend, Albert B. Fall of New Mexico, the Interior Secretary, and Daugherty, who became Attorney General. Fall was a Western rancher and former miner, and was pro-development. He was opposed by conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot, who wrote, “it would have been possible to pick a worse man for Secretary of the Interior, but not altogether easy.”

Harding appointed a number of friends and acquaintances to federal positions and served competently, while some of Harding’s friends, who were dubbed the “Ohio Gang,” proved corrupt.
Most of the scandals that marred the reputation of Harding’s administration did not emerge until after his death. The most memorable of the scandals involved the U.S. Naval oil reserves at Tea Pot Dome in Wyoming. Teapot Dome was one of three reserves set aside for the use by the Navy in a national emergency. There was a longstanding argument that those reserves should be developed. Harding signed an executive order transferring the reserves from the Navy Department to the Department of Interior.

While the scandals did not fully emerge until after Harding’s death, his reputation in history was greatly damaged nonetheless.

Harding died of heart disease in San Francisco while on a western speaking tour; he was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, who would go on to be elected President in his own right after completing Harding’s term.