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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Worst U.S. President … Or Was He?

By Tom Morrow

He was a gambler, a hard drinker and a womanizer, but did that make him a bad President?

Warren Gamaliel Harding was the 29th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1921 until his death in 1923. At the time of his death, he was one of the most popular presidents, but the subsequent exposure of scandals that took place under his administration, such as Teapot Dome, eroded his popular regard, as did revelations of an affair by Nan Britton, one of his mistresses.

Because of those foibles, in historical rankings of the U.S. Presidents, Harding is often ranked among the worst … but was he?

Many historians have looked back at Harding and have determined one of his biggest problems was poor judgement in some of his appointments, especially trust in cronies, while other appointments were well-regarded.

Harding was born Nov. 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio. As an adult, he settled in Marion, Ohio when not yet 20 years old and bought The Marion Star, which he built it into a successful newspaper. In 1899, he was elected to the Ohio State Senate and, after four years there, successfully ran for lieutenant governor. He was defeated for governor in 1910, but was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914.

Harding ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1920, finally winning the nod after 10 ballots. He ran a “front-porch” campaign from his home in Marion and won in a landslide over Democrat James M. Cox and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs. He became the first sitting senator to be elected president.

Two members of his cabinet were implicated in corruption: Interior Secretary Albert Fall and Attorney General Harry Daugherty. The resulting scandals did not fully emerge until after Harding’s death, nor did word of his extramarital affairs, but both greatly damaged his reputation. Harding died Aug. 2, 1923, in San Francisco of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by heart disease. He was on a western speaking tour. Harding was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge

Like most politicians of his time, Harding accepted that patronage and graft would be used to repay political favors. He had his sister Mary (who was legally blind) appointed a teacher at the Ohio School for the Blind, although there were better-qualified candidates, and offered publicity in his newspaper in exchange for free railroad passes for himself and his family. According to one observer, “… it is doubtful Harding ever thought there was anything dishonest in accepting the perquisites of position or office. Patronage and favors seemed the normal reward for party service in those days.”

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover accompanied Harding on the Western trip and later wrote that Harding asked then what Hoover would do if he knew of some great scandal. Would he publicize it or bury it. Hoover replied Harding should publish and get credit for integrity, and asked for more information. When Hoover inquired as to (attorney general) Daugherty’s possible involvement, Harding refused to answer.

The scandal which has likely done the greatest damage to Harding’s reputation is Teapot Dome. The scandal involved an oil reserve in Wyoming which was one of three set aside for the use of the Navy in a national emergency. There was a long-standing argument that the reserves should be developed. When the Harding administration took office, Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall took up the argument and Harding signed an executive order in May 1921 transferring the reserves from the Navy Department to Interior, Subsequently, some of the oil found its way into private storage tanks as a result of underhanded dealings.

Like most of the administration’s scandals, Tea Pot Dome came to light after Harding’s death, and he was not aware of the illegal aspects.  As a result, Fall, Harding’s first Secretary of the Interior was the first former cabinet member sent to prison for crimes committed in office.

Harding wasn’t the only U.S. President to enjoy a game of poker, a shot of bourbon, and engage in extra-marital affairs. And, not all of his decisions went bad – his vice president, Calvin Coolidge and secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, both became presidents in their own right.


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