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warren g. harding

19 october 2008

John Dean, a major figure in Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, happens to hail from Marion, Ohio, home of the other great scandal-afflicted President of the 20th century, Warren Harding. Over the years, Dean has become quite a Harding buff, but more than that he has become a Harding admirer. In his study for the Times Books American Presidents series, Dean tries to recuperate Harding from the almost unanimously negative verdict that historians have pronounced on the 29th President.

Harding had the disadvantage, during his brief Presidency, to follow three intellectual heavyweights. Theodore Roosevelt was a polymathic historian and man of letters; William Howard Taft was a legal scholar who would eventually become Chief Justice of the United States; Woodrow Wilson was an eminent historian and political scientist who set out to draft a legal code for a global society. Warren Harding was a small-city newspaperman who seemed to have walked out of the pages of a Sinclair Lewis novel. After several decades during which pundits had no opportunity to inflict intellectual scorn on their President, 1921 marked the beginning of an open season of contempt that would persist long after Harding's premature death. We remember Harding not just as condoning corruption, but (all the worse, especially for literary types and academic historians) as doing so without a serious thought in his head. John Dean finds that reputation unfair.

Harding has long been type-cast as "the available man," a cheerful dunce who sat around in the smoke-filled back rooms of the 1920 Republican Convention till all the other candidates exhausted themselves in unelectability. Dean shows that, by contrast, Harding carefully positioned himself for years before the smoke-filled convention to become everybody's second choice. Moving back and forth between Columbus power centers and his newspaper in nearby Marion, Harding had made himself indispensable to the crucial Republican organization in the state of Ohio. As a one-term Senator, he found his voice on foreign affairs as an opponent of the League of Nations, while maintaining a position somewhat to the left of his party's extreme isolationists. He was available not because he was a nullity, but because he stood, whether by principle or by strategy, in the center of his party's ideologies.

That center was very far to the right of the progressive Wilson and the increasingly leftist Roosevelt. But Roosevelt died in 1919, and Wilson was too incapacitated to seek renomination in 1920. American presidential politics was a wide-open field, and the public, however goofy this may seem today, hankered after "normalcy," Harding's buzzword for the business-as-usual that hadn't existed in American public life since the Harrison Administration, if indeed it ever had really existed. The United States had become a vast world power somewhat in spite of itself, and both public and politicians were having second thoughts about that development.

But Harding, as Dean points out, was no William Borah; the President didn't share the isolationist sentiments of the powerful right wing of his own party. As President, Harding hosted an important arms-reduction conference in Washington, meant to throw a blanket over the escalating dreadnought-building by the U.S., the U.K., and Japan that threatened the security of two oceans. It wasn't exactly the Fourteen Points, but it wasn't head-in-the-sand behavior either. Harding may not have been an internationalist on the scale of TR or WW, but he was no America-first parochial Babbitt either.

Harding made some truly bad appointments to high office, including corrupt cabinet members Albert Fall (Interior) and Harry Daugherty (Justice). Their misdeeds would surface after Harding's death, leaving him both looking like an idiot and powerless to do anything to remove that impression. But unlike Nixon (as Dean well knows), Harding was not personally corrupt. Dean argues that the immediate reaction to Harding's death – an outpouring of love and grief from the American public – should be given its hearing, just as much as the verdict of satirists and left-leaning historians. At the very least, Dean pays attention to things that Harding actually did, more than to what H.L. Mencken said about him. And that's a refreshing turn in the history of the American Presidency.

Dean, John W. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books, 2004.