Few presidents have been judged harsher by history and historians than Warren G. Harding, who died in office on this week in 1923, on Aug. 2, from what doctors now speculate was congestive heart failure. Some presidential reviews rank him the second-worst president in American history, after James Buchanan; and it seems the best anyone can say about him is that he was an amiable featherweight.
One characteristic that may have contributed to so much derision was Harding's public-speaking style, which even he admitted was windy and hyper-alliterative ("bloviating," he called it). But while audiences loved his orotund flourishes, sneering commentators ridiculed his bombast.
Another quality in Harding's debit column was his eagerness to please, deemed by detractors as a character deficiency.
But the bitterest blow to his legacy was the notorious Teapot Dome scandal, which ensnared several appointees, including a cabinet officer, who leased government-held oil reserves at knockdown prices to wealthy cronies in exchange for kickbacks. Harding, who was never personally implicated, once famously groaned, "It's not my enemies . . . it's my damn friends who keep me walking the floor nights!"
Yet the cartoon character that Harding-despisers have drawn for almost a century is one-dimensional and largely inaccurate. Certain recent historians who have actually bothered to examine in detail the papers of President Harding, as well as other contemporaneous materials, have concluded that our 29th president has gotten a bum rap; yet according to one, Robert K. Murray, "myths still command more attention than reality."
A native of Marion, Ohio, the young Warren G. Harding bought the failing Marion Daily Star and turned it into one of the most successful newspapers in the state. Following a stint in the Ohio State Senate, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914, serving until his election to the presidency in 1920.
While pseudo-histories assert that Harding was plucked, trembling and befuddled, by cigar-chomping king-makers at the 1920 Republican Presidential Convention, the truth is that he was actively, even assertively, engaged in his own nomination; and his efforts paid off in an unprecedented popular landslide victory over his Democratic opponent, James Cox.
Seeking "the best minds in the United States," the president-elect's first task was to assemble a cabinet that, indeed, included some of the most distinguished men of the time: there was Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes as secretary of state; former head of the U.S. Food Administration, Herbert Hoover, as commerce secretary; and financier Andrew Mellon as treasury secretary. Less felicitous appointments were Harry Daugherty as attorney general and Albert Fall as interior secretary - the latter subsequently enmeshed in the Teapot Dome imbroglio.
In the brief two years of his presidency, Warren G. Harding's domestic and international accomplishments were impressive - and should have earned him at least a B-. Domestically he established the first Bureau of the Budget; spurred the post-World War I economic recovery; significantly reduced unemployment and the deficit; and aided the struggling farm economy - among other achievements.
In foreign policy, the president and Congress formally ended hostilities with Germany and Austria; and, perhaps most notably, Harding called together the international Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22, which concluded in the most significant global arms-reduction compact until the nuclear nonproliferation treaties of later decades.
In other areas, Harding pushed for social welfare programs, diffused labor disputes, signed the first comprehensive Federal Highway Act, appointed African Americans to civil service posts, and promoted anti-lynching legislation.
Despite ominous signs of heart disease early in 1923, the president soldiered on through the myriad duties of his office. His illness caught up with him on a pre-campaign trip to the Far West in June, and he died of an apparent heart attack in San Francisco. The outpouring of national grief was stupendous. As they mourned, Americans gratefully remembered how he had guided the country to recovery and prosperity after the Great War. Then the Teapot Dome fiasco - again, in which Harding was never incriminated - exploded and his reputation was shattered.
But let us not forget the scandals that plagued the administrations of more highly esteemed presidents. To name a few: Truman had Alger Hiss; Eisenhower had Sherman Adams; Lyndon Johnson had Bobby Baker; Reagan had Elliott Abrams (among others); Clinton had himself.
Had Warren G. Harding lived, he assuredly would have been re-elected in 1924. Beyond that, it is foolish to speculate how history might have changed - let us leave it that he was a not-so-bad president. Unlike many public personages, he knew his own limitations; and yet, venerating the office of the presidency as he did, he gave his best efforts, even his life, to the task. It's time to debunk the phony legends.
Anne Carr Bingham lives in Salem.