The Most Underrated President: Warren G. Harding–Not Just Another Pretty Face and Eloquent Speaker


By: Brooks A. Mick

Despite all the left-wing chanting about “Bush is the worst president of all time” and modern-day conservatives’ giving the honor to Jimmy Carter, the judgment of academia, the ivory-tower political professors, has always been that Warren G. Harding was the worst of all time. Why this judgment has been so is somewhat cloudy, and it appears to be based more on various scandals that occurred during his presidency more than upon his actual performance.

In the early 1920s there occurred not only the well-known Teapot Dome scandal, but lesser scandals such as corruption at the Veteran’s Bureau and Justice Department, and the activities of his associates, dubbed the “Ohio Gang,” at the Little Green House on K Street and the Little House on H Street. (Payne, P., History News Network). Beyond that, there were personal scandals and rumors of scandals bringing to mind the various more well-known such as the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, the claims of paternity by Bill Clinton of Danny Williams, the current John Edwards-Rielle Hunter affair, and others. It was claimed, during Harding’s time, that Harding himself had Negro ancestry and that he had fathered a daughter with Nan Britton. Britton wrote an expose book that contained such racy details that it was banned for a time. More on this down page.

So indeed there swirled about Harding many scandals both personal and political. But what of his actual performance as president? Did it rate the harsh judgment of political professors? I submit not!

Glenn Beck has recently commented upon the severe recession of 1920. Indeed, it is referred to as the Depression of 1920-21 by Wikipedia. This severe deflationary depression resulted in a GDP decline of 6.9%, a wholesale price drop of 36.8% (worse than the Great Depression), and unemployment of 11.7%. The stock market declined approximately 47%. Those numbers are all much worse than our current economic situation.

So what actions did Harding and his administration take? Did they engage in massive deficit spending a la Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Did they hike taxes? Did they expand the size of government? Did they propose onerous regulation of banks and corporations? Did they begin class warfare attacks upon the rich? No, they did not. They cut the size of the federal government essentially in half, cut taxes, and streamlined regulations.

And unlike the current situation, the Depression of 1920-21 lasted–oh, let’s take a guess!–2 years! By 1923, the unemployment rate was 2.4%. This is, as near as I can determine, the lowest unemployment rate in the history of the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps rates from 1948 to the present, and the lowest listed there is 2.5% in May and June of 1953. Anything at 5% or less is currently considered the equivalent of full employment.

Thus the Depression of 1920-21, which Warren G. Harding “inherited,” was over in 2 years, the shortest recovery on record, and by 1923 the “Roaring Twenties” had begun in earnest. Surely Harding should get the credit for the policies which stopped this severe depression in its tracks and reversed it faster than any previous or subsequent economic downturn. Surely there are lessons there for the politicians of today, if only they had the wit and wisdom and historical background to appreciate the lessons of the past.

And just as surely, Warren G. Harding does not deserve to be labeled “the worst president in United States history.”

Personal asides: I got the second job of my life from Warren G. Harding III, listed sometimes on web sites as Harding’s son, other places as his grand-nephew. It is stated that Harding had no legitimate children in other sources. There is considerable evidence that Elizabeth Blaesing was his daughter out of wedlock and that her mother, variously called Nan Britton or Nan Blaesing, had an affair with Harding. Supposedly he had Secret Service agents deliver support payments. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!

In addition to his economic conservatism and sound principles of limited government, Harding refused to join or endorse the League of Nations and this body folded. Many today wish the United Nations would fold its tent and vanish as quickly. Harding understood the principles underlying the Constitution, as witness a speech he recorded for posterity, one of the first such recordings. The beginning text carries a lesson for today’s politicians also:

“My countrymen, the menacing tendency of the present day is not chargeable wholly to the unsettled and fevered conditions caused by the war. The manifest weakness in popular government lies in the temptation to appeal to grouped citizenship for political advantage. There is no greater peril. The Constitution contemplates no class and recognizes no group. It broadly includes all the people, with specific recognition for none, and the highest consecration we can make today is a committal of the Republican Party to that saving constitutionalism which contemplates all America as one people, and holds just government free from influence on the one hand and unmoved by intimidation on the other.”

Harding rightly decried group identities and class warfare as opposed to individualism and self-reliance.

One can read and listen to this and other Harding speeches at the following web site:

http://millercenter.org/academic/americanpresident/harding/speechexhibit/08

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