Warren Harding: Do We Need Him Today?
By: David Bozeman
Yes, that Warren Harding. November 2 marks the birthday of the historians’ perennial choice for the worst president ever. Tea Partiers are embracing the folksy, budget-cutting Calvin Coolidge, who assumed office upon Harding’s death in 1923, but only a few prominent conservatives have dared to try reviving the legacy of our 29th president, tainted forever with the stench of Teapot Dome and other scandals, along with all-night poker and sexual debauchery.
His reputation as a failure is so ingrained in our collective memory that a detailing and rebuttal of his supposedly sleazy tenure is clearly not possible in this tiny space. Suffice it to say, the scandalous dealings of his Interior and Veteran’s Affairs secretaries reflect his poor judgment, and his moral shortcomings are as emblematic of the 20s as flappers and bootleg gin. But the WORST president ever? Proof that the Harding name can’t get a break is that his wife Florence is generally considered the worst of all first ladies. In a just world, this strong, trail-blazing patriot (an advocate for veterans, she referred to them as her “boys”) would be extolled as a role model and forerunner of such activist presidential wives as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. But the die was cast shortly after the president’s death, and later generations accepted as gospel the proclamations of the historians.
Nonetheless, it was the economic policies of Warren Harding (that continued in the Coolidge administration) that averted economic collapse early in his term and launched the roaring 20s. His highly lauded appointments included Charles Evans Hughes at State , Andrew Mellon at Treasury and former president William Howard Taft as chief justice of the Supreme Court. His presidency established the first guidelines for detailing federal budgets, imposed limits on immigration, cut tax rates and supported equality for women and black Americans. Not bad for 29 months in office. He opposed Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and — here’s the ultimate sin — ran on a platform of “America First” and a “Return to Normalcy.”
The ever-affable Harding stood in stark contrast to his predecessor Wilson, perceived by the public to be intellectually effete and distant. The American people overwhelmingly sided with the Hardings over the reform-minded progressives of the day, and even now he is chided for, as a newspaper man, writing editorials full of ‘platitudes’ about God, country, home and mother. Author Margaret Truman, in naming Florence the worst first lady, chided her for (I hope you’re sitting down) scolding White House servants who lowered the shades to keep the public from gawking in. ” ‘Let ‘em look if they want to,’ Mrs. Harding said, ‘It’s their White House.’ ” Gasp!
Had it not been for Teapot Dome, Harding would have been remembered as another hayseed who conned voters with such bunk as ‘America First.’ At the time, the Hardings connected seamlessly with a nation weary from war and the emergence of worldwide socialism. The Hardings were business owners who had run a successful newspaper, thus his administration valued thrift and initiative along with unapologetic patriotism. His hard work and accomplishments are forgotten by history, while the good intentions of Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama win Nobel Prizes. His reputation is enjoying a slight revival, but the legacy of Warren Harding endures in the notion that while a president should be smarter than the average voter, he should draw from the moral fortitude and industriousness of the people, for it is from there that America’s greatness thrives for generations to come.