In surveys of historians on the performance of presidents, Warren Harding universally ranks last among the twentieth century’s chief executives. Think about that for a second. He ranks lower than Herbert Hoover, who’s handling of the first four years of the Great Depression likely prolonged it to the point where 20% unemployment was considered a recovery. He ranks lower than Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was doomed by the fallout from Watergate, stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis. He ranks lower even than Richard Nixon, whose paranoid antics wrecked trust in the government for the next three generations. Why?
Two reasons: He spent most of his time in office getting laid, and he had the single most corrupt cabinet in US history. His attorney general, Harry Daugherty, makes Alberto Gonzalez look like Perry Mason. The former never stopped JFK or Bill Clinton from accomplishing great things, but Harding spent an inordinate about of time boffing two or three mistresses (not to mention various one-night stands he was able to arrange). But then he could still be a hands-off president. It worked for Reagan. Oh, wait. Reagan didn’t spend the 1980’s using an intern’s firm little butt to polish the Oval Office desk. He was busy negotiating the end of the Cold War with Gorbachev.
No, Harding was really hands off, letting his Ohio Gang pretty much run the country. And the Ohio Gang was busy selling off pieces of the nation to the highest bidder and lining their pockets with the proceeds. In fact, Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, helped engineer the Ohio senator’s nomination by cutting deals with Senator Albert Fall, a former prospector and oil speculator, and Jake Hamon, another oil man who craved the position of Secretary of Interior. Harding got elected, but Hamon was killed by his mistress before Harding’s inauguration. So Harding tapped Fall instead. And Fall proceeded to illegally sell off three naval oil fields to three different oil companies, including Sinclair Oil. As the Democratic Party (and eventually Harding’s own Republican Party) began calling for heads to roll, Harding quipped that it wasn’t his enemies he worried about. His friends were going to ruin him. He also once said “This f***ing job’s going to kill me.”
It did. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal, named for the odd-shaped national monument in Wyoming that sat in the midst of a rich oil field, put Harding under such stress that it killed him.
Which, of course, was the worst thing that could happen to the Teapot Dome conspirators. Harding’s death elevated Calvin Coolidge to the White House. Harding was a glad-handing yes man, easily duped and swayed. Coolidge was the governor of Massachusetts who handled the Boston police strike of 1919. The first thing Coolidge did was distance himself from the Teapot Domers. He had a country to run, which apparently hadn’t been done since stroke-ravaged Woodrow Wilson left office in 1921.
So what was the result? Daugherty and Fall eventually went to jail. Oil man Harry Sinclair did six months for contempt of the Senate. One conspirator was likely murdered. And Coolidge put the Bureau of Investigation, which Daugherty used as his private security force, on a tighter leash. This eventually led to its reorganization 12 years later as J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Several other oil figures faced multiple indictments, and two even died in a bizarre murder-suicide when faced with prison time.
Was it worse than Watergate? Watergate permanently shattered the nation’s confidence in its government. It also showed a very capable president whose contempt for his own citizenry led to his own destruction. Harding was simply a dupe. That we did not have a Civil War pending on his watch is all that saves him from being worse the James Buchanan. In short, he was a likeable patsy.