HNN Editor: This is an excerpt from John Dean's interview with the Daily Beast. Most of the interview covers Dean's new book on Watergate, but then there was this:
You wrote a book called Warren G. Harding. Is that a straight biography?
It was part of a series that Arthur Schlesinger did on the then 42 former presidents. I had known Arthur for years, and so I called him and said, “I’m not calling about Nixon, but what you are you going to do about Warren Harding?” He said, “I don’t have a clue. Are you interested?” I grew up in Warren Harding’s hometown in Marion, Ohio. He was in the sense my first president. My next-door neighbor was editor of the Marion Star, which Harding started and was the source of his modest but not insubstantial wealth. This editor gave me a couple of books on Harding when I was about 13, so he was my first president, if you will.
Over the years, as I told Arthur, I probably have every book that’s ever been written [on Harding], and there’s a lot of garbage out there. It’s one of those things where he has been tarred and feathered with Teapot Dome. From everything I can find, he’s not involved. Historians just refused to get into the basic facts. And I said, “Arthur, some of your friends, including you, have done really terrible jobs on him.” So he said, “You take it and run with it and see if you can turn me.” When I turned the manuscript in, I had turned him. He said, “You’ve convinced me. Just do me one favor: Just don’t beat up on all my friends. Save that for another book.” So I took some of that out.
“It’s clear why he’s making these bad decisions is that he just refuses to look at facts, refuses to inform himself with information readily available to him, and it pulls down his presidency.”
Meaning other historians?
Other historians who just clearly made no effort to look at Harding’s papers. I think oral history is terrible. When you get a source like actual documents from a presidency—the myth that all of Harding’s papers had been destroyed was just was not true. There was a substantial amount of them. Harding is something like an Eisenhower—very admired at the time of his presidency. When he dies in office, it was not unlike when Lincoln died. The nation was in mourning.
Did you know how to be a historian before you wrote that?
I would argue that lawyers are better historians than most historians. A legal training, I think, is much stronger for historical digging than the way most people come to it. They have critical thinking and research courses in undergraduate and graduate, but I just think the way historians handle evidence makes me suspect at times, whereas lawyers certainly know hearsay and are more analytical than some historians. There are great historians, no question, but someone with legal training can jump right into that field.