Our interest in Harding hardly stems from his short, lackluster, administration, but rather from our interest in scandal. Harding is usually ranked amongst the worst to occupy the White House because of the scandals associated with him and his administration. The Harding scandals fall into two broad categories, both of which resonate today. They include (1) personal scandals involving his private life and marriage and (2) administrative corruption involving oil, money, and politics. These, in turn, offer insight into 2008 presidential politics. As so often seems to be the case in today’s celebrity-style politics of personality (of which Harding was a pioneer), a sex scandal serves as a gateway for other scandals and issues. Harding’s reputation illustrates this point and that is why journalist and pundits look to him to help explain current politics.
As a general rule, when people write about Harding they begin with his infidelities. Nan Britton’s poorly-written and sappy book, The President’s Daughter (1927), was a shaping event in the evolution of the president-as-celebrity and a defining moment for Harding’s legacy. Britton, a blonde flapper thirty years younger than Harding, claimed to have had an affair and a child with Harding. The ensuing controversy pitted those who defended decency and a presidential right to privacy against the forces of the sexual revolution and modernity. Coming as it did amidst the other scandals, Britton’s story defined Harding’s reputation. The book was soon followed by a seemingly endless number of mostly unsubstantiated stories about his antics as president, including the false story that First Lady Florence Harding had murdered her husband.
The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, accompanied by the reemergence of politician Bill Clinton on the national stage, also speaks to the ghost of Warren Harding. There are the obvious comparisons between Clinton and Harding that appeared during the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky. That discussion included comparisons between the ambitious and business-like Florence Harding and Hillary Clinton. However, a less obvious reason for evoking Harding’s ghost is that Hillary Clinton is running a campaign not unlike Harding’s 1920 front porch campaign. It is a campaign of firsts in which race and gender (in significantly different ways) are important, echoing the importance of race and gender in 1920. Like Harding’s campaign, Hillary Clinton’s campaign evokes a nostalgia that seeks to reassure and woo voters disaffected by a president who sought to remake the world but whose foreign policy seems to have ended disastrously. Just as Harding stood on his front porch promising to be the new William McKinley evoking the good old days of the 1890s, Hillary Clinton is barnstorming the country promising to restore the good old days of the 1990s.
The lessons of Harding’s legacy reach across party lines. The New York Times recently reported that Republican presidential candidate and presumptive nominee John McCain may have had an improper relationship with an attractive female lobbyist, who, it always seems to be emphasized, was blonde and much younger than he. Predictably, McCain and his fellow conservatives countered by charging the Times with charges of liberal bias. Defenders of the paper and many commentators are noting that the real substance of the piece was the concerns raised about McCain’s relationship with lobbyists in general and not whether or not he was unfaithful with this particular lobbyist. Still, Harding’s reputation would suggest that it will not be a case of either/or, but that the public will link the two scandals. Historians might argue that scandals in the departments of Justice and Interior trump debates over which claim of infidelity holds water, but the twenty-something blonde flapper is a staple in Harding stories.
Scandals can take on iconic status, as can be seen in the attaching of the “gate” suffix to most scandals that have emerged since Watergate. The Harding legacy is not summed up by the debate over the validity of Britton’s claims, but also by the Teapot Dome scandal. William Grimes, in his review of Laton McCartney’s The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country (2008), wrote that “Scandals in Washington come and go, but Teapot Dome remains one of the real humdingers.” McCartney’s book is a link between the past and the present.
It should be no surprise that as the oilmen associated with the administration of George W. Bush leave office, pundits and journalists are turning their attention to the last administration so steeped in oil. Teapot Dome, in much the same way as “Watergate,” became a shorthand reference to summarize a complicated scandal involving government contracts, oil concessions, national security, conservation, and bribery. It involved some highly colorful characters: Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, and oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny. The connections between oil and politics are further highlighted by the success of the Oscar-winning movie There Will be Blood, which is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, a muckraking exposé of the oil business and its corruption of politics in the 1920s. It does not take much imagination to go from Sinclair Oil and Pan American Petroleum to Enron and Halliburton. Comparisons to Bush also seem apt given that Bush has appointed many of his political allies and friends to government positions. Harding did likewise, most notably Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior and Harry Daugherty as Attorney General. The end result was scandal.
Bizarrely enough, one Harding controversy has lost much of its status as a scandal. The 1920 campaign included an attempt to destroy Harding’s candidacy with the accusation that he had mixed ancestry, that Harding was, in fact, a black man passing for white. These rumors had been floating around Ohio for years only to be brought to national attention by the deeply racist William Estabrook Chancellor. Chancellor, a sociologist who believed in scientific racism and supported Woodrow Wilson, hoped to destroy Harding’s campaign by circulating fliers, pamphlets, and eventually a biography airing the charge. His attempt failed, and Harding refused to publicly address the charges. Chancellor’s claims became a mainstay of Harding biographies, such as Francis Russell’s The Shadow of Blooming Grove, the “shadow” being the rumors of “black blood.” In a weirdly ironic way, Chancellor’s dubious and racist claims have reemerged as a positive for Harding. Today, some African-Americans claim Harding as the first black president ignoring (or unaware of) the origins of the story. The campaign of Barack Obama, the first African American to have a serious chance at winning the Democratic Party’s nomination and the presidency, has brought the story back onto the national stage.
Since Watergate, it has been a truism of American politics that it is the cover up and not the act itself that leads to political downfall. This is not the case with the Harding scandals, which broke after his death. The Harding scandals became iconic without the Watergate-style cover up. The end result, as former Nixon aide John Dean has written, is that “Warren G. Harding is best known as America’s worst president.” The scandals that make Harding dead last in the historical rankings of presidents are also what draws us back to current comparisons with Harding and his legacy. However, we discover that politics, like history, is rarely simple and that even something as seemingly straightforward as the Harding scandals still offer new insights.