Warren G. Harding: Is One of Our Worst Presidents Really One of Our Best?

Warren G. Harding: Is One of Our Worst Presidents Really One of Our Best?
Warren G. Harding, a senator from Ohio, became president in 1921. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)
Dustin Bass
What does it take to be considered a successful president? According to the historians who vote in the most well-known presidential rankings list, C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey, it seems to be a mixed bag. Indeed, the rankings seem to have less to do with what a president did or didn’t do during their time, and more to do with how society views them now. One former president on the list, Warren G. Harding, has perpetually been at the bottom of the rankings, and according to historian Ryan Walters, the opposite should be true.
Walters, a history professor at Collin College in North Texas and the author of “The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding,” is one of the few historians who have come out in defense of the president who was the executive face of the Roaring ‘20s. He suggests the reason why so few come to Harding’s defense is because of the baggage that has followed him―baggage that, he claims, is steeped in more falsehoods than the truth.
“Not a lot has been written about him because the consensus opinion is that he’s a ‘failed president.’ He was considered corrupt, inept, and incompetent, and lazy, a partier, a womanizer. They say he was a terrible president and shouldn’t have been in office,” Walters said in an interview on The Sons of History podcast. But he quickly added, “When you look at his record, it just doesn’t reflect what historians have said about him.”

Addressing the Myths

In his book on the president who died exactly 100 years ago after only 882 days in office, he tackles numerous accusations that swirl about Harding’s administration. Walters stated that these accusations he identifies and addresses are either rumors or outright lies and fabrications of history created by journalists and historians.

One of those myths Walters addresses is one of the more famous scandals in White House history: the Teapot Dome Scandal. This scandal took place when Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased government-owned petroleum reserves to private companies at low rates without allowing for any competitive bidding. The scandal did indeed take place during Harding’s time in office, but the myth is that he allowed for it to happen. The tragic part about this scandal, in regards to Harding, is that he died shortly after receiving news about the scandal.

Harding had already addressed two previous scandals, one involving the Veterans Bureau and the other within the Department of Justice. In these instances, Harding addressed the scandals and those involved, which resulted in people being fired from their positions and some being sent to prison.

When Harding received news of the Teapot Dome Scandal, he was on a tour of the nation’s western seaboard. It is on record that Harding discussed with his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, later to become the 31st president, about exposing those involved in the scandal. Harding had planned to deal with them in the same way he had the previous scandals. Indeed, his approach to scandals proves very different from many other presidents.

“When you look at the real record of scandals and what he did and how he confronted people, and fired people, and people went to prison, it’s much different than [Richard] Nixon and others who covered them up or either say they’re not a scandal,” Walters said. “You remember [Barack] Obama saying, ‘There’s not been a smidgen of corruption in my administration.’ That’s true. It depends on how you define corruption. If you redefine it to not include anything you’ve done, then sure, every administration has no corruption.”

A Return to Normalcy

Scandals, unfortunately, are practically synonymous with government. It simply comes down to how an administration or agency leaders deal with them. It’s an unseemly normalcy. In regards to normalcy, Harding used the phrase “return to normalcy” as his 1920 campaign slogan.
In his “Return to Normalcy” speech, he stated that: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

America was in turmoil in the post-World War I era. There were race riots, terrorist attacks on Wall Street, crumbling diplomatic relations with Latin America, high taxes, massive government spending, a depression, and an outgoing president, Woodrow Wilson, who had been incapacitated for more than a year. Nothing seemed normal. After receiving 404 electoral votes and more than 60 percent of the popular vote, Harding was set to follow through on his promise.

“That was a perfect slogan,” Walters said. “People had had it with reforms, the war, Spanish Flu, and violence. They wanted to go back to a simpler time and that’s exactly what Harding did.”

Walters pointed out that the top tax rate was 70 percent and annual government spending had ballooned from less than $800 million before the war to $20 billion in 1919. By the time Harding entered into office, the spending was at $6 billion and he cut that amount in half in two years. Harding was a small government conservative who believed in the values of republicanism.

“The idea was to get the government out of everybody’s life,” Walters noted. “He said during the campaign that the world needs to be reminded that not every problem can be solved with legislation.”

A Laissez-Faire Approach

Harding’s economic program was laissez-faire. He cut taxes, government spending, and government regulations. What resulted from his economic program and that of his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, was an economic boom known as the Roaring ‘20s. Walters stated that historians attempt to place the blame for the Great Depression on the shoulders of Harding and Coolidge by suggesting their policies set the stage for the depression. But Walters said those claims do not hold water.

He noted that historians call the 12-year span of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover a Republican Era, but it was not. Hoover, whose selection to Harding’s cabinet went against the wishes of leading Republicans because of his progressivism, was aligned closer to the ideology of Franklin Roosevelt than Harding.

“Hoover comes in 1929 and the Depression hits in October of that year and what does he do? He starts throwing everything he had at it,” Walters said. “He was raising taxes, raising tariffs, doing all these things making the downturn worse. And then FDR picked up where he left off and went forward with progressive government policies and ground us into a terrible depression. Rexford Tugwell, who was part of FDR’s Brain Trust, admitted that they got a lot of the ideas for the New Deal from Hoover. So it’s customary to call it Hoover’s New Deal.”

Domestic and Foreign Relations

When it came to race relations in America, Harding proved to be who the country needed. The country had just experienced one of the most openly racist presidents in Wilson, who had purposely resegregated the federal government and pushed for a federal ban on interracial mixing within the limits of the nation’s capital. He had also infamously screened the film “The Birth of a Nation,” which was a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan.

“That’s the kind of guy Harding followed,” Walters said. “Black people began to move from the South into the North, and people may think they were well received, but that was not the case. In 1919, you get the Red Summer, and it was called that because of the amount of blood spilled―black blood. There were dozens of lynchings in the summer of 1919. Harding came in and tried to correct some of that. He called for a civil rights law and a federal law to ban lynchings.”

After attaining the unprecedented 60 percent popular vote, Harding made the unprecedented decision to give the commencement address to a historically black university, Lincoln University, and to shake hands with all 400 graduating students. Harding gave this address only three days after the Tulsa Race Riot, and he did not avoid addressing that tragic event.

Shortly after the commencement address, Harding visited the heart of the Old Confederacy in Birmingham, Alabama to speak to an obviously segregated audience and urge them to treat blacks equally. Walters said Harding promoted the pursuit of equality for blacks within politics, voting rights, economic opportunities, and educational opportunities during his talk.

“Think about the courage it took to do that,” he said. “Nobody did that. He used the Bully Pulpit to do that.”

Harding was on the move to mend domestic and foreign relations that had been nearly obliterated since the turn of the 20th century. The relations with Latin American countries were suffering for several reasons: the creation of the Panama Canal and the war with Mexican revolutionary, Francisco “Pancho” Villa. The new president of Mexico, Álvaro Obregón considered Wilson “a most terrible enemy” and noted Harding’s inauguration as “a day of deliverance.” Mexico had been undergoing the turmoil of revolution and was now seeking national recognition by the American government. Harding proved no pushover, however, and left the diplomatic discussions to his State Department. After the Department proved incapable of resolving the issues during his first two years in office, and after acknowledging the public’s concern to end the controversy between the two countries, Harding took charge. Although he died shortly before concessions were made, it was Harding’s decision to establish the Bucareli Conference, which allowed for all the issues to be aired and a resolution to be achieved.

Government Weaponization

Lastly, Walters noted that he finds it very strange that Wilson and Roosevelt receive such high marks (Wilson was considered the sixth best president in 2000, but has fallen to 13th, while FDR currently sits in third) while Harding suffers so greatly in the rankings (currently 37th), despite the former two weaponizing the government against citizens.

“Wilson threw people in jail just because they opposed his war in Europe. FDR routinely used the IRS as a weapon. He used illegal wiretaps on people. He threw over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. But let’s rank him third,” Walters stated. “But Harding, who pardoned political prisoners and let them out of jail even though he didn’t agree with them, like Eugene Debs, let’s put him down on the list. He’s a ‘failed president.’ It makes no sense to anyone with common sense.”

Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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