What the Heck Did Warren Harding Do?

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Man, that’s a good question, and there are different answers, depending on what we’re after. Are we talking about what he did to win the presidency? His legislative achievements while in office? Or are we asking what he did to deserve his reputation as the worst president in American history?

Yeah, it’s probably that last one. Even here, there’s no one answer. See, Warren Harding, America’s 29th president who served from 1921 to 1923, was arguably our sh*ttiest president for a bunch of reasons ranging from corruption to weird sex stuff. Perhaps most egregious of all: his own ineptitude. Harding was, ultimately, a rube who “looked like” a statesman—a man who dressed not for the job he had, but for the job his crooked friends wanted him to have.

A History of “Meh”

Harding had the archetypal American upbringing: he was born on a farm in Ohio in 1865, went to a one-room schoolhouse for his early education, and to college when he was 14, which was apparently normal back then. At Ohio Central College, he edited his campus newspaper and developed a keen voice for public speaking.

After he got all his schooling, Harding tried a few other jobs, teaching in a country school and selling insurance. But his career turn would come shortly after, when he and a couple of his buds pooled their money and bought the Marion Daily Star—a dying newspaper, back when newspapers weren’t all dying.

According to my sources, Warren Harding was “attractive.”

Harding controlled the paper, but he wasn’t any kind of entrepreneurial genius. The Marion Daily Star struggled for a while, but eventually Harding’s better qualities helped right the ship—the guy was good-natured, had a strong sense of community, and he had those public speaking and editorial skills he’d learned in his youth.

Harding was a person of limited talents, though (aren’t we all?), so the newspaper didn’t prosper until he married Florence Kling de Wolfe. She was a divorcée with financial resources and had a far better eye for business than Harding ever did.

Now, I’m not trying to dump on Warren Harding here. The guy tried his best and, lack of business acumen aside, he seems to have had a good heart. He avoided publishing stories criticizing people, and when the Marion Daily Star turned a profit, he shared it with his employees.

Harding was a likable guy—you don’t get to be president without convincing some folks to like you—but he was no visionary. Maybe, if it was up to him, he would have spent the rest of his life as a nice-guy newspaper owner, schmoozing it with the local business community, and counting on his wife to figure out the particulars of actually turning a profit and growing the business while he did poker night with the guys.

But it wasn’t up to him. Florence had other ideas. For some reason, she urged Harding to get into politics. I suppose it’s possible she really believed in her husband and thought he could do a lot of good for the state of Ohio. More likely, I think, she knew her husband was a smooth talker and made fast friends, and figured he could make it far in politics based on those qualities alone.

Florence Harding. If Warren was the pretty face, then Florence was the brains in the relationship.

As always, Florence was right. Harding got a seat in the Ohio legislature on the back of his stately voice, and his unwavering conservatism and quid pro quo arrangements with city bosses helped him climb the ladder. In 1903, he became a lieutenant governor before getting back into the newspaper business.

He later jumped back into politics, eventually becoming a senator. His voting record while a senator, however, was dog sh*t: the dude missed two-thirds of the votes during his tenure. It’s not that he didn’t have political convictions—he was a staunch conservative—he just didn’t actually do anything about them. He even skipped the vote on women’s suffrage, which he claimed to strongly support.1

Harding’s Presidential Bid: “A Return to Normalcy [sic]”

Look, it’s no surprise to anyone who pays attention that you can both be a senator and not work too hard. Missing legislative votes? Hey, who doesn’t do that in Congress, right? Portraying oneself as a person of convictions, but then not following through on the actual work required to make things happen? A tale as old as time itself.

But most bullsh*t senators with weak voting records don’t become president. I’m not saying you have to be a great legislator to be president, of course. But you typically need to have some kind of vision, and a level of self-confidence and belief that borders on delusion.

Warren Harding, meanwhile, strikes me as an affable guy who had some opinions about stuff and knew how to talk, but generally just did what he was told to do by the people around him. He was a good pick to play a president in a movie, but he wasn’t the real deal.

None of that mattered, though. Perception isn’t reality, but it’s often more important than reality. So, in 1920, a friend of Harding’s started promoting Warren for the Republican presidential nomination. That man, Harry Daugherty, had political sway, and his favorite thing about Warren Harding was that he “looked like a president.”

Here’s another picture of Warren Harding, circa 1921—wait, no, sorry.
That’s Sam the Eagle, from the Muppets.

I know that sounds insane, but we still do it every four years. Whether or not a candidate “looks like a president” or is otherwise “presidential” is consistently within, like, the top five things we talk about during each campaign season. So it shouldn’t feel too alien to modern minds that Harding was favored for his all-American upbringing, his name recognition, his “stately” appearance, his having the “right” stance on all the issues. We call these things “optics” now, to make it sound like a science, but it’s the same thing.

Those optics proved good enough for the Republican leaders. After some deadlocking at the convention, Harding won the presidential nomination, with Calvin Coolidge as his running mate.

The Harding campaign followed a solid game plan: keep things vague. His campaign slogan was “Return to Normalcy.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, broadly it meant returning the United States to the way things were before World War I, and rolling back Woodrow Wilson’s progressive efforts as the 28th president.

More specifically, it didn’t mean anything. It was an appeal to voters’ nostalgia, promising that they could go back to the old days, before the Great War. It was a weak campaign platform better served by lofty promises and platitudes—which Harding excelled at delivering—than by specifics. And it worked, damn it: Harding easily won the election—despite having a slogan that was grammatically incorrect (“normalcy” was a mathematics term; Harding should have used “normality”).2

Harding was so vague that he received support from both sides of the debate over the United States’ entry into the League of Nations. It was the biggest issue at the time, yet Harding was amorphous enough in his language that both sides on the issue claimed him as their ally.5

Little Jerry Harding

Here’s where we get to Jerry Harding. “Who’s that?” you ask. “Did Warren and Florence Harding have a son?” No, no they did not.

See, Jerry was the name of Warren Harding’s d*ck. Who named it that? Why, Warren Harding, 29th president of the United States, of course.

I was going to put a photo of Jerry Harding here, but then I thought better of it. Here’s a photo of Warren Harding throwing a baseball, instead.

Also, I want to be clear: Warren and Florence never had children, but Warren did. There’d been rumors of Harding’s extramarital affairs while he was still alive, but after his death everything became public. Harding had a slew of lovers. One of them, Nan Britton, claimed in her 1927 book that Harding had fathered her daughter. With no way to prove it, Britton suffered character assassination, and her whole family was publicly vilified for the claim. It led to a century-long feud between the Hardings and Brittons, until genetic testing in 2015 proved that Harding was, indeed, the father of Britton’s daughter.6

Then there’s Carrie Fulton Phillips, one of Harding’s mistresses while he was an Ohio statesman. She was Jerry’s muse, if you will. Harding wrote loads of super embarrassing, meant-for-private sex letters to Phillips that were all published for mass consumption back in 2014. You can find them online, if you like, but here’s one to whet your appetite:

“Jerry—you recall Jerry . . .—came in while I was pondering your notes in glad reflection, and we talked about it. . . . He told me to say that you are the best and darlingest in the world, and if he could have but one wish, it would be to be held in your darling embrace and be thrilled by your pink lips that convey the surpassing rapture of human touch and the unspeakable joy of love’s surpassing embrace.”7

So, there’s that.

Harding’s Legacy: Are We Being Fair?

Warren Harding was a big boy, and he deserves criticism for allowing himself to be made president, despite his obvious shortcomings. But he was also a tragically self-aware figure, and I think he deserves a little credit for that.

Historians may not like Harding today, but he was a famously likable guy in the early 1900s. He was loved by men and women alike—particularly women, as he was apparently very handsome—and he had a weakness for people. His biggest problem, it seems, is that he trusted them too much. Harding once opined on the reason behind the corruption in his administration: “I have no trouble with my enemies . . . [it is my friends who] keep me walking the floor nights.”

Harding once said of himself, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” That’s not what you want to hear your president say, but I’ll give him this: he was more honest than most, if only in private.8

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Biography.com. (Accessed May 26, 2018). Warren G. Harding Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/warren-g-harding-9328336
  2. Biography.com. (Accessed May 26, 2018). Warren G. Harding Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/warren-g-harding-9328336
  3. Tolson, Jay. (2007, February 16). Worst Presidents: Warren Harding (1921-1923). Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/special-reports/the-worst-presidents/articles/2014/12/17/worst-presidents-warren-harding-1921-1923 3

    President Harding

    Running for president and winning is one thing—actually running the country is another. I’m going to burn through the loose particulars of the Harding administration’s agenda here so we can get to the good stuff.

    Like I mentioned before, the Harding White House was all about rolling back Woodrow Wilson’s progressive policies. Harding approved tax cuts on high-income folks, set protective tariffs to promote domestic goods, limited immigration, and removed spending controls that had been set up during the war. Harding also personally pushed hard for civil liberties and the rights of African Americans.

    Now that that’s out of the way, I know what you’re really looking for: what made Warren Harding such a sh*tty president?

    Corruption

    Harding was totally overwhelmed by his office, and would tell friends that he wasn’t up to the job. To help ease the burden, he appointed his supporters and delegated power. Sometimes this worked out: Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Department of Commerce head Herbert Hoover, and Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes put in some good work, and were effective statesmen.

    But then there was the “Ohio Gang”—a group of high-level appointees who were just there to pilfer the federal coffers. One famous example was the Teapot Dome Scandal, which you’ll kind of remember from grade school for having a silly name, and that’s it.

    The Teapot Dome Scandal boiled down to this:  Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was leasing oil fields in Wyoming to companies, in exchange for personal loans. He later earned the distinguished honor of being the first member of a presidential cabinet to do prison time.

    A cartoon from 1924 about the Teapot Dome Scandal,
    presumably from the New Yorker, because I don’t get it.

    Remember Harding’s old pal Harry Daugherty, who began the call for a Harding presidency? It looks like he was in it to get his beak wet, too. While serving as Harding’s attorney general, he was nearly impeached by Congress a few times, and indicted twice for defrauding the United States government.

    These things started adding up and, by 1923, Harding’s administration was gaining a reputation for corruption. Harding and his wife set out on a political tour to try and refute the rumors of corruption and fix his image. It didn’t go so well. On the way back from Alaska, Harding became sick. Things got worse and, soon after, Harding suffered either a heart attack or a stroke, and died immediately.

    After Harding’s death, the rumor mill kicked into full gear. When Florence Harding refused an autopsy, people speculated that she’d poisoned him to keep him from facing corruption charges. Did Florence kill Harding? That’s pretty doubtful, though, she may have wished she had once his private affairs spilled, posthumously, into public record.4 Biography.com. (Accessed May 26, 2018). Warren G. Harding Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/warren-g-harding-9328336

  4. Biography.com. (Accessed May 26, 2018). Warren G. Harding Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/warren-g-harding-9328336
  5. Cannon, Julia. (2014, July 8). Ancient US Presidential Sex Scandal Revealed. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/warren-harding-presidential-sex-scandal-2014-7
  6. Tolson, Jay. (2007, February 16). Worst Presidents: Warren Harding (1921-1923). Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/special-reports/the-worst-presidents/articles/2014/12/17/worst-presidents-warren-harding-1921-1923

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