Murray Polner: Review of John W. Dean’s Warren G. Harding (Times)
No professional historian, Dean stands this received wisdom on its head. Harding, says Dean, was hardly the worst, a conclusion reached generally by two earlier Harding biographers, Andrew Sinclair in The Available Man (1965) and Robert K. Murray in
The Harding Era (1969), both of whom had access to Harding’s presidential papers, which were first opened to scholars in 1964.
This book is part of the splendid American Presidents series, under the general editorship of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a welcome addition to popular history. Choosing the unlikely Dean to write about Harding was hardly surprising given his background and his serious interest in Harding. Born in Marion, 0hio, Harding’s hometown, the young Dean delivered Harding’s daily newspaper, the Star, to his neighbors’ front steps. He later found out that Florence, Harding’s wife, was the great grandmother of childhood friends. The result is a lucid and worthy short work about the president who died suddenly at age 58 while on a western vacation and left a trail of bad press in his wake.
Criticism of Harding’s brief presidency has run the gamut from Francis Russell’s The Shadow of Blooming Grove (1968) to Nan Britton’s notorious The President’s Daughter (1927) where she probably falsely accused Harding of fathering her child but allowed his critics to slander his lack of moral fiber. Newspapers dismissed him as “weak and colorless and mediocre,” a man who “never had an original idea,” a charge that can easily and justly be leveled against many of our presidents, including more recent inhabitants of the White House. He was neither brilliant nor memorable, but more than his critics allowed.
Unlike Woodrow Wilson, a racial bigot, 0hio-born Harding was more favorably disposed to racial equality than virtually all his predecessors. He spoke of political equality for the all races. In what Dean describes as his “most daring and controversial speech of [his] political career” in which he spoke of economic and political justice for black Americans, Harding stood before a white audience in Birmingham, Alabama on 0ctober 26, 1921, and told a shocked and furious audience, “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie you must stand for that equality.”
He also freed the most famous of Wilson’s political prisoners, the jailed Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who was punished for opposing the draft and a war he believed was being fought for imperial reasons. Super patriotic Americans, from the American Legion to the New York Times, including his wife, were appalled, but Harding courageously decided to honor the First Amendment and allow Debs to leave Atlanta Penitentiary. Soon after, he and Charles Evans Hughes, his secretary of state, convened the Washington Disarmament Conference to deal with naval disarmament and the Far East. And while he opposed U.S. entry into the League of Nations, he urged the country to join the World Court but by then the country had become far too isolationist to consider so drastic a move.
There were of course many blunders. His appointees to the Supreme Court, including William H. Taft, ‘did little for civil rights.” Dean too easily accepts the rationale for Harding’s veto of the World War I veteran’s bonus bill, which was opposed by conservative business interests. It proved to be a body blow to veterans and led to the tragic denouement in 1932 when the U.S. Army, under Douglas MacArthur, was ordered by President Hoover to roust the “Bonus Army,” which had decamped in Washington demanding what had once been promised them. And above all, Dean lets him off too easily for the scandals that became public after his death. The crooks and scoundrels were too often his trusted pals and as the man at the top he certainly bears some of the ultimate responsibility. As a result his unfinished presidency has been badly stigmatized.
In the end, however, Dean’s judgment is reasonable enough: Harding’s brief presidency has been misinterpreted essentially because professional historians have largely ignored him. He is by no means our worst president. There are several others who can claim that dubious title.
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