Useful Notes: Warren Harding

"Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government, and at the same time do for it too little."

"I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they're the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!"
Warren G. Harding, who kept less than scrupulous company.

Warren Gamaliel Harding (November 2, 1865 — August 2, 1923) was elected as the 29th president (on his birthday!) with the widest popular vote margin in US history. He served from 1921 to 1923, after Woodrow Wilson and before Calvin Coolidge, and was the tenth Republican Party president. These days, he's considered one of the worst failures to hold the office.

Harding also had a tendency to mis-speak. His speech was nicknamed "Gamalielese" for the likes of this:

Many have argued people only voted for him because he "looked presidential". He emerged from a classic backroom deal at the 1920 Republican Convention (selected mainly because he had stayed out of the Taft/Roosevelt feud that split the party in 1912 and had thus not pissed off anybody) and then ran the first modern campaign.

Notable events in his presidency? Harding campaigned on a platform of "a return to normalcy", and so led the US back into an isolationist phase from which it wouldn't emerge until the later days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He set up what became the Department for Veterans' Affairs, created the Washington Naval Treaty limiting naval fleet sizes and appointed William Howard Taft as Chief Justice. Harding was especially infamous for how many of his appointees engaged in large-scale corruption.

The aforementioned scandals are what Harding's presidency is most remembered for today. Harding appointed many political friends to positions of power during his tenure as president. Known as the Ohio Gang, they pretty much carved up the nation's resources from underneath him, setting up a rather large number of scandals down the road, the most infamous of which was the Teapot Dome Scandal. Until Watergate, Teapot Dome was the most notorious political scandal in US history.

However, the Harding administration also did many things that could be considered positive. For example, the aforementioned Washington Naval Conference, which was hosted by the United States under Harding, was intended to stop another World War, especially as tensions between the US and UK were quite high in the early 1920s - it only failed when Japan later adopted imperial ambitions that couldn't be fettered by the treaty. (Though it is worth mentioning that Harding, inexperienced with foreign affairs, basically let his competent and honest Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes do whatever and promised to stay out of his way.) He was surprisingly progressive when it came to race relations, and wholeheartedly supported an anti-lynching bill which died in the Senate. He also did not start, or otherwise engage in any major armed conflicts, and helped secure Panama's independence through diplomatic means. The crash of 1920 was solved within the first year of Harding's administration, which then led to the "roaring 20s". Additionally, he was one of the few presidents in the past century to actually balance the federal budget, while managing to lower taxes—something routinely demanded by American voters but usually considered by realistic economists to be Unwinnable by Design. Also, he freed several political prisoners, including the outspoken socialist and anti-war activist Eugene V. Debs.

Harding was a heavy drinker, but agreed to stop drinking (at least in public) to provide an example to all the Americans who were happily ignoring Prohibition. (It didn't work.)

According to one account, Harding himself once lamented that he was unfit to hold office.

In July 1923, while traveling through Canada after visiting Alaska, Harding developed food poisoning, then pneumonia, which then brought upon the stroke that killed him in San Francisco, California on August 2.

Due to his administration's corruption, Harding is often a front runner on many "worst presidents in American history" lists, although he wasn't corrupt himself, just a bad judge of character in way over his head.

He's also the guy who coined the term "Founding Father." He used it during an address he gave in the Republican National Convention of 1916, and popularized its usage during his inaugural address. The Lincoln Memorial was commissioned during Harding's presidency, with Honest Abe's son Robert in attendance.

Tropes applicable to him are:

  • The Alcoholic: He was a heavy drinker and continued to be one even after the enaction of Prohibition, a policy that he supported in public but ignored behind closed doors.
  • Black Widow: Rumors persist that he was poisoned by his wife for his many affairs.
  • Crowning Moment of Awesome: The first director of the Veteran's Bureau, Charles Forbes, was hand-selected by Harding. During his tenure, Forbes sold off pretty much everything that wasn't nailed down, including much-needed hospital supplies for wounded veterans. Harding ordered him to cut it out, but Forbes ignored him. When he found out, the six-foot-tall President lifted Forbes by his neck and throttled him until help arrived.
  • Da Editor: Took control of the ailing Marion Daily Star in the 1880's. He retained ownership all the way up to the last leg of his Presidency.
  • The Gambler: He hosted weekly poker games with Cabinet members and friends, where high stakes games were played and (illegal) alcohol was freely served. On one occasion, Harding wagered a priceless set of historic White House china from the early 19th century and lost.
    • An anecdotal account of Harding has him saying, "We drew to a pair of deuces, and filled," regarding his lucky nomination. (That is assuming he actually said it.) The "deuces" were Gen. Leonard Wood and Hiram Johnson, who ended up canceling each other out due to Republican deadlock.
  • Gentle Giant: A more unfortunate example than most. Despite his impressive appearance, Harding wasn't particularly sharp and hated hurting people's feelings, both of which made it that much easier for nest-featherers to take advantage of him. Though if you went too far, as Charles Forbes did, he was a sight to behold.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: As the title quote clarifies, Harding's friends were less than noble, which is pretty bad since he appointed several of them to positions of high-power.
  • Malaproper: He was well-known for mispronouncing words, often inventing new ones through his errors, most famously the term "normalcy" to refer to "normality". He's not the only president famous for doing this, though.
  • Mediation Backfire: Attempted to avoid another war with the Washington Naval Conference; not only did it ultimately fail to do that, it ticked off the Italians (which probably helped lead them to turning towards fascism) and actually helped Japan secure its grip on Asia by ensuring that they would be the main naval power in the East.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Red to Calvin Coolidge's Blue.
  • Ridiculously Average Guy: For a president, aside from looking like one, he's actually pretty undistinguished, a fact even he admitted.
  • Self-Deprecation: Realistic version. He once lamented he was unfit to actually be the President.

In fiction

  • In the novel Carter Beats The Devil, Harding's death occurs shortly after seeing the titular magician perform, which gets Carter investigated by the Secret Service. The ending reveals that Carter helped Harding fake his death, and the former president retires to a retreat for Carter's similarly-retired performing animals.
  • In America (The Book), a segment written by Stephen Colbert states that he was the worst President. Colbert writes that the reasons for this are well-documented, so he just proceeds to insult him.
    • On a later episode of The Colbert Report, in response to Barack Obama bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia (and George W. Bush holding his hand as they walked),note  Colbert lamented that Presidents didn't use to respect foreign leaders — as evidenced by a photo of Harding giving the former king a noogie.
    • On another episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert, talking about Wikipedia, said that the "G." stood, in fact, for "Gangsta". And for a while, Wikipedia said so.
  • In the Civilization series, "Warren G. Harding" is the third worst score ranking you can achieve (the second and first being Ethelred the Unready and Dan Quayle respectively). And who is listed immediately above Harding? Nero.
  • A small role in Boardwalk Empire. His mistress, Nan Britton has a fair bit of screentime as well.
  • In Gore Vidal's novel Hollywood, it's hinted that Harding is either Born Lucky or Obfuscating Stupidity much of the time. Once elected, he reveals himself to much more devious than anybody in Washington had suspected.
  • He is the subject of an Al Stewart song.
  • Harding appears indirectly in Downton Abbey: Cora's brother Harold Levinson ends up as one of the more minor players in Teapot Dome. Finding himself under investigation, Harold's lawyers seem to think that having an English earl vouch for him would help his case, and Lord Grantham is called over to America to testify before Congress to bail his brother-in-law out (intending to portray him as an honest dupe rather than a corrupt mastermind). A few characters (particularly the Dowager Countess) also comment on the weird name of the scandal.

Alternative Title(s):

Warren G Harding