Georgia will be implementing new standards in social studies soon. One of the new standards requires students to name positive character traits of key historic figures and government leaders (honesty, patriotism, courage, trustworthiness).
While doing some research this week on Warren G. Harding I raised a question for myself. Can teachers, especially at the elementary level teach anything positive about Harding?
Hmmmm….let’s look at the facts.
Harding had at least two verified mistresses. He met with one in the Oval office and was alleged to have a child with her.
During Harding’s presidency he kept the White House stocked with bootleg whiskey even though Prohibition was in effect. Harding and his cronies spent a lot of time in the White House playing poker where he once gambled away the White House china.
As a member of the U.S. House and later as a Senator he missed more votes than he showed up for. He introduced no legislation of any real merit during his tenure in office.
His speeches contained so many phrases and incomplete thoughts that William Gibbs McAdoo called them, “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Ouch! It would seem that Harding’s main goal was to keep his thoughts so murky with alliterative generalities that he never actually took a clear stand on any issue. H.L. Mencken thought Harding’s English was the worst he had ever heard. He called it Gamalielese in reference to Harding’s middle name, Gamaliel.
Harding was not the first choice for his party’s nomination. The two candidates that were favored most deadlocked in a tie at the 1920 Republican convention. He was chosen because he was a fairly good looking man and party bosses could easily control him.
The electorate voted awarding him with 60% of the popular vote. Many said they voted for him simply because he looked like a president while others elected him due to a postwar reaction to Woodrow Wilson’s international policies. Some historians actually blame Harding’s election on women voters who had the vote nationwide for the first time. Harding was actually surprised to find himself president. He remarked, “I’m not fit for this office.”
His leadership style was one of sitting back and letting his cabinet set policy. He wanted to be liked more than he wanted to lead (americanpresident.org). This was fatal to Harding in more than one way.
Many members of Harding’s administration were crooks plain and simple. Charles Cramer sold surplus war goods and took drugs from veteran’s hospitals to sell privately to drug dealers. Albert Fall, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, sold oil reserves for personal profit in a scandal we remember as the Teapot Dome Scandal. As the series of scandals became known to Washington insiders, Herbert Hoover, Harding’s Secretary of Commerce, urged the President to tell the American people what was going on. Harding was fearful, however. He was clearly troubled by his band of thieves as he remarked, “I have no trouble with my enemies. [It’s] my…friends… that keep me walking the floor at night.”
A higher tariff was established during Harding’s administration and immigration was drastically cut with the Immigration Quota Act of 1921. Harding also refused to allow the United States to join the League of Nations which had been Wilson’s offering for world peace at the end of World War I.
There were some brighter highlights, however. The Five Power Naval Treaty was signed in 1922 which resulted in huge military cuts for the U.S., Britain, Japan and others. Wartime economic restrictions were lifted, taxes were cut, and the federal budget system was created. Harding was also the first president to speak out for Civil Rights while on southern soil. The eight hour day was finally established but it was signed into law eleven days after Harding’s death.
Harding passed away in 1923. Some say he died of complications of ptomaine poisoning…others say it was just a heart attack brought on by the stress of scandal. Some say he was murdered. We’ll never know because his wife denied requests for an autopsy. She also returned immediately to Washington D.C. and burned all of her husband’s private papers. When it became known that Carrie Phillip’s, one of Harding’s mistresses, had a series of letters between herself and the President, they were confiscated through the courts by the Harding family. These letters have been held under protective order and won’t be released until the year 2024. That should be interesting…