Brief account of a failed, scandal-ridden presidency, seen through the eyes of someone quite familiar with such things.
“Warren G. Harding is best known as America’s worst president,” admits Dean, himself best known as Richard Nixon’s former counsel and a reluctant star of the Watergate hearings 30 years ago. In this volume of the American Presidents series, however, the author professes something of an affective claim on Harding, if only because they share the hometown of Marion, Ohio. Laboring valiantly to prove that the man infamous for his largely posthumous connection to the Teapot Dome scandal of 1923 does not quite merit the worst-president epithet, Dean credits Harding, who was inaugurated in 1921, for being unusually forward-thinking in his views on civil rights and social welfare. He was also, Dean writes, a highly effective practical politician who had few personal enemies (except for his wife’s father, who in this account personifies everything bad about small-town capitalism) and valued consensus-building at all levels of government. The author credits Harding for braving unpopularity by taking a consistently conservative stand on fiscal matters, as when he risked damaging his career by refusing to pay a bonus to WWI veterans, though Dean overreaches by writing that this refusal “helped to usher in the booming economy of the roaring twenties.” Whatever his merits, Harding unwisely surrounded himself with self-serving counselors, among them a treasury secretary who brokered tax breaks for the wealthy, an interior secretary who enriched himself by selling off favors and titles from the public domain, and a veteran’s affairs administrator who looted his department’s budget. Although Harding served only 882 days in office before dying of a stroke, his relationship with those men and assorted other wrongdoers has served to tarnish his reputation ever since, even if, as Dean insists, none of the associated criminal investigations “implicated Warren Harding in any corrupt activity or wrongdoing.”
Unlikely to rehabilitate Harding by itself, but a useful view of the long-forgotten leader.