Friday, November 4, 2011

1920s: Presidents of the '20s--Harding

For my next assignment I decided to read consecutively the Times series biographies of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, treating them as one continuous Republican administration.

Up first is Warren Harding, longtime favorite of my father, who is a fan presidential history, because of all of the juicy tales of corruption and intrigue around his death. That is until he read this book.

Many of the authors in this series are fans or apologists for their subjects, as is the case with John Dean.  And I smile that they found a former member of the Nixon White House to write about the infamously corrupt Harding administration.  Throughout the book the author is making two basic arguments:

  1. Warren Harding's legacy has been unfairly, and incorrectly, tied to corruption.
  2. He was not one of the worst presidents in history, but in fact a very good one.

The case Dean makes against Harding being corrupt is actually very solid.  As scandals were breaking at the time he died a lot of colleagues and politicians had incentive to find a scapegoat and focus attention on him to protect themselves.  I had always learned that he was "one of the good old boys", but he actually was not a lifelong Washington politician, having only spent a few years in the Senate before his election.  So there was not a lot of deep relationships with people that would look to protect his legacy.  Also telling, is the media's lack of interest in truly investigating the stories of what happened.

It may have been independently published accounts that made the first or juiciest accusations of corruption, affairs, and even his being murdered by his wife.  While the major press and scholars may not have originated or spread these stories, they certainly did not look to correct the public record by the simple fact that his personal files sat untouched in a basement for forty years.

As for the case that his subject is an under-appreciated President, (the same argument most authors make in this series), Dean's argument is weaker.  At best, if you remove any stain from corrupt colleagues and assume Harding was innocent of any knowledge or involvement, you can say that his presidency was simply incomplete.  He did not live long enough to see a lot of his policies enacted.  His style of leadership in the Senate and campaign trail to "offend no one, make friends everywhere, bring together factions as the peacemaker" (p 52) didn't really translate to a strong leader in office.

At the end of the day, Harding was the transition from the Wilson years of Democratic control to the era of Republican leadership that contributed to the freewheeling 1920s, and eventually its later colossal collapse.   Along with Coolidge and Hoover I plan on reading other books on the decade of jazz, Prohibition, and economic growth built on margin.  I am curious to see how much these presidencies and their policies affected the changes in culture and an out of control economic engine.

Dean's book gets 3/5 stars for being a decent read and attempt at setting the record straight.

(Read October 2011)

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