warren harding was a perfect "booboisie" -- 12/26/17

Delanceyplace.com End of Year Selections: Terrible Presidents

Today's selection -- from Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean. When our 29th president, Warren Gamaliel Harding, died in office, voices rose up quickly to discredit him. His lack of accomplishments, coupled with the misdeeds of several of his appointees, assured a poor legacy:

"Not all journalists felt ... charitable toward Harding ... in death. For example, H. L. Mencken, who had long thought 'Gamaliel,' as he liked to call Harding, the perfect 'booboisie' one of those small-town and rural Americans who Mencken con­sidered stupid and gullible. In an unpublished appraisal written in the wake of Harding's death, and found in the morgue of the Bal­timore Sun, Mencken recorded his thoughts... :

'I can see no evidence ... that Mr. Harding was a great and consecrated man, loved this side of idolatry by the plain people and destined to go down into history in a pur­ple halo. The plain fact is that the plain people took little interest in him until he fell ill and died, and that even then their emotions were held very well in check, and seemed to be far more polite than poignant. And the plain fact is that he leaves behind him a career so horribly bare of achieve­ment, and also so bare of intelligible effort, that the histori­ans will have to labor, indeed, to make him more than a name. What did he accomplish in life? He became Presi­dent. What else? I can think of absolutely nothing, save the one thing that he gave English, a new barbarism. He was, from first to last, an obscure man, even as President. No salient piece of legislation bears his name. He led no great national movement. He solved no great public problem. He said nothing arresting and memorable. A kindly and charm­ing man, honestly eager for popularity, he lacked the quali­ties which awaken the devotion of multitudes.'

"[Then,] within a few months of Harding's death, the now-infamous Teapot Dome scandal erupted and Harding's fall began. Teapot Dome is the name of an oil field in Salt Creek, Wyoming, so named because of a teapot-shaped rock formation that stands atop a sub­terranean geological dome that contains oil. The catchy and unfor­gettable name Teapot Dome (like Watergate a half century later) became an identifying label for a scandal associated with the leasing of this Wyoming oil field, along with others in California. In 1912, President Taft had made these oil fields part of the federal govern­ment's oil reserves. ... After Harding assumed office and in response to his requests to all his cabinet for recommendations to improve the operations of government, Navy Secretary Edwin Denby, joined by Interior Sec­retary Albert Fall, recommended to Harding that he issue an execu­tive order, giving the interior secretary power to administer the oil reserves, including the leasing of these fields to commercial inter­ests. ...

"But ... Albert Fall's political enemies in New Mexico ... said that Fall's Three Rivers Ranch suddenly started prospering in 1922, when Fall paid off back taxes and purchased an adjoining property that enhanced his water rights. A financially strapped Fall had become flush, and [Democratic Senator] Walsh wanted to know why. When Walsh found the answer his hearings exploded into front­page stories -- the Teapot Dome scandal. ...

"None of these investigations, however, implicated Warren Har­ding in any corrupt activity or wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Harding was blamed for much that had gone wrong, and much had, in fact, gone wrong. Clearly Charles Forbes [Harding's head of the Veterans Bureau] was a crook who had looted the Veterans Bureau [of as much as $2 million].

"The fact that Harding had done nothing wrong and had not been involved in any criminal activities became irrelevant. The endless stream of negative headlines about two of his cabinet offi­cers and his purported Ohio friends took its toll. It created a cli­mate and a market for critical -- and unfortunately often unfounded -- appraisals and accounts of the Harding administra­tion, which soon made Harding little more than a punch line. Har­ding's reputation became inseparable from the bad apples in his administration. Their disgrace became his disgrace. All that he had done well was attributed to others, from his wife to the able men with whom he had surrounded himself. It was not the headlines or news accounts that hurt Harding. Rather, the cultural tastemakers and political writers who later played up these stories set the stage for Harding's descent into history's dustbin."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


John W. Dean


Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series: The 29th President, 1921-1923


Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2004 by John W. Dean


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