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

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In this wise and compelling biography, Dean--no stranger to controversy himself--recovers the truths and explodes the myths surrounding the 29th president's tarnished legacy.

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Dec 12, 2019

Warren Harding In The American Presidents Series

The American Presidents Series has produced short, accessible biographies of each of the American presidents with the exception of the immediately past president and the current incumbent. The biographies are valuable in offering an overview of the presidency and of the nature of leadership as well as an ongoing brief history of the United States. Each volume of the series is written by a different scholar with a particular perspective to offer on the presidential subject. The series thus does not present simple summaries but rather informed, individual accounts which make a contribution to understanding of the presidency. In general, the books in the series try to capture something of the strengths of their subjects rather than only their failures or shortcomings. Overall, I think this a valuable approach in understanding American history and the American presidents.

John Dean's 2004 study in the American Presidents Series of the 29th president, Warren G. Harding, offers a revisionist account of Harding and works hard to emphasize Harding's more admirable qualities. Dean, counsel to President Nixon and a pivotal figure in Watergate, was an excellent choice for to write this volume with his experience with political scandal. Dean also grew up in Harding's home town of Marion, Ohio. The goal of Dean's book is to offer a partial rehabilitation of Harding given the commonly accepted view that he ranks at or near the bottom of the American presidents.

Dean offers a short portrayal of Harding's early life and career as the owner of a small-town newspaper, state politician and one-term United States Senator. He emphasizes that Harding was more intelligent and thoughtful than sometimes assumed. He also had skills in getting along with different types of people, in compromising, and in working quietly behind the scenes. Dean offers an account of the Republican presidential convention of 1920 which shows that Harding worked skillfully to secure the nomination rather than being the beneficiary of a cabal in a "smoke filled room" as is frequently supposed.

The heart of this book is its exploration of Harding's brief presidency, cut short by his death in office. Dean praises most of Harding's selections for his cabinet and finds as well that Harding became a more astute leader as his term progressed. Harding worked diligently at the office rather than lackadaisically as the stereotype would go. In a lengthy chapter, Dean discusses the accomplishments of Harding's presidency in the foreign policy, economics. judicial appointments, agriculture, labor, governmental organization, with the establishment of the OMB. and more. Harding made some efforts in the field of civil rights, including a trip to Birmingham, Alabama where he told a large, segregated audience "When I suggest the possibility of economic equality between the races, I mean it precisely the same way and to the same extent that I would mean it if I spoke of equality of economic opportunity as between members of the same race. In each case I would mean equality proportional to the honest capacities and deserts of the individual." Harding also courageously pardoned the socialist labor leader and presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, who had been imprisoned during Woodrow Wilson's presidency. After Debs' release, Harding met with him at the White House. Dean makes a good case that Harding's presidency had more accomplishments than generally realized.

Dean also brushes over somewhat quickly the scandals that came to light in the Harding Administration after the president's death. His accounts of the Teapot Dome Scandal and scandals at the Department of Justice and Veterans Affairs tend to minimize Harding's responsibility, both personally and for keeping track of events during his watch. Dean also expresses skepticism about the reports of marital infidelity during Harding's time in the White House and the claim that he fathered an illegitimate child. Dean suggested a DNA analysis to determine whether Harding had in fact fathered a child out of wedlock. In 2015, well after the publication of Dean's book, this was done and it confirmed the affair and the child. This was a matter that brought disgrace upon Harding after his death. In more recent times, Americans have perhaps become hardened to such activities.

Most current ratings of the presidents still rank Harding at or near the bottom. His presidency has not been rehabilitated in the sense that the presidency of Grant has come to be rehabilitated by a some historians. Dean's book didn't persuade me that Harding's presidency deserved to be held in high regard. Still this biography is valuable in bringing Harding's accomplishments to the attention of its readers and in its warning against drawing too-hasty, misinformed conclusions about historical figures.

Robin Friedman

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