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All the President's Men and Women: Unfortunately for the Pundits There Is Little to Learn from Harding's Foibles

Anders Hove

"Harding may not have been a great President or even a good one, but he deserves to be judged on the basis of his actions, not on hearsay and innuendo." So writes Columbia history graduate student Michael Pierce in the March 1 issue of The New York Times, under the rather questionable headline, "Harding Wasn't a Slacker."

Strong stuff indeed. You wouldn't expect Warren G. Harding to many defenders these days. He has been dead for 75 years, and his legacy is bereft of ideological fervor or legislative or diplomatic accomplishments. (He is famous for coining the word "normalcy," but this fact is usually used to mock rather than extol his memory.) But after Thomas Fleming penned an inflammatory anti-Harding column in the February 23 issue of The New York Times, at least a few historians' interest was piqued, and Pierce was even moved to reply.

"[Fleming] uses the same sort of rumor, hearsay and innuendo to criticize Harding that many of President Clinton's opponents are using against him," writes Pierce. Pierce mainly takes issue with Fleming's discussion of Harding's sexual relations with women other than his wife, and his alleged passion for golf and poker.

Unfortunately for the points Fleming and counterpart Pierce were trying to make, history is very complicated, and often does not support quick and easy judgments. More importantly, it can be dangerous to draw parallels between current events and the past

"Harding has come to be regarded right, left, and center as the worst President this country has ever had." That judgment was rendered by Harding biographer Francis Russell. Writing in 1969, four years before Watergate, Russell's judgment stands to this day as the worst judgment history can render on a political figure. Although he was revered by many during his own time, Harding's reputation was shattered by scandal in the years following his death in 1923.

Harding is most remembered for his scandals, of which Teapot Dome is the most notorious. In an interesting parallel to the current Clinton scandal, Teapot Dome implicated the Interior Department and its head, former senator and New Mexico political don Albert Fall. Fall had allegedly sold off invaluable Naval oil reserves to "oil interests" in exchange for kickbacks. The Teapot Dome investigation dragged on years after Harding's death, and featured all manner of silly hijinks that could not have been better contrived to titillate the press of the day. Fall and other witnesses tried to claim illness to avoid testifying, and they doctored evidence, including dummy check receipts, to cover their tracks. The Interior Department tried to snowball the investigation by handing over truckloads of documents, in the hopes that it would take the Senate years to review them. In one of the most bizarre twists, unknown individuals tried to frame Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana, one of the gang's accusers, in a hotel room with a woman.

Teapot Dome gradually came to ensnare all sorts of other politicians, including William Gibbs McAdoo, a Californian who was running for president under the Democratic banner, as well as a clutch of Harding cronies, including the Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Daugherty and McAdoo escaped jail terms, but their careers withered.

Teapot Dome was a scandal very much suited for the 1920s. It concerned one of the central issues of the day, conservation of natural resources. Harding had pledged support of conservation, thus healing the decades-old rift between the old-line conservatives he represented and the followers of former President Theodore Roosevelt. At the crux of Teapot Dome was bribery, a crime anyone could understand. To use the press jargon of our own time, Teapot Dome had "legs" - political leaders found it compelling and the public found it understandable.

Harding's alleged affairs were a different matter. The public knew nothing of them at the time, and the press and political leaders did nothing to bring them before the public eye. Nan Britton, Harding's main accuser, only came forward after his death, when his family refused to help support the child she claimed the president had fathered. She responded by writing a book chronicling their affair; refused publication by all publishing houses, Britton eventually put the work into print by allying herself with an illustrator of Bibles who was outraged at the way the Hardings had treated her. Bookstores that had refused to stock it changed their tune in the bat of an eye as the book, The President's Daughter, became an instant national bestseller.

The Harding family also worked hard to deny the president's other alleged tryst with Carrie Phillips. Unlike Britton, Phillips was an elegant woman who Harding turned to for intellectual stimulation. Believing Harding would divorce his ailing wife, "Duchess," to marry Phillips, the Republican National Committee supposedly shipped her and her husband to Germany to keep the nomination on track. This particular story is probably apocryphal, but if the RNC didn't protect Harding in this instance, the Harding heirs did him one better: By launching a million-dollar lawsuit, they prevented publication of the Harding-Phillips letters which would have proven his intentions once and for all.

As far as histrionics are concerned, Harding's alleged improprieties are something of a nullity. The public was unaware of them during his life, and because of his death, as well as widespread disgust with his administration in general, the public never really had to come to terms with what the allegations might mean for the presidency or democracy. During the years immediately following Harding's death, his name was gradually effaced from public buildings and structures that had been named for him. In a sense, Harding was the president who wasn't.

The fact that Clinton's alleged sexual wrongdoing came to light during (and before) his presidency makes his case unique. The allegations have been and will continue to be investigated during his own tenure in office. There is no historical precedent for such an investigation, and no prior record to help us predict how it will all end up. Like it or not, we must make our own way through this part of our nation's history.