Warren G. Harding: Worst President, Reassessed Politician, and Sexy Man

On June 12, 1920, Republicans at their National Convention in Chicago nominated Warren Gamaliel Harding for president. Harding’s career continues to divide commentators, with much of the debate on whether he was a horrible president or a president who did some okay things. In addition to those debates about Harding’s career, recent stories about Harding have focused on scandals from his personal life.

A Compromise Candidate at the Convention

Before the convention in 1920, Ohio Senator Harding earlier had been a favorite for the nomination. But by the time the convention started, there were a number of other strong candidates.

Through eight ballots, other candidates received more votes than Harding. Finally, Harding took the lead in the ninth ballot as a compromise between divided voters.  Then, the man who was born in Blooming Grove, Ohio on November 2, 1865 won the nomination on the tenth ballot.

A Landside Win

In the fall, Harding and his vice-president candidate Calvin Coolidge won in a landslide, stressing a campaign promise of a return to normalcy. Harding defeated the Democrat ticket of James M. Cox, who like Harding was from Ohio.

Cox was the only person of the 1920 major presidential and vice-presidential candidates who would never sit in the White House. Cox’s vice-presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would be diagnosed with polio less than a year after the election, became president for more than a decade starting in 1933.

Harding’s tenure in the White House was much shorter than Roosevelt’s. In a little more than two years after Harding took office on March 4, 1921, he became ill. And he died from a cerebral hemorrhage on August 2, 1923. Coolidge then became president.

One of the Worst Presidents of All Time?

Despite his short term in office, Harding is largely regarded as one of the worst presidents of all time. For example, U.S. News & World Report has him as the second-worst president of all time.

A wide spectrum of experts and writers are critical of Harding, who was born on November 2, 1865. A recent poll of scholars ranked the twenty-ninth president among the worst presidents.

I remember in one of my favorite miniseries from the 1970s, Centennial, where in the final episode, Paul Garrett (David Janssen) invoked Warren G. Harding as one of the “most useful Americans who ever lived.” Garrett explains that Harding created a benchmark for how bad politicians could be. Thus, whenever a politician takes office, they should think of Harding and say, “I will never allow myself to be that bad.” (Harding discussion starts at 7:38 in video below.)

Harding’s bad reputation largely centers on his lack of leadership while appointing friends who used their offices for financial gain. The most famous example is the Teapot Dome scandal that occurred under his presidency.

Reassessing Harding’s Presidency

Not everybody hates Harding, though. The Warren Harding Home and Museum in Marion, Ohio shows visitors a video that focuses more on the positive aspects of Harding’s life and career.

Similarly, some recently have argued that we should reassess Warren G. Harding’s presidency as pretty good. They claim he stabilized the country, and they argue that his legacy should not be destroyed by scandals where he had no direct involvement. Yet, most still assert that Harding was under-qualified and his actions and in-actions created problems and allowed for the corruption.

Personal Scandals

Beyond the political scandals, there is another side of Harding involving personal scandals. It is these scandals that have garnered Harding more attention in recent years.

Historians have long known Harding was a womanizer, but in 2014 the Library of Congress unsealed some of Harding’s letters that showed a little more of Harding’s personality. The letters, written before and during his tenure as a U.S. senator, were to his lover Carrie Fulton Phillips, who was the wife of a Marion, Ohio, store owner.

In the following segment, John Oliver from Last Week Tonight, gives a brief recap of some of the juicy parts, including Harding’s preference for referring to a certain part of his anatomy as “Jerry.”

Harding was married for 33 years until his death in 1923, but Phillips was not Harding’s only other lover. In 2015, DNA testing confirmed that Harding had fathered a child with Nan Britton during the same period in which he was writing the love letters to Phillips.

Why do we care about Harding’s love life? One may make the case that we should not dig around the private lives of politicians. But when it comes to history, perhaps understanding a little more about Harding may help us understand him as a flawed human being instead of just a ranking on worst presidents lists.

Photo via Library of Congress. Who do you think was the worst president of all time? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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