Note—This is another one of those posts that got out of hand and grew like Toppsy. All my fault. The more I researched, the more interested I became. So I have divided it into two Parts. This one is still manageable length. Tomorrow is a near epic look at His Rotundity, William Howard Taft.
Let’s get this straight. Warren G. Harding was schmuck of a President. He was a guy who got the job because Republican bosses couldn’t think of anyone better at the GOP convention of 1920 after four deadlocked votes in which neither major contender could get a majority. He was a non-entity as a Senator from Ohio who was more acceptable to the Old Guard of the party than any of the erstwhile Progressive followers of Teddy Roosevelt who were leading the pack. There was also a wistful hope that his square jawed good looks would sway women who were going to vote in a national election for the first time.
Once he returned the country to normalcy, whatever the hell that was, Harding showed little interest in the business of government. He pretty much turned the details over to his Cabinet members, who had been selected from recommendations of go-along-get-along party leaders and the big buck industrialists who backed them. This would come back to bite him in the ass when his Secretary of the Interior took a bribe from oil man Henry Sinclair for leases to develop wells in the former Naval Reserves in Wyoming—the Tea Pot Dome scandal. Likewise his Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty was ensnared in a number of scandals, including one that would send his brother to prison.
Harding was mostly interested in passing his evenings playing poker with a group of old Ohio cronies and some members of the hard drinking Washington press corps. He also found time to carry on an affair with Nan Britton, including possible trysts in the closet under the nose of his older wife Florence whose personal wealth had greatly boosted his career.
|Nan Britton, the President's young mistress whose sensational claim that he fathered her daughter was finally proven by DNA testing in 2015.|
While Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State and Herbert Hoover each had solid—if hyper conservative—accomplishments in their bailiwicks, Harding seems to have laid out no policy on his own initiative.
There were, however, a couple of exceptions. Against the advice of Daughtery, his wife, and the intense lobbying of the powerful young American Legion, Harding commuted the 11 year prison sentence of Eugene V. Debs for seditious speech against World War I. Although instinctively hostile to unions and the labor movement, he found Debs to be a man of high personal integrity. He was also appalled by the vindictiveness of the Wilson administration toward both war protestors and those caught up in the post-war Red Scare hysteria. Harding waited until the ink dried on the final treaties officially ending the war and then issued his commutation orders for Debs and 23 other anti-war prisoners. He even invited Debs to visit him in the White House on his way back home to Terre Haute, Indiana from the Federal Prison at Atlanta. Over the remainder of his time in office, Harding quietly released many other political prisoners.
But Harding’s biggest impact were his appointments to the Supreme Court. Ultimately he would make four appointments, an impressive number for a term cut short by death and which would shape the high court for years to come. His first appointment was his most important.
When Chief Justice Edward Douglass White died in May 1921, Harding had a problem. In his typical wheeler-dealer style he had promised two politically powerful men appointments to the court as he wooed them for support for his presidential ambitions—former President William Howard Taft and former Utah Senator George Sutherland, an economic conservative backed by powerful business interests. After dallying, Harding realized that more seats would soon open up on his watch. He briefly considered letting the Chief Justice Chair remain vacant until a second seat opened up, but thought better of it. In the end he turned to Taft, who openly yearned for the job, and announced his nomination of the big man on June 30, 1921.
|President Harding with his Chief Justice, William Howard Taft and Robert Todd Lincoln at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.|
Sutherland got his seat as an Associate Justice the next year. Two other deeply conservative choices, Pierce Butler and Edward Terry Sanford, were named in 1923.