Friday, July 1, 2016

Harding Taps Taft For High Court—Part 1

Warren G. Harding was described as the handsomest man to be President since Franklin Pierce.  Republicans hoped his aging matinee idol good looks would sway all of the silly women who were voting for President for the first time in 1920.  By the way, pretty boys Pierce and Harding are always neighbors at or near the bottom of lists of worst Presidents.

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 conservativeaccomplishments 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.

The appointment of Taft had extra historical significance.  He was the first, and so far the only former President to serve on the High Court.  That precedent is now getting attention as presumed Democratic Party Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton looks to be ready to crush crypto-fascist Donald Trump and a divided and discredited Republican Party this November.  Reshaping the Supreme Court, now evenly split between hard core conservatives and liberals with one vacancy, will be one of the most important undertakings of the incoming administration.  Barack Obama has been able to fill only two seats in nearly eight years in office and those did not alter the left/right division on the Court.  His current nominee, Merrick Garland, is unlikely to get a Senate confirmation hearing.

That would leave one immediate opening for a President Clinton to fill, and likely a far friendlier Senate for confirmation.  She could re-submit Garland, an esteemed jurist without strong ideological leanings or come up with a whole new nominee.  Due to the advanced age of other justices, particularly Ruth Bader Ginsburg, other openings are likely to occur sooner than later.  

It has been widely suggested that Obama himself, a former Harvard Law School Journal editor, and professor of Constitutional law, would make an ideal candidate.  At first this was put forward as a kind of thumb-in-your-eye revenge to Senate Republicans for stalling not only Obama’s Supreme Court pick, but most of his nominees to all levels of the Federal Bench.  But it has gained more serious attention.  Clinton herself has said that she is intrigued with the possibility of appointing her former boss.

Would a President Clinton nominate Brrack Obama to the High Court?  Would he accept?

Does Obama even want the job?  He will be young enough and energetic enough to be up for another career, although he recently hinted that he might like to try his hand at business.  In some ways the job seems ideal for his even temperament, keen analytical skills, and instinct to at least seek common ground solutions to thorny problems.  On the other hand Obama may not want to be tied down to a job that allows him little opportunity to speak out on important political issues or influence their outcomes.  And Clinton may in the end prefer to appoint someone more personally loyal to her or immediately add another woman to the court.

Another consideration is that the Chief Justice seat, the one occupied by former President Taft, is unlikely to come open for years due to the relative youth of George W. Bush appointee John Roberts.  Would Obama be content to be a side man on the nine member Court?

All of this speculation is, of course, a digression from the tale at hand

By the third year of his Presidency, the Tea Pot Dome Scandal was beginning to break and Nan Britton.  The President’s wife Florence may also have gotten wind of the affair with Nan Britton and Harding’s secret payments to support her daughter.   The President was also weakened by heart ailments.

In part to get him away from mounting questions in Washington and in part to bolster his tarnishing reputation, Florence urged him to make a west coast tour that would include a trip to Alaska.  He set out by train in June of 1923 accompanied by his wife, popular Secretary of Commerce Hoover, and two other Cabinet officers.  He made speeches along the way almost as if rehearsing for a 1924 re-election campaign.  His schedule on the West Coast was crowed and Harding seemed to visibly tire as the trip wore on.  On July 29 he was near collapse and was rushed to a San Francisco hospital where doctors confirmed a critical heart condition and found him suffering from pneumonia—a very dangerous disease for older patients and those already weakened from other conditions in that era before treatment with antibiotics.  After seeming to recover a bit, Harding died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 2, 1923, at the age of 57.

Harding funeral procession passes in front of the White House.

He was wildly praised in death and honored with a grand funeral in Washington before being laid to rest in his home town of Marion, Ohio.

But the full details of the Tea Pot Dome Scandal and lesser shenanigans by sticky fingered minions of his administration came to light after his death.  Although no one thought Harding was personally corrupt, he seemed oblivious of and unconcerned about the corruption that flourished on his watch.  His reputation quickly fell to tatters.  When Nan Britton published The President’s Daughter,  her sensational account of their affair and the resulting child in 1927, the destruction was complete.

Rumors even circulated that Florence Harding had poisoned her husband either out of revenge for the affair or to spare her husband the humiliation when all of the scandals broke.  Almost no one but hard core conspiracy theorists now believe that.

Tomorrow—All about Taft.


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