Probably the only thing that we really associate with Warren Harding a century after his life is scandal. Even there, we wouldn’t call it exciting scandal, because it essentially forgotten in our country. Perhaps you remember a history teacher saying something about the Teapot Dome scandal, but then again, probably not. If you are into presidential history and biography , perhaps you have noticed that Harding has always been a serious competitor for the worst president ever. At least that is what I have always thought. Now enter this biography by John W. Dean. Believe it or not, he moved my opinion of Harding… a little.
This biography is part of the American Presidents Series, a series I always turn to for the lesser known presidents. Lesser known presidents who have no particularly outstanding accomplishments generally don’t have an awesome biography anyway. For an investment of less than 200 pages you can get a concise biography in your quest to cover every president. Some of them are better than others, and this one is at least well written for what it is.
This one is perhaps unique in the series as the one that is the most driven to rehabilitate the reputation of its subject. One of Harding’s scandals is his fathering a child out of wedlock just before he assumed the presidency. Mr. Dean was convinced Harding was innocent, but subsequent DNA testing has proved the accusation was, in fact, true.
Still Mr. Dean lead me to believe that something of a hatchet job was done on Harding. As he points out, Harding‘s wife burned his papers thinking she was doing his reputation a favor when in fact any proof to counteract wild claims went up in the smoke of her actions.
Perhaps Harding did pick a few cabinet members who were crooks without his knowledge. His legislative record was not outstanding but was sufficient for his times. He took no egregious positions and showed some real political skills in a variety of ways. He is still miles away from being a great president, but as long as John Tyler is remembered he should be spared from being the worst!
As I usually do, I kept my eyes peeled for the religious background of this president. To be frank, very little existed beyond some perfunctory religious statements. He clearly had some personal life issues. Still, he was likable and decent to all those he worked with. In fact, he often tried to be very cautious about needlessly angering his opponents. For what it’s worth, both the opinion of his friends and the public was phenomenally higher before his untimely death than when several took up the pen to destroy his name afterward. My opinion: The real Warren Harding probably fell somewhere between the high marks given in this biography and the flunking grades given by many over the years. To be fair, had he not died unexpectedly of heart trouble, he might have been able to have addressed the scandal and got it turned around. There’s really no other failure in his term of office that should cause his reputation to get so thoroughly creamed. The dark stain on his reputation is exclusively from his private life and scandal involving subordinates.
I will also judge this biography a success because even beyond it’s near whitewashing of some aspects of his life it got me, the reader, to slightly sway my opinion of Harding. That would have to be a win for the biographer.