First, Warren G Harding was a beloved president.
Then, he became synonymous with government corruption.
But today, we know him for his sex scandals - scandals that took more than 90 years to fully come to light.
Follow along as Harding jumps from the newspaper business to politics, sleeps with a potential german spy, fathers a child out of wedlock with another mistress, wins the presidency at a time of great national turmoil, presides over two of the largest corruption scandals in American history, dies in office, and somehow leaves behind a nation that's in much better shape than how he found it. It's the start of the roaring 20s! This is going to be fun.
1. Warren G Harding – John W. Dean
2. Calvin Coolidge - David Greenberg
3. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made – Patricia O’Toole
4. William Howard Taft – Jeffrey Rosen
5. Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times - Kenneth Whyte
6. T.R. the last Romantic – H.R. Brands
29.) Warren G. Harding 1921-1923
Welcome to episode 29 of Abridged Presidential histories with Kenny Ryan, Warren G Harding, “Jerry”
In the summer of 1920, Florence Harding, the wife of a popular Ohio Senator and newspaper publisher named Warren G Harding, asked a Washington D.C. fortune teller to look into her future.
Your husband will one day be president, the fortune teller said, but he won’t live to see the end of his term.
The fortune teller was right on both counts. But what she didn’t see was that Warren Harding was also sleeping with half of Ohio and would be remembered for presiding over one of the most corrupt administrations in American history.
It’s the start of the roaring 20’s, what did you expect? Get ready for the least PG episode of Abridged Presidential Histories yet - the Harding years.
Warren G Harding was born on Nov 2, 1865, in Corsica, Ohio, to abolitionist parents and a father who fought for the north in the civil war.. Warren’s parents were initially farmers, but as their children started piling up - Warren was the oldest of eight - they may have decided more income would be a good thing, because they trained under a local physician to become a doctor and a midwife. This brought substantial financial security to the family. in 1876, Warren’s father bought an ownership interest in the local newspaper, The Caledonia Argus, and 11-year-old Warren began cutting his teeth on the newsroom floor. He’d never stray far from journalism the rest of his life.
By all accounts, Warren grew into a handsome and charming young man. The kind of guy who knows you can get away with a lot more when you’re nice to people than when you’re mean to them. Harding’s gregariousness would be a defining trait throughout his career. This isn’t the ‘Smile more, talk less’ of Aaron Burr, but rather, ‘smile more, and sugar coat everything.’
In 1884, 19-year-old Warren G Harding and a couple of friends purchased their local Newspaper, The Marion Star, at a Sheriff’s sale for $300 they had scrounged, saved, and borrowed from friends and family. The newspaper came with an unlimited rail pass which Harding used to attend the 1884 GOP Presidential Convention in nearby Chicago as a reporter. This must have been a wild convention to attend as a young journalist. This is the year when Chester Arthur was the sitting Republican president, James G Blaine, the magnetic man, was running for the party’s nomination, and a young Theodore Roosevelt joined a pack of progressives that tried to block Blaine for being too corrupt. In the end, corruption was not enough to defeat Blaine’s candidacy - something Harding might have made note of, “corruption not disqualifying” - and Blaine won the nomination.
Harding went home, made the Marion Star a Republican paper, and began preaching’ the good word once a week, trying to grow his unabashedly republican publication.
But the newspaper business is a hard one. And growth was slow. Until 1891, when 26-year-old Warren married 31-year-old Florence Kling DeWolfe, a local divorcee and estranged daughter to the richest man in town. Warren put Florence in charge of the business side of the newspaper, and Florence implemented a number of changes that turned the struggling newspaper into a growing newspaper. And that growth, attached to a compelling republican message, began to open doors for harding into Ohio GOP politics.
In 1899, Harding broke through. Despite being a republican candidate running a republican newspaper in a very democratic district, Harding won election to the Ohio state senate. Five years later, he was elected Lt. Governor!
And then, Jerry started getting into trouble.
So, who was Jerry and what did he do?
And why have so many of you been gleefully looking forward to the “Jerry” episode for so long?
Well. Jerry was Warren G Harding’s name for his penis, and Jerry was having sex with women other than Harding’s wife.
Harding’s first affair - oh yes, there will be another - was with Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of his friend Jim. Get ready for this one. Carrie and Jim had just lost their 2-year-old son and were in mourning when Warren arranged for Jim to spend some time getting over his grief at a sanitorium. And then Harding, the good friend he was, said ‘Don’t worry jim, I’ll check on your wife while you’re away.’ And he went over to visit a lonely Carrie and did way more than hold her hand. Before long, Harding and Carrie were involved in a long running and passionate affair. The families would even go on vacations to Europe together where, presumably, Warren and Carrie were boinking each other whenever they had time alone. To keep their romance a secret, they wrote coded letters to each other. There were words to disguise the hotels they met at, when they’d next meet, and what they would do to each other. “Jerry” became the code word for Harding’s penis.
And how do we know about all of this? Because in 2014, more than 100 wild letters from Harding to Carrie became public. That’s right, we have the receipts. Harding is here to prove that sexting isn’t just a 21st century thing. These letters almost became public in the 60s when they were found in some boxes, but Harding’s family asked a judge to keep them private, so the judge read them, probably blushed, and said sure we can lock these away until, oh, let’s say 2014. And, like the end of an indiana jones movie, they were tucked away in a government archive until then.
But now they’re public! And so we know about the sex, the blackmail, and the coverup that kept them secret for 100 years.
And because I am that immature, We’re going to read some of these letters. But it won’t be my voice reading them. Instead, it will be the voice of my friend, the host of the Presidencies of the United States podcast, Jerry Landry.
That’s right. Jerry will be reading the part of Jerry, as we read the jerry letters, because I am that immature.
Hi Jerry! Welcome to the podcast. I appreciate you being as immature as I am.
First off, what do you know of Warren Harding’s “Jerry” letters to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips?
Fantastic. I have prepared some excerpts for you to read today. Five quotes. This is the first time I’m showing these to you. If you wouldn’t mind just giving these a read, let’s have fun with them. This is Jerry, reading as Jerry.
"Wouldn't you like to get sopping wet out on Superior - not the lake - for the joy of fevered fondling and melting kisses? Wouldn't you like to make the suspected occupant of the next room jealous of the joys he could not know, as we did in morning communion at Richmond?"
“Wish I could take you to Mount Jerry. Wonderful spot. Not in the geographies but a heavenly place, and I have seen some passing views there and reveled in them. Gee!’’
“And Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all. I fear you would find a fierce enthusiast today.’’
“Honestly, I hurt with the insatiate longing, until I feel that there will never be any relief untilI take a long, deep, wild draught on your lips and then bury my face on your pillowing breasts.’’
“I love you when
You open eyes
And mouth and arms
And cradling thighs. . .”
Thank you for playing along, Jerry. And listeners, I’d encourage you to check out his podcast, presidencies of the United States. It’s the opposite of my podcast in a way. While I hit every president in 60 minutes or less, Jerry takes deep, multi-episode dives that leave no stones unturned.
Thank you, Jerry.
The Harding-Philips affair lasted for more than a decade. And it would eventually become a bit of a problem, but not quite yet. Because around the time the affair began, Harding dropped out of politics. Not because of the affair. At least, I don’t think it was because of the affair, though the timing is suspicious. Harding dropped out of politics because progressivism was ascendant and Harding was more of a moderate conservative. In other words, Harding wasn’t selling what his constituents were buying.
And so Harding left politics for nearly a decade to focus on his affairs - ahem - until, in 1914, opportunity knocked.
If you remember from Wilson’s episode, the 17th amendment was ratified in 1913, allowing for the direct election of senators. previously, senators had been elected by state legislatures, not by popular vote. But when this amendment kicked in, the sitting Ohio senator, Mr. not-gonna-be-on-the-test, said “wait, you want me to campaign… for people’s votes? To heck with that” and said he wouldn’t run for reelection. So the office was open for the taking.
Aaaand quite a few guys tried to come and take it.
With multiple republicans and democrats in the race, Harding picked a simple strategy that matched his amenable personality - say nothing but nice things about his fellow Republicans, and only attack the democrats. This “Play nice with Republicans” approach won the GOP nomination by a healthy margin. And then Jerry - I mean, harding - easily defeated a Democrat and a progressive in the general election - The progressive party was the official name of Theodore Roosevelt’s blink-and-you-missed-it “Bull-Moose” party.
Once in the senate … that affair with Carrie began to be a bit of a problem.
An… espionage problem.
Harding was elected in 1914, when World War I was raging in Europe, and while the united states was certainly friendlier with the allied powers at this point in the conflict, it hadn’t officially picked a side yet.
But Carrie had.
Carrie had recently lived in Germany and her sympathies were with the German Empire. She was so pro-germany that the US government actually had her under surveillance. She was so pro-germany, that she started thinking her lover in the senate should use his position to bend American policy germany’s way.
And if he said no, well, she did have all his Jerry letters.
When push came to shove, Harding did say no. He was not going to use his position as senator to aid the germans. And when Carrie said “I have your letters,” Harding replied:
“Your proposal to destroy me, and yourself in doing so, will only add to the ill we have already done” Harding wrote “If you think I can be more helpful by having a public position and influence, probably a situation to do some things worthwhile for myself and you and yours, I will pay you $5,000 per year, in March each year, so long as I am in that public service.”
And that’s how Harding’s affair with Carrie turned into an extortion racket with Carrie.
But don’t feel too bad about Harding losing his side squeeze. He’d already found another by then. And this one might make you cringe. Around the time of Harding’s senate campaign, one of Harding’s friends told Warren that he had supporters all over. Why, even the friend’s daughter, Nan Britton, was infatuated with Harding. She had his posters all over her bedroom. Do you think she could meet you someday?
And that … caught Jerry’s attention.
In July, 1917, 51-year-old Harding met with 20-year-old nan Britton in New York to see if he could help her find a job aaaaand that’s where the first hooked up, beginning an affair that would last the rest of Harding’s life.
Now, we don’t have any spicy letters to Nan from Harding, because, after being blackmailed by Carrie, Hardinglearned his lesson and asked Nan to burn all the evidence - the man learns! -, but we do have the next best thing - a tell-all sex book!
That’s right! After Harding dies - spoilers, he will eventually die - Nan Britton will publish a tell-all sexpose novel about her affair with Harding, while he was a senator and while he was president, including details on where they did it and how the secret service would help them get away with it by knocking whenever Harding’s wife Florence was drawing near.
The title of the book was “the president’s daughter” because, oh yeah, Nan had a kid and she claimed the kid was Harding’s. Harding seems to have acknowledged it by paying to support the child while harding was alive, but when he harding, his widow, Florence, refused to continue that support or acknowledge the child could be Harding’s. That’s why Nan wrote the book - because she needed money to support the child. For nearly 100 years, historians generally agreed with Florence and thought Nan’s book was all fiction. Nan was basically harassed into seclusion until she died in Oregon in 1991. But, in 2015, Nan’s grandson took an ancestry.com test that proved he actually was Harding’s grandson after all. And so, it’s all real.
So yeah. As 1920 rolled around, Harding was having a lot of sex, being extorted by one of his mistresses, has fathered a daughter with another, aaaand was also being considered for the 1920 GOP presidential nomination.
You might say he was… rising in the polls? Ahhhh
Harding was probably as shocked as anyone to be in the mix for the 1920 GOP nomination. He had been sure the nomination would go to Theodore Roosevelt, who had been reconciling with the GOP since his famous 1912 split, but the “ old Lion” died in 1919 and the game was changed overnight. Harding had positioned himself well since entering the senate. He’d traveled the country to campaign for his colleagues and introduce himself to voters, making friend, not enemies, he’d avoided controversial votes - outright not showing up for many of them - and he’d landed a nice high-profile position on the senate foreign relations committee as World War I wrapped up and the new world order was being sorted out, which was good for getting his name in the press. So, you know, he had some things going for him.
But there were 10 candidates at the 1920 GOP convention, and he was not one of the favorites. The likeliest contenders were Leonard Wood, a former rough rider who had picked up the deceased Roosevelt’s banner, and Frank Lowden, who had the benefit of being filthy rich after marrying the heiress of the Pullman sleeping car fortune - remember them?
Harding’s plan for winning the presidency was similar to his plan for winning that senate seat - Play nice, offend no one, and remind everyone you’re from Ohio. By 1920, 6 of the previous 11 presidents had hailed from Ohio - Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley, and Taft. Ohio was an important swing state and being a native son carried some cache.
Back in 1920, 16 states held primaries, including Ohio, but not every candidate campaigned in every state. Primaries were expensive, time consuming, and who really wants to spend that much time on the road?
So Harding only campaigned in Ohio and states that didn’t have any local candidates in the race. He won Ohio, but his margin over General Wood was so narrow that it was more concerning than reassuring. When he got trounced in neighboring Indiana, he nearly dropped out until Florence talked him back into staying - come on man, stiffen up.
Don’t worry, his campaign managers reassured him, these primaries don’t matter. It was always going to come down to the convention anyway.
And that’s where the always-play-nice plan would really be cranked up to 11.
The Harding team mailed a biographical pamphlet to every delegate at the convention, and recruited 2,000 volunteers whose sole jobs were to make the delegates’ lives easier. These Harding hosts helped delegates find hotel rooms, make their way around chicago, and helped in all the little ways that people notice. they weren’t pushy or demanding about voting for Harding, but they did make sure the delegates knew which campaign sent them.
And this courtesy stood out the stronger in relation to what was going on in the rest of the republican field, where the candidates were eating each other alive. One GOP hopeful, a senator named Hiram Johnson, used his position in the senate to publicly investigate frontrunner rivals Wood and Lowden. The investigation turned up checks from Lowden to Missouri delegates that nobody could explain, making the checks look a lot like bribes. This damaged Wood and Lowden, but also hurt Johnson, because Wood and Lowden’s supporters were now furious at Johnson and would never support him.
But that Harding guy who’s being so friendly and helpful. Huh. Maybe they’d support him.
As the balloting got started, Harding was polling sixth in a crowd of 12, more than 200 delegates shy of the leader, general wood. But as each ballot came and went, and the convention went into its second day, delegates began looking around for a compromise candidate. Someone who wasn’t too liberal, or too conservative. Someone who didn’t have baggage - at least, baggage that anyone knew about. Someone from Ohio. On the 9th ballot, Harding tripled his delegate count and surged into the lead. On the 10th ballot, he won the nomination outright. The old strategy of being nice to everyone and emerging as a compromise candidate when the convention deadlocked had paid off again. Warren G Harding, an ohio newspaper publisher and senator, was the GOP nominee.
A few weeks later, the Democrats nominated another Ohio newspaper publisher and politician, James a cox, the state’s governor, to be their standard bearer. That’s right. The 1920 presidential election was a race between a pair of Ohio newspaper publishers. If presidential debates existed back then, they’d probably have bickered over the Oxford comma.
But debates didn’t exist, and so instead, they both ran their individual campaigns. Harding followed the William McKinney playbook - a front porch campaign where the crowds came to him - and he said… as little as possible. Harding campaigned on “Americanism.” What is Americanism? Well, it’s meaningless patriotic dribble that makes you feel good without saying much of anything at all. I actually have a recording of one of these speeches I’ll play for you right now, and some of the language might sound familiar if you pay attention to the words being said.
“We must make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization. Call it selfishness or nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion – to safeguard America first, to stabilize america first, to prosper america first, to think of america first, to exalt america first, to live for and revere america first.”
In the words of Democratic politician William Gibbs McAdoo, Harding’s speeches resembled “An army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Which is just… perfect.
But Harding didn’t really have to take any chances in this election. If you remember from the Wilson episode, the country was in pretty bad shape. There was inflation, unemployment, race riots, a red scare, Wilson was locked away in the white house hiding his stroke from the country. It wasn’t a good look for the Democrats, and all Harding had to do was look halfway competent.
Oh. And he had to make sure his sex scandals didn’t go public. About that.
Remember how Carrie Fulton Phillips had begun extorting Harding for $5,000 a year to stay quiet about their affair? Well, when the GOP found out its nominee had an explosive sex skeleton in his closet, the party decided extra precaution was necessary. So the GOP paid for Carrie and her husband to take a long, slow trip overseas, taking her as far away from the American press as possible until after the election was safely over.
On Nov 2, 1920, Harding’s 55th birthday, the nation went to the polls and it wasn’t even close. Harding won 60% of the popular vote - the fourth largest margin of victory ever. Harding beat Cox - *snicker* - and his vice presidential candidate, a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 404-127 in the Electoral College.
But don’t feel too bad for Cox. After his deflating defeat, he focused on growing his newspaper business. Cox enterprises still exists today with a portfolio of Radio, tv stations, and newspapers plus other business ventures, like Kelley Blue Book and autotrader.com. So, you know, things worked out ok for him.
And as for Roosevelt. Well. I think you know we’ll be hearing from him again.
And so, on March 4, 1921, Warren G Harding, a newspaper publisher and serial philanderer whose primary qualification for the presidency was being a nice guy, was sworn in as the 29th president of the United States of America - just as his wife’s fortune teller predicted. His inaugural address was the first inaugural broadcast by radio across the country - think about that, the first time the whole country heard the voice of the president as he was sworn in. that must have been wild. But what did that country, and the world, look like when Harding became president? Let’s look around.
Internationally, three years had passed since World War I and the world was at peace. Well. The parts that weren’t at war were. Russia was being racked by a massive Civil War between Lenin’s Bolshevicks, old school reactionaries, and independence-minded minorities. It was a war that would kill millions and wouldn’t end until 1923; China was also in bad shape. The old empire had fractured after the Qing dynasty and the republic that followed it collapsed and a jigsaw puzzle of warlords fought over pieces; in the Americas, American forces occupied Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic - occupations that lasted decades and engendered quite a bit of resentment in the latin american world.
Domestically, Harding’s victory gave the Republican party complete control of Washington D.C., putting the house, the senate, and the presidency in GOP hands. But if that was the good news for Harding, the bad news was that the country was in pretty terrible shape. Remember what I said about the final years of the Wilson administration being consumed by inflation, unemployment, racial violence, and the nation’s first red scare? Yeah. That all had to be cleaned up.
Oh, and the senate hadn’t ratified the treaty of Versaille, so the United States was technically still at war with Germany and the Central Powers to boot.
That’s a lot to deal with. This is one of the biggest messes a president has inherited since Lincoln was shot and Andrew Johnson inherited reconstruction, and we all remember how badly he flunked that test. Would Harding do any better? What would he do first?
If you wrote down “scapegoat the immigrants and pass restrictive immigration quotas,” you have a very dim view of the American political class. Also you’re 100 percent correct. There were 5.7 million unemployed americans in 1921 - that’s almost as many unemployed americans as we have today, and today our population is more than 3 times larger. Unemployment is scary and depressing. Nobody likes feeling like they’ve let down their loved. And it’s very human to look for others to blame. So when a resurgent ku klux klan or unscrupulous politicians start going around saying ‘you’re only unemployed because the immigrants took your jobs’ vulnerable people listen and start calling for action. And that’s how you get something like The Emergency Quota Act, which Harding called for in his inaugural address and signed on May 19, 1921 - the first bill he signed as president. The Emergency Quota Act restricted immigration from every country to 3% of the total population from that country in the United States in 1910 - which, you know, when your country is mostly northern europeans, basically means mostly northern europeans are getting in here on forward. This act lasted three years and would be replaced by a stricter one in 1924 that, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing my ancestors immigrated here before 1921, because they would not have gotten in after. The United States used to be a place that, if you could get on a boat, you could come here, but then the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 closed this country’s doors to a crack, denying a place of opportunity and refuge to most of the world.
So, nothing had been done to address the country’s actual problems, but some folks felt better because at least the foreigners were being kept out.
And then Harding raised Tariffs and cut Taxes on the wealthy. Why? Well, it starts with his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon. Mellon was one of the wealthiest men in the country. His family owned a massive bank that is still today one of the largest banks in the United States. Mellon was crazy uber rich and he told Harding that if we just lower our highest tax bracket from 75% to 23%, we’d collect more tax revenue. Yeah. That’s right. If we would just lower Mellon’s personal tax rate from 75% to 23% over 4 years, The largest tax cut in U.S. history, the government will make more money.
But the government didn’t make more money. So Mellon said, ‘let’s raise tariffs on farm and manufacturing goods’ - something that was also being called for by american farmers who wanted to raise prices on their goods. We’ve talked about tariffs a lot, so I’ll stick with a quick refresher - Tariffs are taxes on foreign goods that drive up the price of those foreign goods so domestic producers can also raise their prices. But the thing is, a food tariff hits america’s poor especially hard because those are the americans who are spending the highest percent of their income on food. Tariffs are inconsequential for the wealthy because when you personally own a vast business empire, the percent of your income that’s being spent on food is miniscule.
Harding raised tariffs on farm goods to their highest levels in U.S. history. Which helped for a hot minute until the rest of the world retaliated by raising their own tariffs on american goods - According to the American Farms Bureau, this tariff to protect American farmers ended up costing american farmers $300 million dollars. But it did let Mellon keep his tax cuts on the rich.
So, faced with a bad economy, Harding limited immigration, lowered taxes on the rich, and effectively raised taxes on everyone else. Bold strategy, cotton. And then - what do you think happened? Coal miners and rail workers went on strike.
This strike was not related to the tariffs, taxes, or any of that. Nope. This strike occurred because the mine and rail owners got greedy. World War I had been great for labor in the United States. When 4 million men got drafted, that made the remaining laborers on the homefront more valuable. Think of it. Imagine walking into your boss’ office right now and telling them they need to pay you and all your colleagues more and work you less or you’ll all walk. Your boss would probably laugh at you and then hire replacement workers and then you’d be in trouble. But what if there wasn’t anybody else for your boss to replace you with because everyone else has been drafted into the army. If you quit, your boss wouldn’t have anyone to do the work you’ve been doing, and then they’d really be in trouble, and you, meanwhile, could probably find a job anywhere else, because, in a tight labor market, everyone would be desperate for workers.
American laborers took advantage of this brief window of opportunity to demand higher wages and decreased hours - the kinds of broad concessions they’d never had a hope of winning before. And they enjoyed those concessions. But then World War 1 ended and all those soldiers came home. And they all needed work, too. And so rail and mine owners started saying “you can forget that raise and shorter workweek I gave you during the war. We’re slashing prices and increasing hours and if you don’t like it, I’ll fire you and go hire one of those veterans to take your place.”
Which, you know, might have worked great for the rail and mine owners if their laborers hadn’t all been in unions. But they were. Once your whole labor force is in a union, well. It kind of becomes hard to fire and replace all of them. 500,000 coal miners and 400,000 rail workers went on strike in 1922, demanding owners respect the concessions they’d won during world war 1.
And this freaked the country out. With the coal miners on strike, how would the country heat its homes? There were no highways yet. With the rail workers on strike, how would food get from the farm to your plate? These strikes put a lot of pressure on Harding to do something. And in August, he did. After his attempts to broker an agreement failed, Harding spent three days on a yacht with congressmen, senators, and cabinet secretaries discussing what to do. When they came back to shore, the administration cracked down hard on labor. Harding’s attorney general made the case that the rail strike was interfering with the delivery of the mail, a federal offense, and secured an injunction that made it illegal for the laborers to strike, picket, or even assemble. It was pretty blatantly unconstitutional - the first amendment is supposed to guarantee our right to assemble - and the attorney general was later impeached in the house, though acquitted in the senate over it, but the injunction did succeed in breaking the union’s backs and ending the strikes, and most americans were just happy the trains were running and they had coal to heat their homes that winter.
And that’s basically Harding on the economy. He restricted immigration, cut taxes on the, raised tariffs on farm goods, and broke a pair of national rail and coal strikes.
But the thing is… the american economy did start to grow and recover during his administration. Getting 4 million veterans back into the economy all at once in 1918 had led to the unemployment and tension of Wilson’s final years, but as time wore on, more jobs were created and veterans were able to fill those jobs. And as americans filled those jobs, they earned more money to buy more things and fund the creation of more jobs.
So, basically without any help from D.C., the economy began to recover and, before you knew it, the roaring 20s were underway.
But none of that is what Harding’s administration is known for. What Harding’s known for is scandal. Not, shockingly, of the sexual variety. But of the “you did ‘WHAT’ with government funds?” sort.
The first scandal’s villain is a man named Charles R Forbes, who Harding put in charge of the Veterans’ Bureau. Forbes was responsible for building hospitals and getting medical care to veterans across the country. And he did do some of that. The problem is that a lot of the money that should have gone toward taking care of those veterans somehow ended up in his pockets instead. It started with hospital construction - if you wanted to win a contract for a hospital, you’d better make it worth Forbes’ time. By, you know, charging the government more, but then putting a chunk of it in Forbes’ pocket. This was bad, but it gets worse. In 1922, Forbes began selling valuable hospital supplies on the side straight up for his own profit. These were supplies that should have been going to veterans in need, and Forbes was hawking them to make an extra buck
When Harding learned of the scandal in 1923, he blew a gasket. But… I’m not sure if he was more upset over the corruption, or how it would make him look. Instead of firing Forbes on the spot, he let Forbes flee to Europe, where he’d be safely out of reach of any American investigations. Which is… an interesting approach to justice.
The veterans affair scandal is horrible, but it’s not the one Harding is most famous for - that honor belongs to Teapot Dome. Which I certainly remember hearing about growing up, even if my history teachers could never quite explain it to me. The scandal is actually pretty straight forward and goes like this.
Harding’s secretary of the interior was a man named Albert Fall. Fall was responsible for developing the vast federal oil field known as Teapot Dome in Wyoming. But, instead of going through a competitive bidding process and giving the contract to the best bid, Fall granted exclusive rights to develop the land to the Mammoth Oil Company - that’s literally the name of it, Mammoth Oil Company - in exchange for $400,000 in kickbacks, which would be worth roughly $6 million dollars today.
When Harding learned of this scandal, he reportedly said, “This is a hell of a job. I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies alright. But my friends, my god damn friends … they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor at night.”
Now, I want to stress - nothing actually points to Harding being complicit in either of these scandals. Harding may have slept around, but he wasn’t using the presidency to make a buck. What he did do is nominate the wrong people to positions of power around him and then die before he could properly clean up their messes.
Because, oh yeah, Harding is totally going to die in office.
With all these headaches piling up around him - the Veterans’ bureau scandal, Teapot Dome, etc - Harding’s blood pressure was spiking through the roof. The man needed some rest and relaxation. So he set out west on a national tour / vacation, trying to take it easy without looking like he was taking it easy. He went to Seattle, Alaska, San Francisco - and the road stopped there.
On Aug. 2, 1923, Harding was resting in a san francisco hotel bed as Florence read to him when he suddenly twisted convulsively and collapsed with a gasp. Florence called for the doctors, but it was already too late. Harding was pronounced dead, killed by a cerebral hemorrhage. He’d been president for two years. He was 57 years old. And, you may be surprised to hear this, the nation went into sincere mourning.
The thing is, Harding’s scandals were still basically only known to Harding at the time of his death. The public didn’t know about the veterans bureau, teapot dome, or nan britton - but they would soon. Because once harding was dead, the skeletons came tumbling out of his closet. Senatorial investigations uncovered all the sordid details of the veterans bureau scandal and teapot dome, and secretary Fall actually spent a year in jail - the first time an american cabinet member had ever been sentenced to jail. A few years after that, Nan Britton published The president’s daughter about her affair with Harding to help make ends meet. Add it all up, and Harding’s reputation plummeted from respected to, well, less than respected.
But… the Harding years weren’t all bad. There were several areas where Harding did some good stuff - areas we’re going to dive deeper into in our next episode when I interview lawyer and Harding historian James Robenalt - but I do want to introduce them here.
For one, Harding was progressive on race. On Oct. 26, 1921, Harding travelled down to Alabama and became the first president to give a speech against lynching while he was actually in the south - that’s right, it wasn’t until 1921 that an American president went down south and said ‘stop hanging black people.’ The house even passed a bill that would have banned lynching, but southern democrats filibustered it in the senate to prevent it’s passing - there are still no federal laws on the books banning lynchings today. So Harding did say some things and support some things, buuuuut he didn’t actually do any things.
But if he wasn’t able to take action on race due to the southern filibuster, he did take actions where he could. At the end of 1921, just before christmas, Harding pardoned the ol’ American labor organizer and socialist, Eugene Debs, who had been jailed by the Wilson administration over his opposition to the draft during World War 1. This was something Harding absolutely didn’t have to do, but it was also something he absolutely could do, and it was the right thing to do, despite the tremendous unpopularity of the move. Here’s an example of Harding’s principles when there’s nothing else to get in the way.
And Harding did shock the world by taking a leading role in disarmament when he proposed a Washington Naval Conference in 1921. This was… kind of an f-you to Wilson, showing the United States could play a leading role in reducing the risk of future wars without being part of Wilson’s League of Nations. But it was also a big deal. The United States, Great Britain, and Japan agreed to a 5-5-3 ratio of ships - as in, Japan could have 3 ships for every 5 american and 5 british ships - everyone agreed to outlaw the use of poison gas, and some territorial disputes were settled in the pacific. Good stuff! Old obsolete ships were sunk, modern warships were kept, and well. Shoot, the man tried.
Oh, and the U.S. did negotiate a separate peace with Germany in 1921. The final american troops left Germany two years later.
So, them’s the highlights of the Harding administration. It’s time for vice president Calvin Coolidge to take over. But, before he does, how had America changed during the two years of the Harding administration? And what can we learn from it?
On the invention front, American Engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth revealed The Flow Chart in 1921! That’s right, the flow chart! Invented right here, in 1921! Before this, people didn’t know how things... Flowed! This may not sound like much, but I’m a nerd who likes flow charts, so it’s getting mentioned.
Aaaand the original Band-aid hit the market in 1921 after being invented by Johnson & Johnson’s Knight Dickson, who was looking for a better home bandaging option after his wife burned her hands in the kitchen one evening.
Oh, and, internationally, a jackass named Adolf Hitler became the leader of Germany’s nazi party, and another jackass named Benito Mussilini established the Italian Fascist Party in 1921. Screw both those guys.
If you’re going to remember Harding for three things, I’d suggest:
So what can we learn from the life and administration of Warren G Harding? Well, we’ve talked about being careful who you hire - that goes without saying here - so how about a different tact - Have you ever heard of the New York Times rule? It goes like this: Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want published on the front page of the New York Times. Harding was pretty well loved when he died, but then came the string of headlines about the scandals in his administration - teapot dome, the veterans bureau, and so on - that turned him into a disgrace, and then 100 years later, another string of headlines about Carrie Fulton Philips, Nan Britton and “Jerry” turned him into a laughingstock. Whenever you’re thinking of doing something questionable, remember the New York Times Rule. I uh, think it’s fitting that our first newspaperman president is the one to teach us this valuable lesson.
Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Oscar Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Warren G Harding by John W. Dean.
I want to give a special thank you to Jerry Landry of the Presidencies of the United States podcast for reading the Warren Harding’s “Jerry” sex letters.
In our next episode, I’ll talk to lawyer and Harding historian James Robenalt about whether Harding deserves more credit than I just gave him, and whether should we care about presidential sex scandals? - How about if one of the mistresses is a foreign spy?
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.