As Bill Clinton ponders the legacy thing, he no doubt expects peace, prosperity and other successes of his administration will obscure the scandals and corruption as time goes by. But, as the case of Warren G. Harding shows, the evil that presidents do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.
Harding's tenure resembles Clinton's in significant ways, with one significant difference: his bones were interred before his first term was up. Being dead, he couldn't redeem his failures nor rebut post-presidency critics. Two-termer Clinton now has, presumably, decades to practice spin control.
Harding was elected president in 1920 with 60.3 percent of the vote, the largest margin in over 100 years. Interestingly, the 1920 election featured a clever and determined "Clinton War Room"-style campaign effort. Harding and advisers invented spin control. That was a major accomplishment. John A. Morello describes the campaign well in his forthcoming "Selling the Available Man: Albert D. Lasker, Advertising and the Election of Warren G. Harding" (Greenwood, 192 pages, $56.50). A notable success was the quashing of what are now called "bimbo eruptions," one of which required a large bribe to one of Harding's mistresses.
There were many mistresses. In his 1998 biography, "Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President" (Morrow, 645 pages, $30), Carl Sferrazza Anthony writes, "There had always been another woman during the Hardings' marriage." There are 33 citations in his index under "Warren Gamaliel Harding, compulsive adultery of."
Harding has consistently been rated by journalists and historians as the worst or next-to-worst president. Yet he was a president who did many good things in the 882 days he was in office before he died of a stroke.
What good things? Well, following in office Woodrow Wilson, who had re-segregated federal facilities, Harding proposed an anti-lynch law and went to Birmingham, Ala., to call for racial equality. He pardoned Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party leader sent to prison by the Wilson administration for speaking out against U.S. entry into the World War. He got Congress to create a Budget Bureau, an accomplishment praised by right and left. He presided over the beginning of a decade of tax cuts and economic growth. He got a naval armaments treaty, which one military historian later called "the first extended effort to limit arms in the history of the United States."
The Budget Bureau and arms limitations successes were due to Harding's own personal efforts, The Sun, not a fan, said editorially.
Harding appointed some of the most capable Cabinet members in history, Herbert Hoover, Charles Evans Hughes, the first Henry Wallace, Andrew Mellon. Harding also chose the highly respected Charles Dawes, a future vice president, to head the new Budget Bureau and former President William Howard Taft to be chief justice.
Because of such things, but even more so, because of his physical attractiveness (he looked like a president) and down-to-earth personality, the national grief at Harding's sudden death was on a scale that neared if it did not equal that following Lincoln's, John Kennedy's and Franklin Roosevelt's. He died in California and the Associated Press captured the national mood with the first three words of the lead of the story about his funeral train's return to Washington: "In sorrow unutterable San Francisco tonight bade good-bye to all that was mortal of Warren Gamaliel Harding."
Attorney General Harry Daugherty predicted a legacy of greatness, "It is yet to see him in true, full perspective -- a modern Abraham Lincoln whose name and fame will grow with time."
That was the worst prediction ever in the legacy game. Daugherty, a fellow Ohioan and crony of Harding's, had engineered his capture of the presidency. He was part of the reason Harding is so ill remembered. His Justice Department was rife with scandals, later to be revealed by congressional hearings and trials. Daugherty was indicted for bribery but escaped when the jury couldn't reach a verdict. Other members of the administration were jailed for corrupt practices or, in some cases, committed suicide to avoid prosecution. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall sold national oil reserves in Wyoming's Teapot Dome for personal gain. He was later convicted of bribery.
And then there was Nan Britton. Thirty years Harding's junior, she began an affair with him in his Senate days. She conceived his child in his Senate office. They continued the liaisons in the White House, sometimes in a small room near the Oval Office. After his death, she wrote a best-seller about the affair, which was one of the salvos that would sink the Harding reputation like a rock.
More important than the facts of the scandal and corruption was the one-sidedness of the journalistic barrage. With Harding dead, his widow depressed and most of his defenders hunkering down, there were no return salvos when popular and respected journalists of the day produced articles and books assaulting Harding and his administration. "Never at any time ... did the works of Harding's apologists ... offset the cumulative effect of this muckraking activity," wrote historian Robert K. Murray in a 1969 biography, "The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration" (American Political Biography, 626 pages, $42.50), republished last year
Murray's list of "muckrakers" begins with H.L. Mencken (The Evening Sun, "Prejudices") and includes Bruce Bliven (New York Globe, the New Republic) William Allen White ("Masks in a Pageant"), Frederick Lewis Allen ("Only Yesterday"), Samuel Francis Adams ("Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren Gamaliel Harding") and Alice Roosevelt Longworth ("Crowded Hours"). TR's daughter wrote that the nation was lucky Harding died in office: "He was just a slob."
Mencken's, White's, Allen's and Adams' writings lived on, dominant for a long generation. During that period, the Harding papers were denied researchers, discouraging revisionists. Probably a mistake. Murray in the 1960s was among the very first to see them. His book, though no whitewash, is positive in tone and somewhat positive in substance. "The Harding administration possessed serious defects," he concluded. "The subsequent popular and scholarly negative verdict was inevitable, if not wholly deserved."
Thirty-two years later, the book back in print, Harding's good works are still lost in the shadows of scandal and corruption. And they probably still will be for a long time to come even if John Morello and another historian, Phillip Payne, succeed in their effort to get the American Historical Association to hold a panel discussion at its annual convention next January on "How presidents are remembered." Its emphasis would probably be on Harding. Payne is at work on a book "Our Worst President? The Harding Scandals and the Making of History." Was Harding the worst? Payne doesn't think so.
Will Bill Clinton be Harding-ized? Will "Whitewater" resonate down through the years the way "Teapot Dome" has? Will Monica Lewinsky morph into Nan Britton? Maybe, maybe not. Clinton does have that advantage of getting to write his side of the story and otherwise help spin his legacy. And his apologists aren't as spooked as Harding's were.
If the AHA agrees to the Payne-Morello proposal, Clinton ought to arrange to be in the audience.
Or on the panel.
Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer and columnist. He wrote biographies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew among other office holders and edited a collection of articles by H.L. Mencken. Sun librarian Jean Packard assisted in the preparation of this essay.