Dismissed as a failure and all but forgotten, President Warren G. Harding has re-emerged as a much more interesting man over the past 13 months.
Just over a year ago, the Library of Congress released a trove of steamy love letters that Harding wrote to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, in the decade before he became the nation’s 29th president. (How steamy? Let’s just say they feature a character named Jerry, and it’s a body part, not a person.) And on Thursday, The New York Times broke the news that DNA testing had confirmed that Harding, who was married for 33 years until his death in 1923, had fathered a child with a second paramour, Nan Britton, during the same period in which he was penning love notes to Phillips.
The revelation may cement Harding’s place alongside Clinton and Kennedy as the nation’s top presidential philanderers, but it does not come as a shock to historians. “No, he was a womanizer,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a professor at Boston College and author of a recent history of the Republican Party. “It’s absolutely no surprise he fathered a daughter out of wedlock.”
Harding served for just over half a term before he dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1923, and even in that short time, he had already earned a “bad boy” image, Richardson said. “By the time he died, rumors had circulated that he was poisoned by his wife,” she said. Four years later, Britton published a scandalous book, “The President’s Child,” in which she named Harding as the father of her daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, and described their years-long affair in detail. Britton was vilified at the time, but the genetic tests now back her claim, to the satisfaction both of her own descendants and many of those of the former president, according to the Times.
Yet the bigger worry for some historians is not the revelations about Harding’s womanizing but the reassessments of his lamentable presidential record that have accompanied them. In a piece Thursday for The Washington Post, James B. Robenalt argued that Harding was actually “a good president.” Sure, his Cabinet was riddled with corruption, but its various scandals—most infamously, the Teapot Dome affair—never touched him directly, Robenalt said. He also credited Harding with putting the federal government on a budget for the first time and setting the conditions for the economic expansion of the Roaring Twenties (which culminated rather disastrously with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression). Harding, according to Robenalt, was also not that bad on race relations, having voiced support for an anti-lynching law.
That’s all hogwash, said Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton University. In 1920, Harding was a small-town newspaper publisher who had served a single term in the Senate when he was handpicked by Republican Party bosses largely because he was inoffensive and could deliver his home state of Ohio for the GOP. In the aftermath of the First World War and the tumultuous end to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, voters wanted the “return to normalcy” that Harding promised. And the easy-going Ohioan was the opposite of Wilson, an idealistic academic whose push for U.S. participation in a League of Nations was rejected by the Senate and the public. In a series of tweets on Thursday, Kruse pointed out that the most damning assessment of Harding’s qualifications for the presidency came not from historians or partisans but from the man himself, who admitted repeatedly to reporters that he was in over his head. (“A man of limited talents,” Harding once said of himself.)
“He felt woefully under-qualified for the job, and that set in motion a chain of events that set him up to be one of the worst presidencies in history,” Kruse elaborated to me. “He was nervous about it, so he surrounded himself with old friends from his hometown, who themselves were unqualified for the jobs they held and many of them corrupt.” Harding’s pick to head the veterans bureau just a few years after World War I, for example, was a man he’d met while vacationing and who later engaged in a “massive swindle.” And as fans of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” will recall, Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, was running a criminal operation that made him rich.
Even if Harding was not directly implicated in the scandals, he inarguably took a hands-off approach to governance and was responsible for the men he chose to run the country. “We judge an administration by the president,” Kruse said. “Who do they appoint to put in positions of power? And Harding’s choices across the board were perhaps the worst in American history.” As for Robenalt’s argument that Harding had a solid record on race relations, Kruse and Richardson countered that this was greatly overstated. While voicing nominal support for anti-lynching legislation, Kruse said, he also came out in favor of eugenics and in opposition to “social equality”—a code phrase at the time for interracial marriage.
Harding, Richardson said, has been “swept up” in a broader effort to reassess the legacy of his successor, Calvin Coolidge, who presided over an economic boom and who has recently been held up by the right as an exemplar of small-government conservatism. “It’s really problematic, because even at the time people knew that Harding wasn’t doing very much,” Richardson said. “That’s a real stretch to try to resurrect Harding.” The titillating revelations about Harding's personal life might paint a fuller, more fascinating picture of him as a man, in other words, but that’s no reason to revise his legacy as a forgettable president.