Warren G. Harding, Unsung American Hero

Historian David Beito surveys the latest presidential rankings and stands up in defense of the much-maligned Warren G. Harding:

Rated by the historians in the "worst" category, by contrast, is, you guessed it, Warren G. Harding: a president who successfully promoted economic prosperity, cut taxes, balanced the budget, reduced the national debt, released all of his predecessor's political prisoners, supported anti-lynching legislation, and instituted the most substantial naval arms reduction agreement in world history. Go figure.

In addition to all of that, I would add that Harding appointed the great classical liberal George Sutherland to the Supreme Court, where Sutherland did what he could to fight the collectivism of the Progressive and New Deal eras.

In 2004, Reason.com asked a variety of policy wonks, journalists, thinkers, and other public figures to list their favorite president. And for the definitive word on America's perverse relationship with the executive, don't miss Gene Healy's "The Cult of the Presidency."

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  • Jeff P||

    Someone needs to explain to me why Harding was never portrayed by Charles Gray...

  • The Extispicator||

    In what movie? Is there some Warren G. Harding biographic of which I am unaware?

  • Kolohe||

    Watergate was bush league compared to the Teapot Dome shennanigans. No adminstration other than possibly Grant's was more on the take than Harding's before or since.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    The longer I live, the more I appreciate Harding, despite the things Mencken had to say about him.
    And he has a (privately funded) tomb worthy of a Caesar.

    And, of course, there's this: http://origin.theonion.com/content/node/29990

  • BDB||

    And of course Wilson is always ranked in the top 10, despite being an uber-racist (even by the standards of the early 20th Century), a war monger, a spendthrift, and the great-grandaddy of the War on Drugs.

  • Boston||

    I think most of the hate comes from the terrible middle name.

  • Spoonman||

    He bears a creepy resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard.

  • ||

    In addition to all of that, I would add that Harding appointed the great classical liberal George Sutherland to the Supreme Court, where Sutherland did what he could to fight the collectivism of the Progressive and New Deal eras.

    And now you know why academic historians hate him.

    I think most of the hate comes from the terrible middle name.

    G?

  • Tyler||

    And if he hadn't died from that heart attack, perhaps Gamaliel (Harding's middle name) could have saved Middle Earth.

  • TofuSushi||

    Wasn't that naval arms reduction a factor in the US defeat at Pearl Harbor?

  • ||

    He bears a creepy resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard.

    THIS IS WHAT WARREN GAMALIEL HARDING ACTUALLY BELIEVES

  • ||

    The big blot on Harding was Teapot Dome. What is funny is to go back and look at what the scandle actually was (a two bit payoff scheme for government oil leases) and look at how tame it is compared to things like packing the Supreme Court, the Alien and Sedition Acts, misuse of the CIA and FBI, Japanese Internment, and other malfeasence committed by Presidents routinely ranked ahead of Harding.

  • ||

    The audio posted in the article has Harding saying "under which the citizen seeks what it can do for the government and country, rather than what the country may do for individuals..."

    I'll admit that Kennedy said it better, but I had no idea he was paraphrasing Harding.

  • Gamaliel Fensworthy||

    I think most of the hate comes from the terrible middle name.

    What are you trying to say?

  • ||

    "and instituted the most substantial naval arms reduction agreement in world history."

    That treaty had a lot of unintended consiquences. It caused the Japanese to resent the hell out of us because they felt the treaty entrenched Western dominance and some argue had a lot to do with the rise of Japanese militarism. The bottomline is that I don't think anyone involved with international diplomacy in the 1920s has much to be proud of considering how things turned out.

  • ||

    What I find curious is how low William Henry Harrison scored. Serving only 32 days, he did almost nothing as Pres., making him almost perfect, in my book!

    I once rated my 5 Greatest Presidents, thusly:

    In no particular order:

    John Hanson*

    William Henry Harrison

    James A. Garfield

    Calvin Coolidge

    Grover Cleveland (who kept the U.S. on the Gold Standard.)

    Kevin

    *The 1st President of The United States in Congress Assembled, after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation.

  • Warty||

    Plus, he died in office. That's a huge factor in his favor, as far as I'm concerned.

  • ||

    John: Yes, I was going to say that like most arms control agreements, it didn't do much. Instead of building battleships, they built heavy cruisers and aircraft carriers.

  • ||

    John Hanson*

    William Henry Harrison

    James A. Garfield

    Calvin Coolidge

    Grover Cleveland (who kept the U.S. on the Gold Standard.)

    Kevin


    But there was no "President Kevin".

  • Kevin for President \'10||

    @ FrBunny

    Yet!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Kevin for President 2010? Looks like Kevin's planning a coup. Maybe he's part of Terry's militia...

  • ||

    I'm so glad our government has outgrown shenanigans things like the Teapot Dome scandal.

    Oh, wait...

  • JW Gacy||

    "Watergate was bush league compared to the Teapot Dome shennanigans."

    Which doesn't say much. Watergate doesn't bother me. Does your conscience bother you?

  • John McLaughlin||

    Warren G. Harding was a negro.

  • Barack Obama||

    "Watergate was bush league compared to the Teapot Dome shennanigans. No adminstration other than possibly Grant's was more on the take than Harding's before or since."

    Then we'll just have to respectfully agree to disagree.

  • Tips||

    "Warren G. Harding was a negro."

    http://www.theonion.com/content/news/nations_blacks_creeped_out_by_all

  • ||

    From wikipedia on teapot dome

    "The Teapot Dome scandal refers to a bribery scandal of the White House administration of United States President Warren G. Harding. "Teapot Dome" is an oil field on public land in the U.S. state of Wyoming, so named for Teapot Rock, an outcrop resembling a teapot overlooking the field.43°13′59.3″N 106°18′40″W / 43.233139°N 106.31111°W / 43.233139; -106.31111

    In 1921, by executive order of President Harding, control of Naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and at Elk Hills, California, was transferred from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. The oil reserves had been set aside for the Navy by President Taft. In 1922, Albert B. Fall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, leased, without competitive bidding, the Teapot Dome fields to Harry F. Sinclair, an oil operator, and the field at Elk Hills, California, to Edward L. Doheny. These transactions became (1922-23) the subject of a Senate investigation conducted by Sen. Thomas J. Walsh.

    It was found that in 1921, Doheny had lent Fall $100,000, interest-free, and that upon Fall's retirement as Secretary of the Interior, in March 1923, Sinclair also "lent" him a large amount of money. The investigation led to criminal prosecutions.[1] Fall was indicted for conspiracy and for accepting bribes. Convicted of the latter charge, he was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $100,000. In another trial for bribery Doheny and Sinclair were acquitted, although Sinclair was subsequently sentenced to prison for contempt of the Senate and for employing detectives to shadow members of the jury in his case. The oil fields were restored to the U.S. government through a Supreme Court decision in 1927."


    It looks pretty second rate to me. Compared to a real crook like Chris Dodd or Barney Frank, these guys were amateurs. And whatever it was, it certainly wasn't Alien and Sedition or locking up Japanese Americans or using the CIA and FBI to spy on your political enemies. Yet, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy and Johnson are routinely ranked above Harding.

  • Syd||

    John | February 17, 2009, 3:57pm | #
    The big blot on Harding was Teapot Dome.


    And Nan Britton and Carrie Phillips. People were less tolerant about that at the time.

  • ||

    Those who rank as "great" in most lists, tend to be those presidents associated with wars of some sort:

    Washington: Revolutionary war
    Lincoln: Civil War
    Wilson: WWI
    Roosevelt: WWII

    Also consider Kennedy (BoP), Reagan (won the cold war), Johnson (poverty), Jackon (1812), etc. So why aren't Nixon and Bush also highly ranked? Without Watergate I'm sure Nixon would have ranked much higher. I also think Bush reputation will improve over time as forgetfulness sets in.

  • ||

    Syd,

    True. But of course the same historians who downgrade Harding, rave about the Taliban Republicans having a problem with Monica Lewinski. His fling with the 16 year old Britton certainly affected his reputation then, but it shouldn't now.

  • Kolohe||

    Jackon (1812),

    Just to nitpick, if Jackson gets crredit for this, Grant gets it for the Civil War, Taylor for Mexican, and Ike for WW2. Very few presidents are not associated with a war of some sort.

    Does your conscience bother you?

    No, but you don't need me around, anyhow.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Here's a question: if we had won Vietnam, would we view Johnson as being that much of a better President? Or would most people still view it (correctly, IMO) as a war we never should have fought in the first place?

    Iraq looks like a war we're going to win - this doesn't change my opinion that it, too, never should have been fought.

  • micro2000||

    The other day on the Hugh Hewitt show, he had a presidential historian go down the list of presidents and their acheivements. After Hewitt, ridiculed Harding for being a "do nothing" president, the historian defended Harding's effectiveness at easing the nation after significant wartime and economic turmoil, lowering taxes, etc. Hewitt still could not comprehend the idea of a president who was so "do nothing", meaning essentially that he wasn't intervening into the private sector or world affairs, like his predecessor or successors.

    I realize why I hate Republicans as much as Democrats. To them, government officials are potential demigods, capable of "great things" if they would only will to power.

  • ||

    Harding's attorney general made a decent chunk of money on kickback money from bootleggers. Supposedly.

  • zoltan||

    Buh, buh, but...purple fingers!!!

  • ||

    Here's a question: if we had won Vietnam, would we view Johnson as being that much of a better President? Or would most people still view it (correctly, IMO) as a war we never should have fought in the first place?



    The problem with winning in Vietnam is defining "winning."

    Iraq is a slightly more clearcut case. But, I agree, it was still a dumb idea.

    This was not just a war that should not have been fought, it's a war where there was no potential for "victory" in any conventional sense of the word.

  • ||

    Thanks to American Idol, last week I read about this naval treaty in my president worshipping history book, "The National Experience". It looks like the brits used us to break up their alliance with the japs, with the results being Japan had free reign in the Western pacific. I like the the other Harding stuff, though, especially the Blago-like pay to play.

  • ||

    The third para above should come second. As in:

    The problem with winning in Vietnam is defining "winning."

    This was not just a war that should not have been fought, it's a war where there was no potential for "victory" in any conventional sense of the word.

    Iraq is a slightly more clearcut case. But, I agree, it was still a dumb idea.

  • ||

    Warren G. Harding beats Dishonest Abe all day, every day.

  • Kolohe||

    Or would most people still view it (correctly, IMO) as a war we never should have fought in the first place?

    What are the qualitative differences between Vietnam and Korea? Or is your contention that we shouldn't have got involved in Korea either? (a fair enough point).

  • cuernimus||

    Here's a question: if we had won Vietnam, would we view Johnson as being that much of a better President? Or would most people still view it (correctly, IMO) as a war we never should have fought in the first place?

    If by "we" you mean Americans in general, and by "winning" you mean having an enormous embassy and troop presence still in Saigon, then yes. People don't take kindly to losing, even when it is in their best interests. Which is why the Dems sold Iraq policy as "leaving with honor" or some such nonsense instead of getting the fuck out of someplace we shouldn't be.

  • ||

    Micro2000, Teddy Roosevelt was the epitomy of your great things theory. Too bad Republicans won't kick him to the curb for his love of government power. Panama and trust busting would score low in a rational world.

  • ||

    Did "we" win the war to prevent southern independence? We know that the winners were tyranny, mass murder, the income tax, the repudiation of the spirit of '76, mercantalism, protectionism, "internal improvements", socialism, corruption and the worship of an iconic demon by a certain species of cultists.

  • ||

    Teddy Roosevelt was also the epitome of a pussy. He was a bloward, a two bit bolshevik bully.

  • Mister DNA||

    I think most of the hate comes from the terrible middle name.



    I feel sorrier for his lesser known brother, Kenny G. Harding.

  • ||

    I also think Bush reputation will improve over time as forgetfulness sets in.

    If Iraq ends up keeping a democracy and starts to plant the seeds of democracy in surrounding nations, 50+ years from now, I could see GWB being remembered as one of the greatest presidents ever.

  • ||

    "John: Yes, I was going to say that like most arms control agreements, it didn't do much. Instead of building battleships, they built heavy cruisers and aircraft carriers."

    And destroyed the Japanese-British alliance in the process.

    And was ignored by the Japanese, Germans, and just about everyone besides France, US and UK, regardless.

    Naive do-gooders causing more harm than good? Say it isn't so.

  • Kolohe||

    On the Parker-Stone scale, Teddy was a definitely dick, perhaps even an asshole (I disagree), but most assuredly not a pussy.

  • ||

    "This was not just a war that should not have been fought, it's a war where there was no potential for "victory" in any conventional sense of the word."

    We agree!

  • Kolohe||

    On another note, the washington naval treaty also paid no attention to what would be the two most important naval weapons in the next war: aircraft carriers and submarines. So in many ways it was useless, but it's actual harm was somewhat mitigated to.

    I'd also assess that the Brit-Japanese alliance would have been strained even without the naval treaty because of a direct clash of post WW1 imperial interests. (and racial resentment, on both sides, for sins both real and imagined)

  • ||

    John McLaughlin FTW!

  • ||

    libertymike-

    think about that the next time you bite into a piece of meat without having to worry about rat crap being in it.

  • ||

    Jeez, this day at H&R has gone from the completely ridiculous to a reasoned discussion of a 1922 naval arms treaty. That's worth a drink. And to add to Harding's achievements, he wisely paid Columbia 25 million dollars to make up for the Panama ugliness.

  • cuernimus||

    think about that the next time you bite into a piece of meat without having to worry about rat crap being in it.


    Why would there be rat crap in the meat? Do rats kill by injecting their fecal matter into their prey? Man, and I thought killer bees were bad...

  • Warty||

    Sean's email address gives him away. Obvious troll is obvious.

  • BDB||

    We fought a war over Taiwan? What?

  • BDB||

    The Korean War was more like the First Gulf War than the Second Gulf War. We were defending South Korea from being attacked, and the goal was to keep the invaders out. We succeeded, just like we did defending Kuwait from being taken over by Iraq.

  • ||

    If victory in Iraq means a stable representative democracy with respect for individual rights not propped up by US troops, I'm completely unconvinced we're winning.

    We're just delaying the inevitable bloodbath and installation of tyranny at great cost in treasure and lives. That ain't winning. Call me on it when and if I'm proved wrong.

  • micro2000||

    think about that the next time you bite into a piece of meat without having to worry about rat crap being in it.

    Ummm...fecal matter, as defined as "filth", is allowable in certain amounts in the food supply. Rat turds, insects (whole and parts), hairs, dirt, etc. are not uncommon, especially in the canned food industry.

    But I do love the argument that if not for the wisdom and foresight of Teddy, no one would have implemented any quality control measures in this industry. Cause I mean we all know that the "rich" love to eat rat shit in their food.

  • ||

    "Watergate was bush league compared to the Teapot Dome shennanigans. No adminstration other than possibly Grant's was more on the take than Harding's before or since."

    Well, it's still only the first month.

    I also happen to disagree that a bribery scandal is worse than running an illegal dirty tricks op during an election, but ok.

  • micro2000||

    Micro2000, Teddy Roosevelt was the epitomy of your great things theory. Too bad Republicans won't kick him to the curb for his love of government power. Panama and trust busting would score low in a rational world.

    Yeah, when the historian was discussing T.R., Hewitt was all but rubbing one off behind the mike. As stated earlier, Republicans love wartime presidents (I would venture war itself), so Hewitt was praising FDR for being "the perfect man for the job" kinda shit.

    And as usual, he and the historian ventured into the realm of economics, where they espoused the nonsense of heavy government intervention to "get us out of the Depression".

    Republicans have done tremendous damage to the cause of Libertarianism by lifting it's principles and turning them into campaign rhetoric...rhetoric they ignore when in power.

  • ||

    Warren G should have let Albert B take the Fall - get it?

  • D.R.M.||

    BDB -

    Except, of course, our actual goal in Korea was unconditional surrender and the reunification of all Korea under an allied government. We only switched to the goal of mere repulsion of the invader after the Chinese counterattack spanked MacArthur.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Ha! Well, well, well, Mr. Kevrob! If I recall correctly George Washington acknowledged only one man during the war as "President of the United States". Henry Laurens of Virginia who took over the job of President of Congress from John Hancock.

    BOO YAH!!!! Suck it!

  • ||

    Kolohe-

    Big government loving, warmongering, public sector parasites, are, IMO, by definition, pussies. The types that are gung ho to go and kill others who are much weaker. Cops and soldiers.

  • MNG||

    libertymike
    Gotta agree with Kolohe (as I often do). You may disagree with government lovers, or warmongers, or public sector parasites, but T.R. was at least willing to go fight in the wars he mongered while working for the government (at an assured loss for him mind you).

    So no, not a pussy. T.R. may have been the baddest ass Prez we ever had...

  • BDB||

    No, the U.N. resolution that authorized the war doesn't mention anything about reunification, but says the U.N. should "furnish such assistance as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security to the area". Crossing the 38th parallel was over-reaching.

    http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/korea/large/week1/ayer_1_1.htm

  • BDB||

    Nothing about unification, let alone "unconditional surrender".

  • BakedPenguin||

    Isaac, true, once we ceded that we wouldn't go past the DMZ, it was literally impossible to win in Vietnam. I was imagining a hypothetical universe where circumstances were different. As cuernimus mentioned, I think Americans are so wrapped up in "winning" that context gets lost.

    Also, Warren G Harding would have cracked the top 20 if They Might Be Giants had written a song about him.

  • Rocky Mountain Libertarian||

    "Big government loving, warmongering, public sector parasites, are, IMO, by definition, pussies. The types that are gung ho to go and kill others who are much weaker. Cops and soldiers."

    Yep, while Theodore Roosevelt was still making a speech with a bullet in his chest you were talking about how the Jews were in on 9/11. It's obvious that you're not a pussy at all.

  • nonPaulogist||

    four words:
    William. Henry. Fucking. Harrison.

  • ||

    If Iraq ends up keeping a democracy and starts to plant the seeds of democracy in surrounding nations, 50+ years from now, I could see GWB being remembered as one of the greatest presidents ever.

    A good-case outcome of the war in Iraq will definitely help, but I think Bush will be remembered as the Calvin Coolidge of the Second Depression.

  • ||

    I would like to make a Shermanesque denial about my Presidential ambitions. As if the Libertarian party would ever nominate a single, middle-aged, white guy who is only intermittently employed.

    Naga: I don't really care if Gen'l. Washington never addressed John Hanson as POTUSICA or not. That is the position he held.

    Kevin

  • ||

    Poor Warren Gamaliel Harding always makes these lists. This troubles me, for I have come to believe that Harding was a far better president than he has been judged. I will simply note that he faced multiple challenges in the post WWI years-greater than many presidents ever face-and for the most part, he handled them well. Unfortunately, he died just as the fruits of labor were coming to fruition. Calvin Coolidge would be the beneficiary. The supposedly horrible scandals of his administration were modest compared with those that came later. Harding himself, as is often forgotten, was in no way associated with them. I would urge that anyone interested in obtaining a scholarly look at the man read Robert K. Murray's THE HARDING ERA.

  • D.R.M.||

    BDB --

    Whatever the UN resolution said, the actual goal of the Truman Administration in 1950, as amply documented in internal memoranda, was conquest of North Korea and reunification of Korea by force of arms.

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