The reputation of Warren G. Harding, one this century's greatest presidents, has long been unjustly maligned. The TV mini-series Backstairs at the White House has continued this historical tragedy by portraying the great man as a crude, lecherous, cigar-smoking, poker-playing oaf. The legions of Harding devotees should rise in protest at this base distortion.
Harding's utilization of his time while president showed a high degree of imagination and originality, inspired, no doubt, by his conception of the presidency as a largely ceremonial office. He knew instinctively from his first days in office what it took his more exalted successors many years to discover: Washington is not a pleasant place for a president to live. Never did a president travel so frequently or so far in so short a time—Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, all of it capped off by a grand cross-continental train trip and sea voyage to Alaska from which he never returned.
When he was in Washington, Harding followed an unvarying schedule of golf twice a week, poker three times a week, and liaisons with his mistress in the White House coat closet as frequently as his Secret Service agents could sneak her in past the ever-vigilant eyes of Mrs. Harding, known fondly to her friends as "The Duchess." "Being president is an easy job," Harding was known to remark.
Small wonder. Harding carried the principle of creative inaction (he called it "bloviating") to its highest pinnacle, a lofty standard never again approached in Washington. As Harding once wrote, the presidency is "an unattractive business unless one relishes the exercise of power,…a thing which has never greatly appealed to me."
What did appeal to Harding whenever he turned his mind to his job, were things like peace, prosperity, government efficiency, civil rights. And these were precisely some of the achievements he left the country as his legacy, a legacy long since forgotten by those who prefer to dwell on the Harding scandals.
Prosperity. In 1921, Harding inherited from Woodrow Wilson an inflation-ridden, deficit-financed, highly taxed wartime economy. Harding didn't waste his time searching about for a "moral equivalent of war" to distract the American people. He cut taxes and federal spending and then went back to playing poker and other diversions. The people were ecstatic. The economy thrived.
Peace. Harding also inherited from Wilson a burgeoning arms race in naval construction between the United States, England, and Japan. Upon taking office, Harding and his secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes, convened an arms limitation conference in Washington. With the countries duly assembled, Harding lectured them on "the inexcusable causes, the incalculable cost, the unspeakable sacrifices and the unutterable sorrows" of war and then had his secretary of state follow up by announcing to the delegates that the way to disarm was to disarm. Harding left the conference immediately after speaking and did not return until its close 12 weeks later. When he did, agreement had been reached on scrapping over 60 capital ships and a four-power treaty between the United States, England, Japan, and France regarding detente in the Pacific.
Government efficiency. Strange as it may seem today, the United States in 1921 had no formal budget process to coordinate expenditures and revenue. Harding, his mind honed on higher mathematics through many hours at the poker table, changed all that and created our first Bureau of the Budget.
Civil rights. Harding, if you believed his political enemies, may have been our first black president. The allegation as to his racial background haunted him throughout most of his public life and was particularly vicious during his campaign for president. If it bothered him, he never showed it. Indeed, he was a consistent and vocal supporter of civil rights for blacks. Shortly after becoming president, he chose to travel to Atlanta, the heart of the confederacy, and deliver a major address calling for political, economic, and educational equality for blacks—the first president to do so since the Civil War.
Let history record: Harding smoked; he drank; he played poker; he kept mistresses; he placed crooked cronies in high government office; he was lazy. But Harding also revered government inaction; he cut taxes; he cut spending; he balanced the budget; he placed men of unquestioned integrity and ability in high office (Charles Evans Hughes at State, Andrew Mellon at Treasury, Herbert Hoover at Commerce, Henry Wallace at Agriculture, William Howard Taft as chief justice); he was the most outspoken president on the civil rights of blacks since Lincoln; he helped create the '20s boom; he achieved genuine disarmament for his times; he kept us out of war.
An envious record for only two years in office—one his successors have yet to match, although many have said they were trying. The great man clearly deserves better from history than he has so far received.
Michael McMenamin is an attorney with a Cleveland law firm.