Wednesday, August 02, 2006

August 2

Warren Harding, one of the most worthless presidents in American history, sloughed off his mortal coil on this date in 1923, succumbing to heart disease during a trip to the West Coast.

Harding had not been an especially great candidate for the president, but he was a laissez-faire Republican who was regarded by business leaders as compliant, and old guard party leaders supported him because he seemed like a man who would take instructions without complaint. His ham-fisted command of the English language was legendary. Boies Penrose, head of Pennsylvania Republican machine, once begged Harding’s aides to “keep Warren at home. Don’t let him make any speeches. If he goes out on a tour somebody’s sure to ask him questions, and Warren’s just the sort of damned fool that will try to answer them.” On the view of William McAdoo -- himself a failed contender for the Democratic nomination in 1920 -- Harding’s speeches “leave the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.”

A likable but stupid man, Harding rarely worked during his two years in office, spending much of his time golfing and inviting political cronies to the White House for poker games. He often seemed puzzled by the office of President, and so he allowed his political boosters in the Republican Party and his corporate friends from Ohio to have a free hand in shaping policy. As his own father once remarked in a letter, if Harding were a woman “you’d be in a family way all the time. You can’t say No.”

Harding’s administration was among the most corrupt in American history. The head of Veteran’s Administration, Charles Forbes, was imprisoned for two years for accepting kickbacks and for organizing illegal drug and alcohol rackets. An aide to Forbes, Charles Cramer, committed suicide before his own indictment could be issued. A member of the Justice Department also killed himself; he had been selling liquor licenses and paroles. The worst of Harding’s scandals, however, was not fully disclosed until after his death. As part of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, oil companies bribed Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, offering him $404,000 in exchange for cheap oil leases on federal land.

After Harding’s body was returned to Washington and placed in the East Room of the White House, his wife Florence was observed at his side, speaking softly to him for over an hour. She herself died a year later. Years afterward, rumors began to circulate that Florence Harding had poisoned her husband -- revenge for his numerous extramarital affairs.