- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 24, 2004

WARREN G. HARDING

By John W. Dean

Times Books, $20, 202 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF

Warren Harding is the Rodney Dangerfield of American presidents: More than 80 years after his death he still can’t get no respect.

Liberals hate Harding for burying their beloved League of Nations and succeeding their sainted Woodrow Wilson. They regard his presidency from 1920 to 1923 as the start of a dark age of repression and reaction when ordinary Americans were ground into the dust.

Prudish conservatives turn up their noses at his Clintonesque philandering ways in the White House and the corruption scandals that engulfed his administration. Neoconservatives and liberals alike regard him as the epitome of isolationism and national selfishness.

It took a British conservative historian, Paul Johnson, to start the long-overdue rehabilitation of poor Harding in his influential work of two decades ago, “Modern Times.” Now along comes another unlikely champion, John W. Dean, Richard Nixon’s chief counsel through the Watergate scandal, to continue the job.

“Warren G. Harding” is a volume in “The American Presidents” series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and in its style and structure it is as unfashionable as its subject. It is slim, coming in at only 174 pages, but it is elegantly written, rigorously documented and refreshingly, impressively argued from first principles.

The figure it celebrates had a remarkable number of achievements to his credit, while surprisingly few of the accusations routinely heaped upon him for more than 70 years survive even the most cursory examination.

Harding ranks alongside Ronald Reagan as the 20th-century president who most successfully and rapidly cured a serious recession or depression during his term of office. And unlike Reagan — or Franklin Roosevelt during World War II — he did so without modern macroeconomic tools or the artificial stimuli of deficit spending that ran the federal budget catastrophically into the red.

Indeed, the ferocity of the 1920 Depression that Harding inherited from Woodrow Wilson has been played down by liberal historians and missed by almost everyone else. From the pre-slump Wall Street high and top levels of employment to the most severe rates of unemployment and stock market depths, its indicators plunged farther and faster than they did after the Wall Street crash during the Great Depression.

Harding and his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon stabilized the economy, slashed government spending and restored business confidence in rapid time. They laid the basis for what became the longest period of sustained economic growth and widely spread prosperity in U.S. history.

Nor was Harding a monster of repression. On the contrary, it was he who ended the era of the Palmer Raids in the Red Scare under Wilson and who restored due process to the Department of Justice. And it was Harding who insisted on freeing Socialist leader and former presidential candidate Eugene Debs after he had been locked up by Wilson and Palmer. Harding even invited him to the White House.

Harding also ended the dark era of revived racial segregation that Wilson imposed upon the White House and in the District of Columbia. He spoke out publicly against lynching in a way no president since Ulysses S. Grant — with whom he had much in common — had dared. His record in this regard was far more impressive than Theodore Roosevelt’s.

Harding’s determination to treat blacks with fairness and dignity fueled the claims that he was part black himself. (He wasn’t.) Harding was also the first sitting president in U.S. history to publicly support the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in their ancient land.

The scandals that bedeviled Harding’s closing months in office and helped literally drive him to his grave were real. But he was a victim of no more than poor judgment in two key selections. His Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall was a true Iago figure who stole the entire strategic oil reserve of the U.S. Navy, as came to light in the Teapot Dome scandal. His Attorney General Harry Daugherty and his veterans’ bureau chief were also up to their necks in graft. Harding himself, however, was honest to the core.

Even the tales of the White House turned into Babylon-on-the-Potomac turn out to be largely fantasy. Mr. Dean cogently argues that Harding could not have been the father of Nan Britton’s illegitimate daughter for the very good reason that he was almost certainly sterile and could not have children. Indeed, Harding, who loved children, regarded this affliction as the greatest tragedy of his life.

Far from staffing the U.S. government with evil robber barons and shameless criminals, Harding filled his cabinet with some of the most impressive talents of the age. He included a future president, Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce and a future chief justice of the Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes, as his secretary of state.

Harding and Hughes defused a potentially very dangerous naval arms race with Britain at the 1921 Washington Naval Conference and thereby also defused U.S. tensions with Japan for a generation. Harding’s cabinet picks also included Mellon at the Department of Treasury and Henry C. Wallace as secretary of agriculture.

Harding’s policy towards a Europe ravaged by World War I was also a model of responsibility and generosity. He and Mellon encouraged Wall Street banks to give massive low-interest loans to the major European nations, including defeated Germany, to restore stability and prosperity.

This policy was in the national interest as well as being humane. It created agricultural and industrial markets for an America that had become the world’s greatest exporter in both areas.

Harding was an exceptionally hard-working chief executive in contrast to the notoriously lazy and self-indulgent Wilson and his successor Calvin Coolidge, who routinely slept at least 12 hours a day in the White House. Coolidge exhibited the classic symptoms of clinical depression during most of his presidency following the death of his son from a rare infection.

Harding, on the other hand, ranks with James Polk and FDR as a president who literally worked himself to death in the Oval Office.

John Dean has done an elegant and admirable job of sweeping away the cobwebbed old fantasies surrounding this much underrated and disgracefully despised figure. His book deserves to be an indispensable guide to students and scholars alike for decades to come.

Martin Sieff is chief political correspondent for United Press International.

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