The Magazine


Warren G. Harding and William F. Clinton -- and Why Calvin Coolidge Isn't Like Them

Jul 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 44 • By DAVID FRUM
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After the divorce, Florence supported herself by teaching piano, and soon came to meet Warren Harding, five years her junior, an ambitious newspaper editor and already an avid womanizer. Harding seems not to have been much attracted to Florence, but he recognized her abilities and never had the strength to say no to anything, even marriage. The wedding scandalized her family as much as her previous elopement -- a persistent rumor had it that the Hardings were partly black -- but Florence was undaunted. Under her management, Harding's newspaper, the Marion Star, prospered, and it was very largely thanks to her that Harding arrived in Washington an affluent man.

By then, Harding had been conducting extramarital affairs for twenty years, his longest and most passionate with Carrie Phillips, the wife of his best friend. Harding had the bad habit of writing torrid letters and erotic poems to his woman of the moment. In 1917, while he was in the Senate, the strongly pro-German Mrs. Phillips tried to use her collection of letters to blackmail Harding into opposing entry into the war. Enough of the old passion lingered that he was able to talk her out of it. But by the time of his presidential run in 1920, such blandishments no longer worked, and Harding's campaign managers had to put together a secret fund to pay off Mrs. Phillips -- and other women as well.

The man in charge of the pay-offs, Harry Daugherty, had been responsible for securing Harding's nomination in the famous smoke-filled room in Chicago's Blackstone Hotel. For the Republican party, still divided by the 1912 split between Roosevelt and Taft, Harding was an acceptable compromise. The party bosses picked much of Harding's cabinet and on the whole did an excellent job: Charles Evans Hughes as secretary of state, Andrew Mellon as secretary of the treasury, and Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. But Harding chose some of his cabinet too, and there his troubles began. He put Daugherty in the Justice department, gave New Mexico senator Albert Fall the Interior, and made Charles Forbes, a special favorite of Florence's, the first chief of the new Veterans' Bureau.

Harding's admirers would later say that he was betrayed by his friends. But it's hard to believe he had no inkling about Daugherty, Fall, and Forbes. He had known the first two for years, and the truth about Forbes quickly became available. Even Florence Harding's psychic knew it.

In the early 1920s, it was generally believed that the world was running out of oil and that America's reserves ought to be hoarded for military use. Fall took bribes from oilmen, got both the Wyoming oil field known as Teapot Dome and California's Elk Hills transferred from the Navy, and then leased them out. Meanwhile, Florence's courtier Forbes was embezzling millions in hospital-construction funds and medical supplies, and Daugherty was perverting the administration of justice on an unmatched scale.

Anthony does a good job of describing these abuses. But his book is marred by an irritatingly twittery style and a troubling eagerness to make excuses:

Despite Harding's instituting the government's Bureau of the Budget and sponsoring America's first international disarmament conference, his progressive views on racial inequality and fighting religious intolerance, his support of programs for better women's health, his promotion of new American technological industries like moving-picture shows, air travel, radio and the automobile, his successful demand to industry that they institute a fair eight-hour day, Warren G. Harding's name would always be recalled by those oil leases.

But the oil leases were only the start. Harding liked drinking -- liked it quite a lot -- and that was a problem, since alcohol had been outlawed in 1919. He had campaigned in 1920 as a moderate supporter of Prohibition, but he served whiskey at his White House poker parties and boozed it up in houses owned by his friends. At one of these drinking sessions, a bevy of prostitutes was brought in and a girl was killed by a thrown bottle. But when her brother tried to blackmail the president, Harding's cronies at the precursor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation, confined him to St. Elizabeths mental hospital.