Warren G. Harding - Historical legacy
Death should have brought Warren Harding's problems to an end, but in some respects they were just beginning. Even while the press was eulogizing him as a "man of peace," "an ideal American," and "the greatest commoner since Lincoln," events were in motion that would destroy the Harding reputation almost completely. The general outline of the Harding scandals was known to only a few at the time of his death, but this knowledge spread quickly after his demise. Within three months of his burial, a Senate investigation into the Veterans Bureau uncovered Charles Forbes's improprieties, resulting in his conviction and a two-year jail sentence.
Before this investigation was completed, another was begun into unconfirmed rumors of alleged "oil deals" involving top Harding officials. Centering on Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, this Senate probe unearthed evidence of the transfer of certain oil reserve lands (the most famous being Teapot Dome in Wyoming) from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. Fall then had leased them for development to two oil men, Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, without competitive bids. Fall was later convicted of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the government, and was sentenced to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. Secretary of the Navy Charles Denby, while not a party to the granting of the leases or the exchange of bribes, was finally forced out of the cabinet because of his naïveté and stupidity.
Far more sensational was the final investigation growing out of the Harding years, one involving Daugherty and the Justice Department. Begun by the Senate in March 1924, it clearly established the perfidy and machinations of Jess Smith and the Ohio Gang, but it was not able to establish "beyond doubt" Daugherty's rumored involvement in these activities. A fortuitous fire destroyed the records in Daugherty's brother's bank in Washington Court House (where the attorney general and Jess Smith kept a joint account) and eliminated evidence that might have proved crucial. Nonetheless, some witnesses (most of them admittedly unreliable and one even known to be a perjurer) told tales of bacchanalian orgies at the little green house on K Street in which both Daugherty and Harding allegedly took part. In the end, the only government official to be convicted as a result of this investigation was Colonel Thomas W. Miller, alien property custodian, who had accepted bribes arranged by Jess Smith to illegally transfer a German-owned American subsidiary to an American firm. He ultimately served eighteen months in jail and paid a $5,000 fine. Daugherty, in turn, went through two trials in 1926–1927, the first ending in a hung jury and the second declaring him not guilty because of insufficient evidence.
All of this naturally raised questions about Harding's own involvement in the scandals. It was diffi-cult for many to believe that the president was not somehow connected with this skulduggery. Even if he were not personally involved, most citizens believed that he must have known about it. Actually, he did not know about Fall, but as we have seen, he did know about Forbes and Smith and had done nothing to expose their corruption. In any case, continued doubts and uncertainties left Harding's reputation badly tarnished.
But it was also Harding's own questionable past that further damaged whatever reputable image he might otherwise have retained. In 1927 there appeared a book entitled The President's Daughter , written by Nan Britton, a former Marionite who was years younger than the dead president. In this book, Britton claimed that Harding had fathered a child by her in 1919 and that their illicit contact had continued on into the presidential years. Rumors also circulated that Harding had had extramarital relations with still another Marion woman who was the wife of one of the town's leading businessmen.
There is considerable doubt that Harding was the father of Nan's child, because medical evidence exists to indicate that he was probably sterile. There is some possibility that the two of them may have maintained a relationship during his senatorial career, but it most certainly did not extend into the White House period. There is no doubt whatever that Harding and Mrs. Carrie Phillips, the business-man's wife, did maintain an intimate relationship for a number of years prior to his becoming a senator.
Whatever the precise truth surrounding these various relationships, they, together with the corrosive effect of the scandals, produced a devastating reaction that prompted much muckraking and mythmaking. Wholly fictional exposés of Harding's life and his alleged carousals now made the rounds. So did increasingly exaggerated stories of the activities of the Ohio Gang. As a result, rumors about Harding's private life and knowledge about the scandals remained, while many of the achievements of the administration were lost to view.
Unjustifiable in some respects as the final verdict may be, Warren Harding must bow to the adverse judgment of history. Extramarital matters aside, fatal flaws obviously existed not only in some of the friends around him, but in Harding himself. Kindliness, friendliness, generosity, and loyalty are not necessarily bad traits for a president to have, but in the case of Harding they were liabilities. Under the circumstances, he probably should never have sought the presidency, and a more discerning electorate would not have elected him.
As it was, throughout the remainder of the 1920s, Warren Harding represented an acute embarrassment for the nation and the Republican party. The great colonnaded marble monument that was erected to him outside of Marion through contributions from his friends immediately following his death stood undedicated because no major Republican figure had the nerve to appear there. Fittingly, President Herbert Hoover, a man who owed much to Harding, finally screwed up his courage, journeyed to Marion in the summer of 1931, and delivered a brief dedicatory address. Standing before a battery of microphones and with Harry Daugherty seated on the platform directly behind him, Hoover faced the issue squarely:
Here was a man whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment.. . . Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men whom he believed were his devoted friends. It was later proved in the courts of the land that these men had betrayed not only the friendship and trust of their staunch and loyal friend but that they had betrayed their country. That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.
Perhaps no better or more judicious epitaph for the Harding years exists.