The result was a curious blend of the best and the worst in cabinet making. Harding shocked many old-guard supporters by naming Charles Evans Hughes, a proponent of the League of Nations, as his secretary of state. Harding considered him as having one of the "finest minds in the country." Similarly, he gave conservative Republicans "gooseflesh," as one phrased it, by appointing Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. Somewhat of a political maverick, Hoover was distrusted by a sizable number of powerful old-line Republican politicians, but Harding selected him over their protests because, as he explained to one of them, "I believe he's the smartest 'gink' I know." In another independent decision, Harding chose Henry C. Wallace, editor of Wallace's Farmer and a member of one of the most famous farming familes in the United States, as his secretary of agriculture.
Some of his other appointments were more to conservative liking. Andrew W. Mellon of Pittsburgh was given the nod for secretary of the treasury, a selection that delighted such old-guard stalwarts as senators Boies Penrose and Philander Knox of Pennsylvania. The post of secretary of war went to John Weeks of Massachusetts, who was sponsored by Senator Lodge. James J. Davis, an active union member, was made secretary of labor. Will Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was offered the position of postmaster general. Edwin Denby, a former member of the House Naval Affairs Committee, was named secretary of the navy. Albert Fall, senator from New Mexico and a personal friend of Harding's, was given the job of secretary of the interior, despite the cries of some conservationists who were disturbed by his anticonservationist views.
Harding appointed his campaign manager and confidant, Harry Daugherty, as attorney general. Even some old-guard members balked at this selection, being concerned about Daugherty's questionable lobbying past. But Harding was adamant, once telling a disapproving Senator James W. Wadsworth of New York, "I have told [Daugherty] that he can have any place in my Cabinet he wants, outside of Secretary of State. He tells me that he wants to be Attorney General and by God he will be Attorney General!"
The change between the Wilson and the Harding administrations was immediately noticeable. Following a subdued and unostentatious inauguration, the Hardings threw open the White House gates, which had been closed in the last years of the Wilson administration, and quickly chased the gloom of the Wilson illness from the executive mansion. Portions of the White House were even opened to the public. Brighter colors were added to the furnishings and flowers appeared everywhere. Mrs. Harding reinstituted White House teas and gave three garden parties during the first summer. The president immediately restored regular White House press conferences, which Wilson had abandoned. Unquestionably, Harding had the best working relationship with the press of any chief executive in history.
It has often been said that the Hardings represented Main Street come to Washington. The Hardings did move into the White House with their small-town background and ideas intact. They did not hesitate to admit to being "just folks" or to practice small-town ways. To a critic like H. L. Mencken this seemed gauche, but to a majority of citizens it was welcomed as a breath of fresh air. The personality of the president contrasted markedly with that of his predecessor. Gregarious, affable, and handsome, Harding, in the parlance of his own time, "looked like a president." Standing a little over six feet tall and weighing 210 pounds, he had a high forehead, heavy square jaw, and calm, sympathetic gray eyes. His nose was large but in proportion with the rest of his face. He was vain about his person; his straight silver hair was always well brushed, his heavy dark eyebrows neatly trimmed. His suits were immaculate and well pressed, and he varied his dress considerably, more so than most presidents, to fit the occasion. Sometimes he dressed more "sporty" than Mrs. Harding liked.
Harding had a magnetic quality that made both men and women like him. His was not the charisma of a leader but the simple attractiveness of a friendly and engaging individual. Next to Lincoln, Harding was probably the most human man to occupy the White House. As one close associate put it, "W. G. always wore the human side of him out." Harding also had a temper that could vent itself in outbursts of profanity, but he always quickly repented and labeled such lapses with one of his favorite words—"unseemly." Kindliness, friendliness, and generosity were his most winning traits and undoubtedly sprang from his dislike of contention and disharmony and from his compulsive need for friends. Given these traits, it is not surprising that Harding placed a high value on loyalty. An acquaintance once said, "He liked politicians for the reason that he loved dogs, because they were usually loyal to their friends." Harding's fear of offending anyone, his desire to grant requests, and his indiscriminate loyalty placed him in constant danger. Harding's father once remarked that it was fortunate he was not a girl; he would have been in a family way all the time because he could not say no.
Although known at the time and not occasioning any particular adverse comment, certain of Harding's habits were later blown out of proportion and their impact on his presidency exaggerated. Harding liked to play poker and, as a senator, had had a group in every Saturday night for "food and action." After becoming president, he continued playing poker approximately once a week. Beginning sometime after dinner, these games rarely lasted beyond midnight and were for relaxation, not profit. Limited to eight at one sitting, the White House poker group had a fluid membership. Even Hoover and Hughes were invited to play. Later charges that the poker crowd "ran" the government or exercised a hypnotic influence over the president were untrue.
Harding's love of cards was matched by his love of golf. While president, Harding made every professional golfer who came to Washington give him a command performance. The first hint of spring found Harding out on the south grounds of the White House practicing tee shots. There Laddie Boy, a homely Airedale whose affection for Harding caused much comment in the press, chased and retrieved the president's practice balls. On the golf course, the dog was usually at his side while his master, despite all the practicing, struggled to break a hundred. It was fashionable to claim in later years that Harding spent all his time on the golf course, but, again, this was not true. The demands of the presidency clearly prevented him from playing the game as much as he would have liked. During his first two years in the White House, he did play about twice a week, but toward the end of his tenure, he barely had time to play at all.
Harding's drinking and smoking habits while he was in the White House were far more controversial. Harding used tobacco in all forms. He smoked two cigars a day, interspersed with a pipe and cigarettes. Harding also chewed, although he tapered off somewhat after entering the White House because of his wife's nagging. To many, chewing was a filthy habit, but not to Thomas Edison. Harding once shared a plug of tobacco with the famous inventor, causing Edison to remark, "Harding's all right. Any man who chews tobacco is all right."
More controversial was his use of liquor. Throughout his adult life Harding drank and saw nothing wrong in it. He was never personally committed to Prohibition, even though he had voted for it and, like many Americans, pretended the law did not apply to him. He was careful to serve liquor only in his private rooms in the White House and would sometimes take visitors there for that purpose. It was later claimed that Harding was a heavy drinker, although no one ever reported seeing him drunk. Still, such "sneaking around" by the president to break the law, when added to smoking, chewing, and poker playing, raised in some minds the specter of low-life carousals.
In the end, it was the quality of Harding's mind, as much as any personal habits or character traits, that limited his effectiveness as president. Wilson claimed he had a "bungalow mind," and to some extent this was true. Harding tended to accept the pat answer rather than reason through to a more sophisticated solution. His mental powers were undisciplined by hard thought, and he lived his life in the realm of clichés, maxims, and emotionally held opinions. He had never been required to study hard; neither were his closest associates and Senate colleagues noted for their intellectual prowess. Personality counted more with Harding than ideas.
Philosophical discussions and impersonal technical matters like economic theory did not appeal to him. There is no indication that he ever spent much time reading, although his personal library was rather well stocked. He did not possess a deep knowledge of public questions or of their foundations in history, economics, or law. He had managed quite well without such knowledge as a senator. But as president this limitation was constricting. A major difficulty during the Harding years was that the best people in his cabinet had to funnel their collective intelligence through his untrained and ambivalent mind. Sometimes Harding did not understand, other times he was too cautious, occasionally he was too fearful. Often he simply endorsed a solution worked out by others.