“Hooray for President Harding: President Bush has replaced you as America’s worst president.” Mickey Glantz. 10 January 2010

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on January 10, 2010 with 5 Comments

President Warren G. Harding was America’s 23rd president. Harding won the presidency by the largest landslide of votes up to that election. His popularity throughout his first term was apparently relatively high. By the untimely end of his Presidency, he was viewed by most historians as one of the worst, if not the worst, president in American history; and that was what we were taught in high school civics class. Given the performances of several of the 40+ presidents of the United States we have had throughout the history of our country until recently, this was no small achievement.

The truth is that Harding’s Administration became the standard for bad government, against which each succeeding presidency has been compared. And it is now most likely that the administration of Bush 2 (George W.) has surpassed the Harding Administration’s ranking as the worst and most corrupt administration in American history. In this category, George W. Bush is #1.

Just to remind you, Harding and his inner circle of cronies were responsible for quite a list of failings in his 2+ years in office: sex scandals (aside from his affairs, Harding fathered a child while he was a married sitting president); drugs (several references to “white powder” as well as alcohol use in the midst of Prohibition days that banned the sale of alcohol to the public), violence, considerable corruption, cronyism and even murder. One newspaper wrote: “The country that held its breath over the death of the president was now holding its nose over the stench of corruption.”

President Harding became the presidential nominee on an umpteenth ballot during the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1920. He was far from anyone’s first choice but the factions, developed during the nominating process supporting the leading candidates, became deadlocked uncompromisingly in the convention and, after many votes, the delegates turned to Harding as the “dark horse” candidate. He became the Republican Party nominee after being selected in a “smoke-filled” room of party moguls.

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After a couple years in office, Harding died during a trip across the country, called “Voyage of Understanding” in August 1923. He made the trip to Alaska and the Inland Passage, where he allegedly had some bad food and was felled by food poisoning during a speech in Seattle on the way back to Washington, DC. Attending doctors disagreed on cause of death in a hotel room in San Francisco.
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Considerable controversy prevailed about the premature death of Harding in late summer 1923, a controversy that lasted ‘till the Stock Market crash in October 1929. Some at the time felt that the president’s wife had ‘done him in’, because of the Teapot Dome and other scandals that were about to emerge because of the activities of his political cronies.

In her autobiography, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt) wrote of Harding in her autobiography, “He was not a bad man. He was just a slob.” Really, Harding was manipulated by a set of “handlers” who abused his trust in them. In fact, Harding’s father once suggested, “people could play Warren like a fiddle” (e.g., he had no backbone).
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Fast forward to 2010. Today, Harding can rest in peace, because a growing number of Americans no longer consider him to have been the country’s worst president. That title seems to have been captured by President George W. Bush.

Harding had selected members of his administration who were at both extremes: honest as best as could be found and corrupt to the Nth degree. They included both the best of minds and the worst of character. For example, Herbert Hoover was an honest man while his Attorney General Dougherty — the guy who got Harding into the White House — was a major crook. His Secretary of the Interior was also bad news (Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico). There was an article written about “The Fall of Albert Fall” referring to him as “the member of Harding’s Cabinet whose life read like a dime-store novel.”

In this regard, both Bush and Harding were alike: they appointed cronies to various positions in their administrations, whose myopic and egocentric views of the world the presidents apparently accepted.

And then there are Supreme Court justice appointments to compare: Harding appointed such notable Supreme Court justices as Felix Frankfurter and Charles Evans Hughes. Bush has Chief Justice Roberts and Samuel Alito Jr. Bush had tried get his White House counsel and friend (!), Harriet Meirs, onto the Court. Her name was withdrawn under pressure from his own Republican Party as a poor choice for such a high position. Bush, like Harding, was loyal to his friends — usually to a fault.

By early 1923 Harding realized that some of his appointees (several of whom were his poker-playing, whiskey-drinking buddies) were unsuited for their government positions, because they were involved in illegal and unethical activities (corruption, bribery, influence peddling, the selling off of government materials as war surplus). They had also set in motion the now infamous oil-related Teapot Dome scandal that enabled the government’s oil reserves in Wyoming (VP Cheney’s home state) to be stolen and sold for personal gain). In summer of 1923 Harding became distraught and decided to clean up his administration.

The Teapot Dome scandal would have been Harding’s political downfall, had he not died before it was exposed to the public. Thus, for both Bush and Harding “oil” issues have tainted their administrations with many people thinking that the Bush-Cheney team invaded Iraq for reasons related to oil. One major difference, though, is that Harding appears to have been oblivious to the dealings of the people around him; that was the opposite case for Bush.

Harding is the apparent author of the phrase “It’s not my enemies I have to worry about. It’s my friends”. He uttered this statement, once he learned about the corrupt practices of several of his crony appointees.

Bush on the other hand was in sync with the views of those around him, knowing that there have been obvious exaggerations and distortions of information on which his policies were based (such as persistent belief to this day in their claims about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and about Saddam’s close ties to al-Qaida).

Bush’s image began to deteriorate at an accelerated pace, in the first year of his second term. He has been exposed as a failure in office by the inappropriate appointment of his cronies, such as Michael Brown. He appointed his Yale school chum as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Brown, with the backing of Bush, managed to mismanage FEMA’s response to the devastating human impacts of Hurricane Katrina, America’s costliest “natural disaster.” This plus the near destruction of the American economy, the rampant greed on Wall Street and the bungling of various aspects of the war in Iraq and the lack of focus on Afghanistan among other poltical and military screw-ups has helped Bush to deserve the title of the worst president in US history.

The following is a list comparing Bush to other presidents. The list was compiled by a political writer (http://hnn.us/articles/5019.html).
“Bush as president has been unique in his failures.” The George W. Bush presidency is the worst…
• In terms of economic damage, R. Reagan.
• In terms of imperialism, T. Roosevelt.
• In terms of dishonesty in government, R.M. Nixon.
• In terms of affable incompetence, W.G. Harding.
• In terms of corruption, U.S. Grant.
• In terms of general lassitude and cluelessness, C. Coolidge.
• In terms of personal dishonesty, W.J. Clinton.
• In terms of religious arrogance, W. Wilson.
Obviously, an objective evaluation of the Bush Administration, without the subjectivity many of us have today, will be recorded by historians. But, from my perspective Bush seems to have earned the dubious honor of being No. 1 in the list of worst American Presidents. Rest in Peace, Warren, you are now #2.mission-accomplished2


5 Comments

There are currently 5 Comments on “Hooray for President Harding: President Bush has replaced you as America’s worst president.” Mickey Glantz. 10 January 2010. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. Many historians consider James Buchanen to be the all time worst, though I disagree. Some of them think that that makes Shrub the second worst.

    • hi, i grew up hearing that millard fillmore, our 13th president was the worst. but i later found that harding was the one who was compared to the worst traits of presidents of the 20-21st century. i stilll think bush is no. 1! mickey

  2. Hi Mickey,

    While I’m no great fan of Bush, and as an Australian no expert on his predecessors, I suspect that history may judge him more favourably than your piece, indeed than received wisdom, suggests. Partly this will be due to an upward revision of his merits, and part to the downward revision of those of his fellow presidents. As a foreigner I’m not as familiar as I might be with the domestic records of past presidents, but for 65 years now the foreign affairs of America have largely been those of the free world, so perhaps I may be allowed to comment.

    I realise FDR’s reputation has undergone a couple of revisions within the USA, but to most “foreigners”, including Brits, who by and large feel obliged to deprecate their imperial past, he still tends to be seen as a saviour of the free world. The long shadow cast by his utter naivete in crucial aspects of foreign affairs is only recently, as the Cold War recedes, and hitherto secret correspondence emerges from official secrecy, being fully comprehended outside the USA.

    In a story sad to epitomise his world view, he is said to have fuel-stopped en route to Casablanca in Freetown, and thought its down-at-heel colonial shabbiness an indictment of British Empire. Perhaps so, but if so one may surely retort that its infinitely worse condition half a century later (and that of most of the African continent) is an indictment of Roosevelt’s naive belief, clung to in the teeth of increasingly alarmed advice from his own people both in Moscow and Washington, that Stalin was a man who could be trusted to cooperate in the post-war world as a member of a benign duumvirate with the USA, the British Empire having had its day. He was, I believe, hopelessly, catastrophically, criminally mistaken, (not necessarily about the British Empire, although his animus against it blinded him to the many lessons it held for him, and to the likely consequences of its abrupt collapse). I think we all paid for his mistake – the Poles, Balts, etc. more dearly than us in the West, but all of us, and for fifty-odd years, at that. Bush will, IMO, have a way to go to beat FDR for sheer pig-headed, knickerbocker-patrician wrong-headedness on a matter pivotal to history.

    As for the missing WMD, I have a problem:
    The incompetence with which Bush’s men conducted the Iraqi occupation has allowed the assertion that there were never any WMDs in Iraq in the first place to pass without challenge, but I’m not sure it stacks up. I read Richard Butler’s book about his ordeal as a UN weapons inspector. In it he describes in considerable detail being shown by the Iraqis disassembled and/or wrecked weapons, and lamenting, not their absence, but the fact that the Iraqis had so messed them up as to make COUNTING them impossible. His hosts weren’t trying to say they had no WMD material, they were trying to persuade him that he had seen ALL the material there was to see, and he was afraid he was only seeing PART of it. That he was indeed looking at the remains of a WMD development program he seemed in no doubt. A few months later, after the invasion, the WMDs had vanished, not only from Iraq, but from Richard Baker’s account of the matter. How do we reconcile these contradictions? Is it simply a question of a case of lecture-feeitis on Baker’s part? But if so, the fact remains – he found elements of WMDs. Can anyone shed any light?

    In truth, the real problem with Saddam was that whether or not he really had WMD was really beside the point. In no small part through his tergiversations over weapons inspections, he had acquired the reputation of a possessor/developer of WMD. In diplomatic terms, that’s really as good as having them in the flesh, so to speak (better, actually – you don’t have to go through the undignified and expensive process of importing a squad of Frenchmen to show you how to do it.) Churchill saw this essentially diplomatic character of nuclear weapons when he replied upon being asked if he thought Stalin wanted war (I think re Korea, but not sure) “I don’t believe he wants war, but I believe he wants the fruits of war”. I doubt if even Saddam was silly enough to see a future in WMDs as battlefield weapons – the response would be catastrophic and would probably kill him – but the diplomatic fruits of being an unpredictable man with a history of unprovoked aggression, believed to have WMDs (as he was no doubt learning from North Korea’s example) were immense, and in my view, worth depriving him of by force. Interestingly, Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad” seems to be of a similar view, and he knows a thing or two about Iraq, so I am in good, if admittedly very limited company!

    But Bush and Blair, IMO, were too impatient, and too distrustful of their constituents’ intellects to risk running this slightly nuanced argument, and made themselves hostages to fortune with their absurd “45 minute” stories. Interestingly our own John Howard refrained, to his eternal credit, from this tactical blunder.

    I hope these notes give food for thought.

  3. Your analysis of both Bush’s legacy and Harding’s is remarkably superficial.

    Harding is bad because…a bunch of historians said so, and he had a few scandals.

    You fail to discuss what else was going on during Harding’s term, namely the return to normalcy that he promised. For he succeeded the autocratic dreamer Woodrow Wilson, who brought the US into WWI, implemented crushing taxes, regulations, violated the civil rights of German-Americans, segregated the US civil service and army, and plunged the country into a horrific recession. Quite an accomplishment for one that many of these vaunted historians rank in the upper echelon of presidents.

    Harding ended much of Wilson’s legacy, dramatically slashing the tax rates and regulation, cutting the size of government, and launching the roaring 20s, one of the most remarkable periods of prosperity and technology adoption in US history. He even made some tentative steps toward civil rights, another reaction to Wilson’s racist administration. For that he’s the worst? What are a few inconsequential scandals and affairs against what he (and brilliant treasury secretary Andrew Mellon) did for the US public.

    Does Harding’s record look familiar? In ways it’s like Reagan (deregulation, cut in taxes). In others like Clinton (scandals & prosperity, fiscal restraint). The biggest knock on him is probably that he undid Wilson’s legacy, who many of the progressive historians idolize. That was his real crime.

    Too early to tell on Bush, so I won’t comment. But I am confident, 20 or 50 years hence, he won’t be “the worst president ever”. About Harding, I don’t know. He’s been maligned for so long…

    • hi and thanks for your thoughtful comment. but i fear you are guilty of the same charge you made to my editorial, superficial. in a small space it is difficult to list the bad things in my view that Bush has done to America; like 2 wars, one trumped up (WMD fabrication) and the other misguided (i don’t think about bin laden”; did he really think the mission was accomplished?). harding was used by some of the people around him (sec. albert fall, attorney general dougherty, etc [he also had some honest people too though, chas. evans hughes, herbert hoover, etc). harding, during his ‘voyage of understanding’ in summer 1923 decided he wanted to be a better president having realized that “it is my friends i have to worry about, not my enemies.” by the way harding gave us the word ‘normalcy’. [no time here to chat about us entering WWI; i actually found a silver ring with the words on it “German-American War.”] teddy roosevelt’s daughter said of harding: “harding was not a bad man. he was just a slob.” bush likely will be surpassed as the worst president for america in 50 years, given the way presidents are chosen [maybe trump or bachmann or palin would have beat him out for that ‘honor.” but we are living the bush-cheney damage to the country now. i travel a lot and we have lost of lot of respect and stature since the 1970s. i do not know how to get it back.
      thanks again. for caring enough to respond thoughtfully with your views. mickey

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