US Presidents in the News: President Warren G. Harding

I was planning to do my series of blog posts on the presidents in chronological order, but as President Harding’s personal affairs have been making headlines lately I decided to move him up.

Although his presidency was marred by scandal after his death, Warren Harding was a popular president in his day. Even as a young boy Harding avoided conflict in order to please his peers. That habit caught up with him when he became president.

Warren G. Harding, circa 1920

Warren G. Harding, circa 1920

Before he got into politics Harding was a successful businessman who bought a bankrupt newspaper and made it profitable. His wife Florence served as his business partner. He called her “The Duchess” and feared rather than loved her. Their complex relationship pushed him into politics. His new profession allowed him to be away for long periods; it also enabled him to have affairs with other women. Perhaps the photographs don’t do him justice because women seemed to think he was very attractive. He did possess a magnetic personality and a great speaking voice.

During the Republican national convention in 1920, the party could not decide on a candidate. Party leaders looked for a compromise, so they asked Harding if there was any reason they shouldn’t nominate him. Though he didn’t actually want to be president, Harding told them there was nothing in his past that would prevent him from running. In the first presidential election in which women could vote, Harding won.

Harding promised voters that his presidency would mark a return to “normalcy,” or to the days before the war. Fortunately the country didn’t face any major crisis during his presidency. Unlike President Wilson who always thought his opinion was the right one, Harding was indecisive. After listening to both sides of an issue he often thought that each side was just as right as the other. Even Harding admitted that he was in over his head as president. Later historians would agree with him when he remarked, “I never should have been here.” Still, Harding remained a popular president until he died of food poisoning during his third year in office.

After his death rumors about his private life and corruption in his cabinet came out. Harding had always been a womanizer, and one woman claimed he had fathered an illegitimate son. Recent DNA evidence revealed he had an illegitimate daughter named Elizabeth Ann with his mistress Nan Britton.

His desire to be popular had caused him to cover up rather than publicize the scandals that plagued his administration. An illegal oil-rigging scheme led to the eventual arrest of his former secretary of the interior. It was the first time a cabinet member had been convicted of a crime. Ironically, the president who wanted to be loved by everyone became one of the country’s least respected presidents.

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