Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

A conservative politician from Ohio, Warren G. Harding had few enemies because he rarely took a firm enough stand on an issue to make any. Who would have suspected that the man to succeed Woodrow Wilson, America's most visionary President, would be a man who saw the President's role as largely ceremonial?

Warren Harding was raised in a small town in Ohio. His wholesome and picture book childhood—farm chores, swimming in the local creek, and playing in the village band—was the basis of his down-home appeal later in life. As a young man, Harding brought a nearly bankrupt newspaper, the Marion Star, back to life. The paper became a favorite with Ohio politicians of both parties because of Harding's evenhanded reporting. Always well-liked for his good-natured manner, Harding won a seat in the Ohio State Senate, serving two terms before becoming a U.S. senator from Ohio in 1914. During his term as senator, Harding missed more sessions than he attended, being absent for key debates on prohibition and women's suffrage. Taking no stands meant making no enemies, and his fellow Republicans awarded Harding the 1920 presidential nomination, sensing the nation's fatigue with the reform agenda of Woodrow Wilson. Running with the slogan, "A Return to Normalcy," Harding beat progressive Democrat James M. Cox in a massive landslide.

Weak and Mediocre Presidency

Once in office, Harding admitted to his close friends that the job was beyond him. The capable men that Harding appointed to his cabinet included Charles Evans Hughes as secretary of state, Andrew Mellon as secretary of the treasury, and Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. But he also surrounded himself with dishonest cheats, who came to be known as "the Ohio gang." Many of them were later charged with defrauding the government, and some of them went to jail. Though Harding knew of the limitations of men like Harry Dougherty, the slick friend he appointed attorney general, he liked to play poker with them, drink whiskey, smoke, tell jokes, play golf, and keep late hours.

Known as a "good fellow," Harding enjoyed being liked more than he prized being a good leader. Though Harding was never linked to any crooked deals, the public was aware of his affairs with at least two women. Carrie Phillips, who had been a German sympathizer during the war, tried to blackmail Harding and was paid hush money by the Republican Party. Nan Britton, a pretty blond thirty years younger than the President, was given a job in Washington, D.C., so that she could be near Harding. The two often met in the Oval Office, and their affair continued until Harding's death.

Decidedly conservative on trade and economic issues, Harding favored pro-business government policies. He allowed Andrew Mellon to push through tax cuts for the rich, stopped antitrust actions, and opposed organized labor.

Harding knew little about foreign affairs when he assumed office, preferring to give Secretary of State Hughes a free hand. Hughes was concerned with securing foreign markets for wealthy American banks, such as the one run by John D. Rockefeller. Hughes and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover used the Fordney-McCumber Tariff to secure oil markets in the Middle East, especially in modern-day Iraq and Iran. His administration revised Germany's war debts downward through legislation, passed in 1923, known as the Dawes Plan. Hughes also called for a naval conference with nine other nations to freeze naval spending in an effort to reduce spending.

Shaken by the talk of corruption among the friends he had appointed to office, Harding and his wife, Florence "Flossie" Harding, organized a tour of the western states and Alaska in an attempt to meet people and explain his policies. After becoming ill with what was at the time attributed to ptomaine (food) poisoning, Harding had a heart attack and died quietly in his sleep. The rumors flew that Flossie had poisoned the President to save him from being engulfed in the charges of corruption that swept his administration. The Hardings never had any children; Flossie died of kidney disease in 1924.

Most historians regard Harding as the worst President in the nation's history. In the end, it was not his corrupt friends, but rather, Harding's own lack of vision that was most responsible for the tarnished legacy.