A Baptist by religion, Warren Harding graduated from the Ohio
Central College. He held several jobs as teacher, insurance salesman before
becoming the editor and publisher of a newspaper in Marion, Ohio. Thereafter, he
joined politics and served in the State Legislative Service. He soon became the
Lieutenant Governor of Ohio and made a mark for himself as a person able to bind
together conflicting interests.
Harding’s career in the Senate was unremarkable, in spite of
being Ohio’s first popularly elected Senator.
His Presidential tenure was spent in trying to bring a nation back
to normalcy after World War1 and in fact, he had won his Presidency on the
strength of this promise. But, being aware of his own limitations, he tried to
appoint capable men to his Cabinet.
Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes was one of the most
competent of his selection. Unfortunately, Harding also surrounded himself with
cheats who later came to be known as “the Ohio Gang” and many of
them were later sent to jail. He appointed Harry Dougherty as Attorney
General in spite of his own misgivings. He famously remarked, “My God,
this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble with my enemies….But my damn
friends; they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!” He
simply could not say ‘no’ to his friends and bore the brunt of this
habit in later years. Harding took more pleasure in being liked than in being a
Harding spoke about “return to normalcy” but had
little idea about what it meant. “Though he looked like a President”,
as his close associates remarked, Harding took few initiatives, preferring to
let his cabinet take responsibilities. This policy of allowing his cabinet to
supercede his Presidency cost him his reputation in the long run. The Presidency
seemed to overwhelm him at times and he admitted to his close friends that the
job was beyond him. He hardly ever took a firm stand on any issue preferring to
avoid the issue altogether. He tried to make up for his limitations by giving
support to a few reform measures.
His most notable domestic achievement was signing the revised
version of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 which, for the first time,
permitted the President to present a unified budget. Though decidedly
conservative on trade issues and opposed to organized labor, he, nevertheless
tried to harmonize relations between business and labor. He unequivocally
favored pro-business policies by the government. He also tackled the most
controversial issue of his time, prohibition, by seeking harmony on the policy.
He supported farm co-operatives bills and liberalized farm credits.
In matters of foreign policies he depended upon his cabinet,
having little idea about it. He gave a free hand to Secretary of State, Hughes.
He was the first President to visit both Alaska and Canada and this tour was
largely seen as ‘damage control’ to explain his policies to people,
when talks of corruption among his friends whom he had appointed to office,
spiraled out of control. Harding was lucky to have a few able men to run the
domestic and foreign affairs competently.
An upright man himself, nevertheless, Harding’s years in
office was marred by scandals, especially the ‘Tea Pot Dome’
scandal. The President saw himself simply as a ceremonial head and hesitated to
take decisions which may have been controversial. Over- trusting and lacking in
leadership, Harding was pushed into a job which was highly demanding and he
neither had the political skill nor the inclination to undertake the Presidency
Ultimately, his legacy was tarnished not by his corrupt friends
but by his own lack of political acumen and vision. He never really understood
how he wanted to take the nation forward and his indecisive nature hampered him