“At the time of his death, no president was more popular and admired.” So writes author, columnist, political commentator, and former White House Counsel (serving Richard Nixon) John W. Dean about Warren G. Harding, the twenty-ninth president of the United States. Despite this contemporary adulation, Harding now is viewed by most historians as one of our worst chief executives. Dean believes Harding’s bad reputation is unfair, arguing that “few presidents have experienced the unrequited attacks and reprisals visited on one of the most kindly men to ever occupy the White House” (4). In Warren G. Harding, part of the “American Presidents” series of brief presidential biographies, Dean attempts to redeem Harding’s legacy. Dean, an admitted lifelong enthusiast of Harding and his presidency, lays out his plan early in the book: “My undertaking has not been to challenge or catalogue all those who have gotten it wrong about Harding, only to get it right” (4). Dean argues that much of Harding’s negative reputation is based on distortions and outright lies, which Dean vows to expose. The resulting work, not surprisingly, is part biography and part Harding apologetic.
Due to the space limitation of the series, Dean chooses to breeze through Harding’s early life and career and to focus primarily on the 1920 presidential campaign and Harding’s brief presidency. Dean shows that Harding, far from being a dullard as many have claimed, learned to read at four and proved to be an excellent student from the beginning of his school days. Dean also points out several other of Harding’s positive characteristics, including his humility, warmth, kindness, compassion for the downtrodden, and his ability to remember names and faces. These traits, together with Harding’s work as a successful newspaper publisher, helped launch him first into the Ohio State Senate, then into the United States Senate, and ultimately, into the White House.
Dean constantly argues that Harding, contrary to conventional wisdom, was anything but a failed president. For starters, his cabinet “was not a cabinet of a weak or inept president, and no president before or after Harding has done any better at cabinet making” (94). Harding also had a highly positive relationship with the press, possibly the best of any president in American history. Dean shows that as president, Harding made many positive contributions, including calling for a cabinet department responsible for public welfare, urging the passage of an anti-lynching law, freeing Americans jailed under the 1918 Sedition Act, sponsoring farm relief legislation, signing an emergency tariff bill, and creating the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor of the Office of Management and Budget. Dean gives Harding special praise for his work in the area of race relations, especially his 1921 speech in Birmingham, Alabama, which a leading civil rights activist of the time called the “most important utterance on the question by a president since Lincoln” (126).
Dean does not shy away from discussing Harding’s negatives; for example, he criticizes Harding for his 15-year-long affair with Carrie Phillips. Regarding Nan Britton, who claimed to have had an affair with Harding and to have given birth to his child, Dean expresses skepticism (Dean, writing in 2004, of course could not have known that eleven years later, DNA evidence would convincingly establish Britton’s claim). Finally, Dean addresses the scandals of the Harding presidency (including the notorious “Teapot Dome” affair) in some depth, concluding that Harding had nothing to do with any of them other than making a few poor choices in his cabinet appointments. As Dean points out, Harding was personally honest and had no involvement with any of the scandals that occurred on his “watch.” Despite this, Harding has been assigned the lion’s share of the blame by many historians from the time of his death in 1923 to the present.
As a biographer, Dean succeeds admirably, providing an able and fast-moving overview of Harding’s life and career. As a defender of Harding’s reputation, Dean also makes a good case that Harding deserves a better evaluation than he has traditionally received. The thoughtful reader might wonder, however, if perhaps Dean is a little too one-sided in his treatment of the 29th president. After all, there must be at least a few legitimate and compelling reasons why Harding still appears near the bottom of historians’ rankings of presidents. Could Dean have glossed over these? It will be up to future biographers to address this.