Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Strange Life and Death of President Harding

America's Best Loved and Least Effective President

President Warren Harding addresses Senate
President Warren Harding addresses Senate
 

Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as the 29th President of the United States on March 4, 1921. He looked every inch a President --- silver hair, dark eyebrows, tall, handsome, smiling --- a president sent from central casting. His inaugural speech, a bit better than his usual bloviations, introduced the famous word normalcy. Warren Harding was going to return a war-weary country to the peace and happiness of a bygone era. Everything would return to normal.

President Warren Harding's first cabinet
President Warren Harding's first cabinet
 

Harding blundered from the very start of his presidency. He formed a cabinet that had four wise men, two non-entities, and three crooks. These selections would come back to haunt him.

Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes
The four capable appointees were Charles Evans Hughes (Secretary of State), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce), Henry Wallace (Secretary of Agriculture), and Andrew Mellon (Secretary of the Treasury). The two non-entities were James J. Davis (Secretary of Labor) and Will Hays (Postmaster General).

Andrew Mellon, portrait
Andrew Mellon, portrait
But it was the last three old pals who would disgrace his administration. The first scoundrel was Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior, a New Mexico senator and pal from Hardings poker-playing days in the Senate. The second was not so much a scoundrel as an incompetent --- Edwin C. Denby, Secretary of the Navy. The third was Hardings campaign manager and Ohio politico, Harry Daugherty, who was appointed, of all things, Attorney General. In Albert Fall, Harding had selected an anti-environmentalist with a penchant for acquiring land and wealth for himself. In Daugherty, he had selected a schemer and shady politician to be the nations leading law enforcer. Denbys goal in life was to be liked. With 27 million American males to choose from, Harding picked three of the worst.

Secretary of Labor James Davis
Secretary of Labor James Davis
President and Mrs. Harding got off to a good start. They opened the White House to visitors, a practice that had been curtailed during the Wilson administration. The social functions of the presidency allowed Florence to return the snubs that the Hardings had endured during his six years in the Senate. With Mellons help, Harding created the Bureau of the Budget to oversee government spending. He held a far-reaching disarmament conference, primarily to provide an alternative to the League of Nations, Wilsons attempt at world peace that had so polarized the nation. Secretary of State Hughes was instrumental in accomplishing a treaty that curtailed the growth of sea power. Mrs. Harding became an advocate for World War I veterans, particularly those that had been disabled.

President Harding & Florence in their garden
President Harding & Florence in their garden
 

Florences advocacy for veterans was only part of her impact on the Harding administration. She participated in the selection of government appointments, one of which, the Director of Veterans Affairs, would prove to be disastrous. This appointment went to the Hardings good friend, Charles Forbes, who was soon to lead the administration into scandal.

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