Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Strange Life and Death of President Harding

Summing Up

President Warren G. Harding
President Warren G. Harding
The most likely hypothesis about Warren Hardings death is that put forth by Carl Anthony. Warren Harding was a victim of medical neglect, or, to be precise, of negligent homicide. Considering the strange mix of folk medicine and evolving science at the time, that is not a very remarkable fact. Distinguished physicians often recommended smoking for their tense patients, so ignorance was a common occurrence in medical circles of the time.

What makes the case of Warren Harding interesting is the cast of characters surrounding him, as well as the president himself. While there have been scoundrels around the presidency throughout American history, none have been quite as colorful as those around Harding. John Dean (of Watergate fame) recently wrote a book that maintains that George W. Bush is worse than Dean's old boss, Richard Nixon. Even Nixon, for all of his problems, was distinctly above the mediocre as a man and as a president. Some of the associates of Ronald Reagan were a bit odd, particularly during the Iran-Contra affair, but none rose to the level of idiocy of Fall, Daugherty, and Forbes. Warren Harding, witless and genial, takes the prize for gathering around him the most disreputable bunch in 20th Century American politics.

It is tempting to draw parallels. Florence Harding and Nancy Reagan share a preoccupation with astrology, horoscopes, and the occult, and both provided steely support for their husbands. One could remark on the proclivities of other presidents to engage in sexual dalliances --- indeed, at least half dozen presidents from Wilson to Clinton have had mistresses. A cynic might point out that almost every president has had at least one venal, or slightly demented, cabinet officer.

But, in the last analysis, such parallels would be pointless. The times, the people, and the country during the period 1920 to 1924 constituted a special set of circumstances wherein a well-meaning bumbler and his disreputable underlings could construct a national farce.

Eugene V. Debs
Eugene V. Debs
It would be unfair not to mention that Harding did some good things. He pardoned Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist unjustly imprisoned during World War I for opposing the war. In his zeal to be a good Republican, he tried to restrain federal spending by creating the Bureau of the Budget, an institution that is still useful to this day. Through the talents of his good cabinet officers, he was able to create the forty-hour week, reduce military armaments, and stimulate a lagging economy.

But his failures were many. His successors --- Calvin Coolidge, the dour do-nothing, and Herbert Hoover, the bright but unsuccessful technocrat --- inherited a federal government and policies that would eventually lead to the Great Depression. The fact that the Teapot Dome and other Harding-era scandals would drag on through both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations did the country no service.

Whatever ones view --- critic or apologist --- a significant mystery remains. How did Warren Harding die? Any conclusion must be murky because evidence is either lacking, or, when available, contradictory. Is this simply a case of a genial mediocrity who didnt know how to take case of himself, and paid the price with a stroke? Or is it something more sinister --- a gullible politician who became aware of what was going on around him, and had to be silenced?

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