Book Reviews

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to 2004 Book Shelf


Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean


Rating: (Recommended)


Click on title or picture to buy from




According to former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, there’s weren’t as many crooks in the Harding administration as we may have perceived. In this contribution to the American Presidents series, John Dean presents Warren G. Harding as a President who on the one hand worked himself to death, and on the other is remembered for the Teapot Dome Scandal that blossomed after his death. H.L. Mencken referred to Harding as “booboisie.” Dean begs to differ. Harding was a pro-business, calm conciliator, who worked hard to gets his arms around the details of running the United States. He got into trouble when others on whom he relied let him down. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction, pp. 1-4:


           Warren G. Harding is best known as America’s worst president. A compelling case can be made, however, that to reach such a judg­ment one must ignore much of the relevant information about Harding and his presidency. For example, Andrew Sinclair, a Cam­bridge University historian and the first to publish after Harding’s presidential papers were finally made available in 1964, reports that “it cannot be the verdict of any historian who has looked at the evidence of the papers preserved at the Ohio Historical Society.”1 Similarly, Harding biographer Robert K. Murray, at the time chair­man of the history department at Pennsylvania State University, concluded his 1969 seminal work based on the Harding papers with the observation that “[Harding’s] administration was superior to a sizable portion of those in the nation’s history”; yet “myths still command more attention than. . . reality.”2 The conclusion that Harding was our worst president endures because the actual record of his presidency has, in fact, been largely overlooked.

History’s treatment of Harding has long intrigued me and not because of Watergate (with which I am so familiar). While Richard Nixon’s “Watergate” certainly replaced Harding’s “Teapot Dome” as the most serious high-level government scandal of the twentieth century, it was while living in Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, that Harding first came to my attention. That’s where I heard it said that there was more to his presidency than the scandalous stories still making the rounds when I was a kid. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t the gossip that first caught my atten­tion and prompted my inquisitiveness about our twenty-ninth president.

Early morning after early morning I used to bicycle down Mar­ion’s tree-lined Mount Vernon Avenue on my paper route past the home of the former president. Our house was only a few blocks away from Harding’s and for about a year, in 1952 when I was fourteen years old, I delivered out-of-town morning newspapers for a local distributor throughout the neighborhood. Because my mother was friendly with a woman associated with the Harding home, which was open for tourists, I’d once had my own private tour of the house. While I found little of interest (at that time) in its historic rooms of old furniture, faded pictures, and assorted memorabilia, I did find Warren Harding quite intriguing. Not only was he the biggest name in town; it was at this time that my young friends, fellows who had lived in Marion much longer than my family, shared fascinating stories about the former president and his wife. It was old gossip that was still being whispered decades after the fact, picked up by young ears from adults and passed from generation to generation.

From this adolescent tongue-wagging I learned that Warren Harding’s wife, Florence Kling De Wolfe Harding, had an illegiti­mate child before marrying Warren Harding, a boy named Mar­shall, who was related to my friends Peter and Dave De Wolfe. No one was quite sure what it all meant or exactly who was related to whom, so we didn’t talk much about the Dc Wolfe situation.3 Far more discussion focused on an old lady (or so she seemed at the time) who was once known to be the most beautiful woman in Marion and had been Harding’s mistress. Her name was Carrie Phillips and she lived alone with a fearsome pack of German shepherd dogs, said to be offsprings of pets she’d acquired as mis­tress of the German kaiser. There was also an infamous book we talked about that had been written by another woman from Mar­ion, Nan Britton, who claimed she’d had a child with President Harding. I passed on an opportunity to read my friend’s copy of the book, The President’s Daughter. It was hidden at his house, although he was sure his mother would never miss it since it hadn’t been moved from its hiding place in years.

Instead, I asked our next-door neighbor, Jack Maxwell, if he had the book and I might borrow it. Maxwell, editor of the Mar­ion Star the newspaper Warren Harding had once owned and edited, not only had the book but personally introduced me to Warren Harding as no one had before.

Mr. Maxwell knew a lot about the former president. I’ve always assumed this was because of his position at the Star. He knew people who had personally known Harding and, based on what he had learned, he didn’t think that the former president had been treated very fairly by history. The more Jack Maxwell told me the less interested I became in reading Nan Britton’s book, particu­larly when he said he didn’t think her story was completely true. This from a man who didn’t strike me as a fan of Harding’s, rather a person committed to the truth. I do recall he felt the biographies written during Harding’s life and immediately after his death had gone overboard in their praise and for that reason weren’t good history either. However, much of what had surfaced later and destroyed Harding’s reputation had been dishonest. While the conversation doused my interest in The President’s Daughter it provoked a lifetime curiosity about Warren Harding.

In the fifty years that have followed that conversation I’ve read (if not acquired) almost every book written about Harding, from the early hagiographies to putative insider accounts, including The President’s Daughter as well as the biographies and histories relat­ing to his presidency. Given the amount of study and scholarship available on other presidents, there is comparatively little on Har­ding. This shortage, though, is consistent with Harding’s place in history. Few presidents have fallen from adulation to excoriation as fast as Harding did after his death in office on August 2, 1923. Har­ding was president only 882 days.* While in office, Harding had his critics, as do all presidents, but few presidents have experienced the unrequited attacks and reprisals visited on one of the most kindly men to ever occupy the Oval Office. It hasn’t been pretty. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

My undertaking has not been to challenge or catalogue all those who have gotten it wrong about Harding, only to get it right. Yet when assembling my narrative, I found myself often addressing, and flagging, the distorted and false Harding history, not because I want to write a brief for Warren Harding, but rather because I was curious to discern as best I could the truth of who he was, how he was elected, and how he operated and performed as president of the United States.


*  A full four-year term, of course, runs 1,461 days. For comparison six other presidents have served less than a full term: William H. Harrison (31 days), James Garfield (199 days), Zachary Taylor (492 days), Gerald R. Ford (896 days), Millard Fillmore (963 days), and John F. Kennedy (1,034 days).

The editors of the American Presidents series selected a fine writer in John Dean to present the life of Warren G. Harding. Without spending a lot of time, I came away from this book with a deeper understanding of this complicated character, and learned, at the very least that the G stands for “Gamaliel.”

Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: G Harding.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687