A Friend Helps You Move. A True Friend Helps You Move the Bodies. - Old Cardassian Proverb
Being President means being a leader of Men (in the plural gender neutral sense). A leader of Men needs to be a good judge of Character, in order to grant authority to those working for him to do the best job possible.
So what happens when someone who's a terrible judge of Character gets the job of the Presidency?
We've seen earlier cases where Presidents proved a terrible judge of those serving under him: Grant in particular, with possible candidates in Madison and Pierce. U.S. Grant's two-term administration was filled with questionable talent, cronyism, and corruption. James Madison's Cabinet failed managing the War of 1812. Franklin Pierce's was filled with pro-slavery elements that drove the nation further into division rather than compromise (and any administration with Jefferson Davis serving in it can't be called "the best and brightest").
Warren G. Harding topped them all in terms of setting up an administration brimming with corruption. Even Grant, which honestly took some doing. Harding's Passive-Positive character traits was one contributing factor: to be fair, being Pass-Pos doesn't automatically create a corrupt administration. Taft's was relatively scandal-free and lacking in cronyism, and while Madison and Pierce presided over weak administrations corruption didn't make them that way.
What set Harding at the bottom of the heap was the man himself adhering to questionable behavior. While Harding never profited from some of the largest scandals under his tenure, he was a hard-drinking womanizer creating a code of behavior that trickled down through the rest of his White House. When the boss behaves a certain way, the others under his command tend to behave that way too. Other Pass-Positives at least had the forgiving habit of maintaining scruples which added to their personal appeal. Harding had to throw in some of the self-destructive habits of the Active-Negatives to boot.
A most appropriate and direct indictment of Harding comes on p. 222 of James David Barber's Presidential Character (the reference on which these reviews are based):
Advanced to the Presidency, Harding turned out to be venial only in his personal search for fraternal conviviality and sexual relief. There were thieves all around him, but he did not steal. Still, he could not face up to the spreading rot of his government - probably could not quite see it, because his attention was so heavily in the service of his need to believe his friends were really friends...
Harding achieved the Presidency as the compromise candidate of a Republican Party eager to win office after the disaster of Woodrow Wilson's second term. The post-war mood of the nation has usually tended towards the need for "normalcy" and the Republicans sought to provide it. Of the political bosses controlling the back rooms of the nominating convention, Harding quickly became the favorite: well-liked, media savvy (as a newspaperman, he had a solid sense of journalism, both tabloid and professional), and eager to help out his friends. Basically easing into the job through one of the biggest popular vote landslides in American history (garnering 60 percent of the vote), Harding had it made.
Like other Pass-Positives, Harding filled his Cabinet with allies and cronies not truly suited to their jobs: Daughtery, the man who got him the nomination, asked for and got the Attorney General's seat; Albert Fall was first suggested for the State department but external opposition drove him over to the Interior; Charles Forbes was put in charge of Veterans Affairs. With Fall you get the Teapot Dome Scandal, in scale of corruption and criminality topped only by Watergate itself; with Forbes you get a man who embezzled $225 million and wasted millions more; with Daughtery you get a Justice Department refusing to investigate complaints of criminal behavior, instead hiring questionable persons to investigate critics of the administration, and also getting charged with accusations of bribery, kickbacks and more.
To be fair, Harding put into office qualified men who ran their departments with skill, especially the likes of Herbert Hoover at Commerce, Charles Dawes as the first-ever Budget Director, and Charles Evans Hughes at State. As a result, Harding's administration presided over a period of effective economic reform and foreign policy initiatives that would make an Active-Positive President green with envy. Having worked as a key U.S. Senator to get the 19th Amendment passed for women to vote, having released political prisoners rounded up during Wilson's Red Scare period, and being the most vocal proponent against Jim Crow segregation since Roosevelt (he pushed for an anti-lynching bill that died in the very Southern-conservative Senate), Harding gained the reputation of civil rights advocacy that should impress progressives to this day.
But it was Harding's Ohio Gang (which hated the nickname because not every member was from Ohio) that would mark his Presidency... and Harding quickly realized it as the corruption exploded within his administration. One of the Ohio Gang's lackeys had committed suicide just before Harding's boat trip to Alaska, and Harding had suddenly invited Hoover to join him for the trip. While Harding recognized Hoover publicly and privately as one of his most competent allies, the two were not close personally: Hoover too religious and clean-cut compared to Harding's fast-living style. During the trip, Harding continued to get notices from the White House about various rumors and reports, and:
Finally, on the boat sailing toward Alaska, he asked...Hoover to come to his cabin. The President asked, "If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?" Hoover replied, "Publish it, and at least get credit for integrity on your side." ...Hoover asked what relation Harry Daughterty...had to the affair. At that point Harding abruptly cut off the conversation and never resumed it... (Barber, p. 210)
Harding also said to fellow traveler and journalist William Allen White "I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my God-damn friends, White, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!" (same pg).
It was on this trip that Harding suffered from food poisoning, a heart attack, and finally a fatal stroke that ended his life in 1923. The suddenness of the death caught a lot by surprise, and because the scandals haunting Harding had not yet become public, the nation mourned an incredibly popular President (think Reagan at the height of his popularity and add a bucket of happy puppies to get a good idea how popular Harding was). Six months later the scandals started spilling out and Harding quickly became the second-most unliked President of the 20th Century. Talk about a fate worse than death for a Passive-Positive.
Next Up: Bet We Can't Make This Guy Say More Than Three Words.