He “came into the White House as President of the United States on the crest of a wave of hate,” his detractors wrote. His campaign “was made upon hate of the current President, which was fanned by a cheap super-nationalism.” The Republican Party was filled with “bitter hatred,” and was “isolationist, governed by its emotions, and not amenable to reason. Out of that witch’s pot of mad malice rose the stench which produced his election and became the new administration.”
Furthermore, he was routinely derided as the Worst President Ever. Unfit. Corrupt. Immoral. Incompetent. Inept. Shallow. An Amiable Fool. A Notorious Womanizer.
But these things were not said of former president Donald Trump, although they could have been. They were said of Warren G. Harding, who won election to the presidency in 1920.
Harding came into office after the nation had endured a prolonged, twenty-year campaign of progressivism, culminating in Woodrow Wilson’s eight-year crusade at home and abroad. Trump, likewise, followed one of the most liberal presidents in American history, Barack Obama. Each sought to roll back the liberal tide; both endured relentless attacks because of their efforts.
The two presidents had other similarities as well: Both saw violence before taking office – Harding with the awful events of 1919 and Trump with the riots during the Obama years. Both also endured domestic unrest once in office – Harding had the horrendous Tulsa massacre of 1921; Trump dealt with more racial rioting. Both took office with a sagging economy and both cut taxes to stimulate economic growth.
Both favored putting America First in foreign affairs and trade policy, and both campaigned on that theme. Harding’s “return to normalcy,” writes Jared Cohen derisively, “was basically the 1920s version of … ‘make America great again.’”
But as bad as things are for Trump, they are worse still for Warren Harding, mainly because his reputation has been sullied for a century.
Most of the nation’s scholars have judged Harding very harshly. Consider this selection from just a handful of presidential historians and writers:
To Nathan Miller, author of Star-Spangled Men: America’s Ten Worst Presidents, Harding was “a prime example of incompetence, sloth, and feeble good nature in the White House.” University of Texas history professor Lewis L. Gould wrote that Harding’s performance as president “fell well short of the high standards of his office.” Paula Fass, author of an essay on Harding in The American Presidency, edited by Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer, opened her piece with this sentence: “The presidency of Warren G. Harding began in mediocrity and ended in corruption.”
Author Elaine Weiss said he was “quite the bumbler.” Professor Robert E. DiClerico wrote that the nation’s current presidential primary process has not “yielded a nominee whose overall level of competence was as deficient as Warren Harding’s.” In fact, he continues, “Warren Harding proved to be the most inept president in this century.”
Harding was the “most disgraced president in the country’s history,” write William J. Ridings and Stuart B. McIver in their 1997 book Rating the Presidents. He was “in far over his head,” they wrote. “Harding was interested mainly in poker, bootleg bourbon, and willing women,” rather than “the great domestic and foreign issues of our time. He was, sadly, just a small-town politician, an average man in a job that demanded far more than an average man could deliver.”
Author Douglas Alan Cohn called him a “dupe.” Harding, he wrote, “looked the role, but was otherwise not presidential, and his corruption-filled administration seemed to be the result of his devil-may-care, easygoing, can’t say ‘no’ approach to life that carried over to governing.” David C. Whitney wrote that Harding’s presidency “stands as a black mark in American history.” And Kenneth C. Davis described him as “indecisive,” “lazy,” “intellectually weak,” and “incompetent.”
His reputation is so bad that in the 1999 ABC News 15-part documentary, “The Century: America’s Time,” Harding is never mentioned. Nor is his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, or the economic boom they created and presided over.
Such judgments of Harding are not exceptions; they are the rule. And they are wrong. But few have dared to defend his presidency for fear of the inevitable backlash and the label “revisionist,” which has come to mean something akin to “conspiracy theorist” today.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss once told the New York Times in regards to revising Harding, “If you had to reach for a great revisionist mountain to climb, that would be it.”
Yet a Harding reassessment is overdue. Writing as far back as 1966, Thomas Bailey, a scholar of the presidency and American foreign policy, noted that Harding is “generally downgraded by the experts, themselves largely Democrats who admire Wilson and the League of Nations which Harding spurned.” Scholar Robert Spencer, who ranked Harding as the ninth best president in his book Rating America’s Presidents, agrees, writing, “Harding’s presidency deserves an honest reassessment, but that is unlikely to happen given the fact that most historians today share Wilson’s messianic globalism and visions of massive state control.”
Both Bailey and Spencer are correct. Harding is hated by the leftwing dominance of academia for the conservative, small-town values he stood for. Yet he was popular in his lifetime and the ideals he held dear are popular with the American people today.
Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who currently teaches American history at Collin College in North Texas. He is the author of The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding by Regnery History.