Recent events have prompted a lot of thinking lately about Warren G. Harding’s presidency. Does that seem strange or random? Read on.
Much of my earlier knowledge of the Harding administration scandals is from a book I read years ago, The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding, by Charles L Mee, Jr., published in 1981. At the time I read it yet another Republican was in the White House, one who also did not seem to be paying much attention to actual governance. But I didn’t see the parallels to Donald Trump’s administration—until the recent deaths of some Russians gave me pause.
Warren G. Harding looked like a president. Tall and distinguished, he had a successful career in the Ohio State Senate where he was known for getting along by going along, as well as a term as the state’s lieutenant governor and U.S. senator. Lacking any strong principles of his own, he was ideally situated to agree with anyone the Republican Party elders told him to agree with. In this he shares very little in common with Donald Trump, having spent his earlier career in politics in a state known for providing, between the Civil War and World War I ...
… seven out of the twelve presidents of the United States– or every single Republican president except two, who succeeded to the job from the vice-presidency.
On the other hand, he was also a notorious womanizer in an era that did not tolerate the serial monogamy that Trump appears to have practiced. I say “may have” because I do not know, nor have I any strong desire to learn, whether or not Trump did more than grab a pussy or two while he was married to a variety of women. President Harding had a habit of falling in love with women, which he did repeatedly throughout his life. He left Nan Britton, a woman more than 30 years his junior, to raise their daughter on her own, never having even laid eyes on the baby before his death in 1923. But he did fall in love with his women, writing flowery love letters that put Trump’s Twitter-level literacy and gutter slang to shame.
Both Harding and Trump were woefully inadequate and totally unprepared for the job of president. At least Harding was self-aware enough to admit it. Unlike Trump, who seems to still think he is the most tremendously great president the world has ever seen, Harding admitted his inadequacies. An example is his comment about tax reform: "I can't make a damn thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side, and they seem right, and then—God!—I talk to the other side, and they seem just as right."
What they clearly do have in common is this, from the WhiteHouse.gov website:
Republicans in Congress easily got the President's signature on their bills. They eliminated wartime controls and slashed taxes, established a Federal budget system, restored the high protective tariff, and imposed tight limitations upon immigration.
Sound familiar? There’s more.
Even more strikingly similar are their cabinet appointments. Let’s just look at one, the appointment of Albert Fall to head the Department of the Interior. As secretary, Fall quietly leased the Navy’s mineral rights to two parcels of land: one in Wyoming to oilman Harry F. Sinclair, and the other, in California, to oilman Edward Doheny. Known as the Teapot Dome Scandal, Secretary Fall was eventually convicted of accepting the $100,000 bribe that Doheny was acquitted of offering. He received an additional $270,000 in cash and bonds from Sinclair, whose conspiracy case was thrown out when it appeared his agents were involved in an attempt to bribe the jury. He was later convicted of jury tampering and served six months in the Washington Asylum and jail.
Less well known was the plot involving the Soviet Union. According to Mee, Sinclair was interested in leasing oil rights on Sakhalin Island. Fall went to the Soviet Union with Sinclair and negotiated the rights to an “awesome amount of Russian oil.”
Russians had made a single stipulation: within five years of the date of the contract, the United States government must recognize the Soviet Union. All Sinclair, Fall, and Archie Roosevelt needed to do was to alter the foreign policy of the United States, and they stood to make hundreds and thousands of millions.
Fall did not lose a moment in starting to work. When his ship docked in New York, the former secretary of the interior was greeted by newspaper reporters. How had he liked Russia? The Soviet Union, Fall declared solemnly to the reporters, was not as bad as it had been painted. In fact, he said, he looked forward to the day that the Soviet Union would be recognized by the United States.
So Rex Tillerson’s Exxon connection (and the $1 billion involved in possible oil deals if the current sanctions on Russia are lifted) is not the first time that there have been suspicions involving Republican use of the federal government to improve their financial standing or the standing of the oil businesses in which they are involved. As a matter of fact, Fall’s remarks on Russia sound very much like the recent comments that Trump has made about Russia. The attitude is very much the same.
But the reason the Russian deaths struck a chord in my memory is the number of questionable deaths that the Harding administration suffered. In his 2008 review of The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country by Layton McCartney, Tom Lulz writes for the Los Angeles Times:
Among the crimes were graft and bribery, as well as extortion, bootlegging, blackmail, securities fraud, jury tampering, perjury, procurement, protection rackets and systemic misappropriations -- all told, a wholesale subverting of the Constitution. If that weren't bad enough, a number of people ended up dead, allegedly having committed suicide, although their closest friends and family described them as never having been suicidal. The so-called suicides began soon after Harding took office and didn't end until the various investigations had played out late in the decade. Although many of these people didn't take the time to leave a note, their office and personal papers were carefully incinerated before their bodies were found. McCartney doesn't speculate, but one can safely assume there was some foul play.
Warren Harding’s wife also burned all of his papers after his sudden death while on a trip to Alaska in 1923. The sheer number of deaths of Russians, including those mentioned in Christopher Steele’s dossier, struck me as being as bizarre as the number and method of deaths of the Harding’ gang. Of course, they could all be coincidental. Or not.
I often turn to history in search of answers, understanding, and occasionally the comfort of knowing that our nation has weathered worse storms. One would think that reflecting on the Harding administration and the multiple scandals, not just the Teapot Dome, would provide some of that reassurance. But it doesn’t, for a couple of reasons.
Even though the Senate and the House were controlled by Republicans during the 1920s, they were willing to put country first, as did Calvin Coolidge who broke up the Ohio Gang after he took office. Multiple hearings and investigations were held. We have no reason to believe that the hyper-partisan radical Republican Party that is now in control of our government has any desire to put the country before their own personal interests. If they had, they would have—and should have—spoken up before now.
And keep in mind that during the early 1920s, our nation was still a bit player on the international stage. The corruption and incompetence of an administration could be corrected because most of the damage was internal. In today’s world, we do not have the same luxury. No longer do we recite our lines in the background. As the most powerful nation in the world, we occupy center stage, and the words that our leader tweets have major consequences that we cannot control. His pursuit of trademark rights in China and real estate deals in Russia can lead us down unmarked pathways to destinations where he profits and the rest of the world pays the price.
While North Korea shoots missiles into the Sea of Japan, he continues his wild ramblings on Twitter, claiming credit he didn’t earn and lying about his predecessor, so anxious is he about appearances that he completely fails to perceive reality. Someone should warn him that Alex Jones has no contact whatsoever with reality.
The corruption of Harding’s men appears quaint and almost innocent in comparison to what we may be looking at today. Not only did we have a legislature and a court system to protect us from the worst of it, we had a free press that was able to reveal it in the past.
Who—or what—will protect us today?