Harding’s administration is almost exclusively known for the scandals that happened within it and Harding’s presidency is frequently seen as the worst to date. I feel “to date” may be an important qualifier, but it’s hard to disagree with the assessment. Harding did little of significance as president (he only survived for the first two years of his term) and to have three major scandals during those years is troubling. To his credit, he doesn’t appear to have been personally involved. To his discredit, he wasn’t aware of the issues, and that seems negligent.
Scandal 1: The Veterans’ Bureau
This is the only scandal to have broken before Harding died. Run by Charlie Forbes, the Veterans’ Bureau commanded a big budget as it was responsible for coordinating care (previously provided through a fragmented group of services) for wounded and disabled veterans. Forbes had expanded the Bureau’s operations on taking charge and was also responsible for the planning and construction of future hospitals and for the purchase and disposal of veterans’ supplies.
Forbes proceeded to loot the department, selling off assets for a fraction of the price in exchange for kick-backs. He took bribes for construction contracts. Harding received news of this corruption in early 1923 and allowed Forbes to resign and run to Europe. In March of that year, one of Forbes’ associates committed suicide when the story broke publicly. Forbes was sentenced to prison in 1924.
Scandal 2: Attorney General Harry Daugherty
Daughtery has the questionable distinction of being the only Attorney General to have been subjected to two congressional investigations while in office, and he was indicted for malfeasance twice after he resigned. Although he pointed out that “no charge against [him] was ever proven in any court”, at trial he refused to provide testimony on the grounds that he might incriminate himself. In both trials, a majority of jurors voted to convict, in the second trial voting 11-1 (the 1 is suspected of having been bribed).
What we know is that Daugherty came to office with few taxable assets, a salary of $12,000, and $27,000 in liabilities. His annual expenses were roughly double his salary. But over two years he managed to acquire roughly $75,000 from undocumented sources. He was probably receiving bribes in exchange for not prosecuting war profiteers.
Scandal 3: Teapot Dome
This is the famous one, and a little complicated. In brief, the government owned a significant amount of land containing oil reserves. These lands were held in part by the Navy and in part by the Department of the Interior. Harding’s Secretary of the Navy (Edwin Denby), feeling inadequate to the job of deciding claims on his land, relinquished control to the Secretary of the Interior (Albert Fall), who happened to be decidedly anti-conservation and believed government land should be given to private ownership. He was also struggling financially, in debt and owing the government eight years of back taxes. Possibly not the best appointment to begin with.
Fall made the decision to give drilling rights for Elk Hills (a Californian oil reserve) to the Pan-American Petroleum and Transort Company, owned by Edward Doheny, an old acquaintance of Fall’s. He later gave the rights to Teapot Dome to Harry F. Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company (specially created to handle Teapot Dome). The money from the Elk Hills contract went directly to the Treasury. However, in the latter case, Fall got creative and tried to solve a long-standing problem. At the time, Congress had to approve expenditure for the Navy. However, Congress and the administration differed over the value of providing a secure source of oil for the Navy, particularly pressing for the Pacific fleet. The administration wanted to construct tanks to hold a reserve of oil; Congress would not approve the plan. So, Fall decided that the value received from the Teapot Dome contract would not be given in money but in certificates redeemable for supplies for the construction of tanks and other equipment. This was actually quite an inventive solution to the problem of an intransigent Congress, and if this had been where the matter ended, Fall’s actions could have been defended.
Unfortunately, it later transpired that Fall had received money from both Doheny and Sinclair that he maintained was unrelated to the contracts. The fact that Doheny withdrew $100,000 in cash that he gave to Fall the day after Doheny submitted his formal offer to construct tanks at Pearl Harbour was apparently irrelevant. In total, Fall received $400,000 from Doheny and Sinclair. While this is a relatively small amount, it was money that Fall desperately needed, and Fall later served jail time for his actions.
Really there’s little more to say about Harding. His was a presidency probably best glossed over. Francis Russell’s book presents an engaging, if somewhat tabloidy account of his life, and is notable for its handful of pages with content redacted. Russell had got his hands on love letters sent from Harding to Carrie Fulton Phillips, with whom he was conducting an affair. An injunction from the Harding estate prevented their publication until 2014. You can now read those letters online: they’re not particularly salacious to modern sensibilities and Harding was not the first, nor the last, president to have an extra-marital affair. FDR, JFK, LBJ, Clinton and Trump spring to mind as more recent examples. Russell probably gives Harding’s love life a little more prominence than it is due. But the book’s an entertaining approach to a potentially not so interesting president and I appreciated that.