Letter to the Editor: The Most Corrupt President in American History Was Not Warren Harding - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Letter to the Editor: The Most Corrupt President in American History Was Not Warren Harding

It has become commonplace for historians and scholars to compare presidential corruption to Warren Harding, claiming he is the standard to measure dishonesty in the White House. It is repeated on both sides of the political aisle, Republicans as well as Democrats, conservatives as well as liberals.

Most recently, Jeffrey Lord of The American Spectator wrote a piece entitled, “Joe Biden: The Most Corrupt President Since Warren Harding.” I personally like Lord and agree with most of his articles, including half of this particular piece. But ranking Harding as the most corrupt is in no way historically accurate.

Scandals did occur during the Harding presidency, that much is true, as they occur in most every administration. But what’s most important is how corruption is handled by the president when it does occur.

There were three scandals in the Harding administration: the Veterans Bureau, the Justice Department, and Teapot Dome. None of these involved the president, which is to say that Harding did not benefit from any of the corruption.

Charles Forbes headed the new agency to take care of wounded American servicemen who suffered as a result of Wilson’s war in Europe. He was found to be taking kickbacks from the construction of veteran’s hospitals, to the tune of $2 million.

When Harding found out about Forbes’ thievery, he was beside himself with anger. According to a reporter from the New York Times, who witnessed the incident, Harding confronted Forbes, grabbing him by the throat. “You double-crossing bastard!” the president screamed. The reporter stated that the president was shaking him “like a dog would a rat.” Harding demanded and got Forbes’ resignation. Forbes was later prosecuted for fraud and bribery and served two years in a federal prison. The bureau’s attorney, Charles F. Cramer, committed suicide over the affair.

Harry Daugherty, a Harding friend from Ohio, served as attorney general, heading the Justice Department, or, as some came to call it, the “Department of Easy Virtue.” The scandals involved selling access to the government in the form of pardons, liquor licenses, offices, judgeships, and other goodies. Much of it was done at the hand of Jesse Smith, Daugherty’s right-hand man. After being discovered, then confronted by Harding, Smith went home, burned his personal papers, and committed suicide.

The most famous scandal was Teapot Dome, yet much of the news of this scam broke after Harding’s death. Teapot Dome involved oil in the West, specifically two large oil reserves — Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California — that had been set aside specifically for use by the U.S. Navy. These naval oil reserves were under the control of the Secretary of the Navy, then a separate cabinet position.

Albert Fall was named by Harding as Secretary of the Interior. Fall convinced the Navy Secretary to transfer the reserves to his department. Fall then quietly leased the land to two private oil men, Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny. Sinclair received Teapot Dome and Doheny Elk Hills. In return, Fall received bribes totaling $125,000. The scandal hit the press in 1923 and dragged on in the courts until 1929, when Fall was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail. The two oil men were never found guilty of bribery. In 1927, the Supreme Court restored the oil fields to the government.

Harding found out about Teapot Dome while on a trip to the West Coast, a voyage that would be his last. According to Herbert Hoover, who was on the train with the president, Harding spoke with him privately. “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.”

It was obvious Harding needed some advice, most likely because he was afraid of repeating the Jesse Smith episode and having another suicide on his hands. The president died, though, before he could handle Teapot Dome.

Harding’s administration is often referred to as “scandal-plagued.” But there are other presidencies with far more corruption, most notably Grant and Clinton. So, there is really no comparison to be made. Unlike Grant and Clinton, Harding actually did something about the scandals when he found out about them. Only his premature death prevented further action, thus making criticism of him unfair.

Ryan S. Walters

Fort Worth, Texas

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