Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a writer and the eldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt, had it right when she said, “[Warren] Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob.” Whether he knew it or not, the 29th president’s administration had been a ticking time bomb since the moment he won the presidency. He kept bad company, a group of friends and hangers-on who ran amok and enriched themselves on the Harding name. Some of the highest-profile American scandals, including Teapot Dome, happened under his watch. Sometimes he knew, sometimes he didn’t; sometimes he was a participant and other times guilty only by association. Regardless, Harding died in office on August 2, 1923, and the fact that he was still extremely popular and not yet a man in disgrace gave the Republicans a lifeline.
Harding’s vice president and successor, Calvin Coolidge, seemed a nonentity. The Nation described him as a “midget statesman” and Alice Longworth popularized an observation from her doctor that Coolidge “look[ed] as if he had been weaned on a pickle.” Upon learning that Harding died, a number of senators responded with disbelief—Henry Cabot Lodge bellowed, “My God! That means Coolidge is president!” Peter Norbeck of South Dakota said Coolidge could “no more run this big machine at Washington than could a paralytic.” And Harold Ickes, the Chicago Republican who would later play a major role in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, disparagingly observed, “If this country has reached the state where Coolidge is the right sort of a person for president, then any office boy is qualified to be chief executive.”
But Coolidge, despite all of these expectations, sailed through his first one-year term to a smooth election in 1924. While he may have been saddled with his predecessor’s scandals, the public was more interested in enjoying the prosperity that he had also inherited. Distancing himself from the scandals and associating himself with that prosperity proved a winning strategy for Coolidge during both his campaign and his presidency. The Republican Party’s reputation did not appear to suffer from the scandals, either. In fact, it wasn’t until the stock market crash of 1929 that voters started to turn against the party.
The circumstances that allowed Coolidge’s political survival and the smooth sailing of the entire Republican Party are worth revisiting today as a different scandal-plagued president—albeit one who, unlike Coolidge, is reaping the whirlwind of his own scandals—looks to win a second term during relatively prosperous times.
It was only a matter of weeks into his term before Coolidge suspected that trouble was brewing. It took just three months from the time of Harding’s funeral for the scandals to break. The first to explode was the Veterans’ Bureau, which during Harding’s time had wielded an enormous amount of influence with a $500 million budget and 30,000 jobs to dish out. Its previous secretary, Charles Forbes, had been involved in a lucrative kickback scheme in which he pillaged his own department to spruce up his ranch. Terrified of the embarrassment this could mean for the administration, Harding quietly asked Forbes to resign and then asked him to leave for Europe, from where he resigned, so as not to attract attention. The plan was not entirely successful, however, as details began to trickle out, which resulted in a Senate investigation of Forbes on March 2, 1923. But like all things, the coverup is sometimes as bad as the crime, and Harding must have been deeply concerned that the Senate would learn he had pushed the scandal under the rug. The Senate spent six months gathering facts and finished just at the time Harding died. Three months later, Forbes returned from Europe to stand trial. He was convicted and sentenced to a $10,000 fine and two years in prison.
The Forbes scandal was a hiccup, but not an insurmountable challenge for Coolidge. Harding had done enough and justice had been served, so the president could tell a story of accountability and move on so long as it remained an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
The next shoe to drop was Teapot Dome, which until Watergate would be considered the greatest political scandal in U.S. history. The scandal centered around three oilfields that in 1909 had been legally allocated to the United States Navy—a safeguard against possible shortage of oil in time of emergency. They were Naval Reserve No.1, at Elk Hills, California; No. 2, at Buena Vista, California; and No. 3, at Teapot Dome, Wyoming.
Harding’s interior secretary, Albert Fall, had his own plan and had persuaded Harding to transfer authority over the reserves to his department. Rather than receive competing bids for the leases of the reserves, he would sole-source the leases under a national security justification. He would then lease the three reserves to three separate friends with terms that were disproportionately favorable to the oil companies. The punch line of Fall’s scheme was that by making the oil companies richer, he would earn kickbacks in the form of no-interest loans, Liberty Bonds, livestock and cash that would make him a very rich man. Fall would then retire from government and use the money to build out his Three Rivers Ranch in New Mexico.
When the scandal emerged, Coolidge, who had heard whisperings while serving as vice president, quickly understood the implications of Teapot Dome but didn’t realize in the initial months of his presidency that the scandal went all the way up to his predecessor. He just knew he had some shady characters in the Cabinet and some housecleaning was in order. The former Interior secretary was damaged goods, and it was becoming increasingly clear that both the Navy secretary and the attorney general were equally complicit. He would deal with these individuals, but he needed to simultaneously ensure that any further investigation remained bipartisan so as not to taint him or the Republican Party going into the election.
The appointment of a bipartisan commission was a stroke of political genius. It implicated both Democrats and Republicans and achieved the more important goal of playing for time as the various trials dragged out long enough to avoid impact on the election. That June, the commission called for the prosecution of Fall and his cronies, but most convictions and subsequent sentencing occurred after the election. By that point, the public had largely lost interest and moved on. Albert Fall was less fortunate, as he earned the distinction of being the first Cabinet secretary in U.S. history to serve prison time.
The third major scandal to break—this time at the Department of Justice—had the most sweeping implications for Harding’s legacy and was potentially the most threatening to Coolidge’s election prospects. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was a shady, crooked individual who abused his office repeatedly and unabashedly for personal gain. He personally ran a bootlegging operation in which his henchmen accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from bootleggers in exchange for immunity, which was not always granted.
Daugherty also ran the Justice Department as a ruthless tyrant and drew the ire of many enemies. As attorney general, he obstructed justice, most notably during the Teapot Dome investigations. When, on February 20, 1924, Montana Senator Burton Wheeler introduced a resolution specifically calling for an investigation of the attorney general, Daugherty responded—or at least the FBI chief did on his behalf—by harassing him both publicly and privately. As Wheeler pursued the investigation, witnesses were physically intimidated, had their rooms ransacked and their documents stolen, all with the goal of preventing them from testifying. When that failed to halt Wheeler, Daugherty manufactured bribery charges against him in his home state of Montana.
Daugherty’s misdeeds eventually caught up with him and while he escaped prosecution—mainly because some of the key figures had mysteriously died or committed suicide—Coolidge had had enough. Harding may have been blinded by loyalty, but Coolidge knew exactly who Daugherty was and pushed him out on March 28, 1924.
By mid-1924, Coolidge was forced to confront the undeniable truth behind many of the accusations, particularly the suggestion that senior members of the Cabinet had been deeply involved. This was a dilemma for the new president, who in addition to having been at least nominally part of Harding’s Cabinet had retained his advisors. So much had unfolded in just his first few months as president and now, with the 1924 presidential election fast approaching, Coolidge knew he had to distance himself from his predecessor. Harding had been good to him, but the scandals occurred on his watch, and it was much easier for a dead man’s head to roll.
With Harding unable to defend himself and those responsible for the many scandals hardly eager to out themselves, Coolidge didn’t wait long to throw his dead predecessor under the bus. It was a good strategy. Not only did he get a free pass on the scandals, but the more the press and some politicians attempted to connect him and his administration to the past, the more unpopular such opponents became. Perhaps the greatest victim was John W. Davis, the 1924 Democratic presidential nominee, who foolishly misread the public and tried to connect Coolidge to the Harding scandals. He paid a heavy political price at a time when the electorate found this in poor taste.
Coolidge didn’t have to lift a finger to win the 1924 presidential election with the second-largest popular vote in Republican history. It was fortunate, too, as the unexpected death of his son left him too emotionally distraught to campaign. But as William Allen White observed: “In a fat and happy world, Coolidge is the man of the hour. Why tempt fate by opposing him.” His ascension to the presidency in 1923 fulfilled the country’s desire for a return to normalcy, making for an easy case to the American people that they should “Keep It Cool with Coolidge” and vote for a continuation of prosperity—even as scandal after scandal was continuing to land on the morning newspapers.
If the Coolidge presidency seemed uneventful, it’s because it was. He bickered a bit with Congress, but by and large he sat back and let the good times roll. The country, intoxicated with the perks of prosperity, mortgaged its future at every level as it marched blindly toward the greatest economic catastrophe in history.
Meanwhile, the late president lay six feet underground and was saddled with the growing reputational damage that came with each new revelation. When it came time to dedicate his memorial on July 4, 1927, President Coolidge was “too busy,” lest he risk any association with his radioactive predecessor. Nan Britton’s publication of The President’s Daughter dealt the dead president a devastating blow as she detailed their torrid affair in 440 pages of salacious anecdotes of sex and scandal. Successive biographies and autobiographies followed, each deepening the narrative of Harding’s failure. In many respects, Warren Harding became a lightning rod for the Republican Party. All that was bad was attributed to the late president, while all that was good and prosperous could be associated with Republican policies.
Harding was undoubtedly flawed and a failure of a president, but his death was exploited in the most Machiavellian terms by the very political opportunists he had elevated. Harding was corrupt, but so were many others in the Republican Party. His tragic death probably saved the party from implosion by giving it a fall guy. Had he survived, it all would have exploded just as he was gearing up for reelection, and unlike Coolidge he would have had no way to escape. There were simply too many scandals involving too many cronies and public servants, and had he not died it is unlikely he would have finished his term in office.
Not only did Coolidge not suffer the political consequences of his predecessor’s scandals, but the prosperous times similarly insulated the entire party against voters’ discontent—at least until the end of the decade.
It was tempting for Coolidge to consider a run in 1928, and at the time the country was so prosperous that he probably could have won. The 1920s was the Republican era, a period in which the prosperity was so great that it overshadowed the man in the White House. The party cared little if the president was Calvin Coolidge or Herbert Hoover, so long as he was Republican and the party could build on its political endowment. Little did they know that this political endowment was resting on a far shakier foundation than they realized. The approach was nearsighted, and as the writer Henry “H.L.” Mencken observed at the time, “[Coolidge’s] chief feat during five years and seven months in office was to sleep more than any other President—to sleep more and say less … While he yawned and stretched the United States went slam-bang down the hill—and he lived just long enough to see it fetch up with a horrible bump at the bottom.”
Harding, Coolidge and Hoover had all been architects of the policy that put American business first. Each bears responsibility for rebuffing demands to regulate the financial sector and for permitting rampant stock market speculation. Both the financial sector and the stock market were in dire need of regulation, and we know in hindsight that the trickle-down effect of booming economic times had created a bubble that was ready to burst. The success of the economy was in fact widening income inequality and further depressing the persisting agricultural crises. In truth, it all could have come crashing down during any one of the three presidents’ administrations. But by a stroke of bad luck and opting into a continuation of the same policies, Herbert Hoover was left holding the bag and to navigate the impossible.
Hoover’s election in 1928 was seen as a vote for prosperity, and by all accounts he had the right pedigree to continue the momentum. As a star member of both the Harding and Coolidge Cabinets, in which he served as Commerce secretary, Hoover distinguished himself as both a savvy and competent executive. With the country’s economy continuing to boom and a nasty anti-Catholic campaign targeted at the Democratic nominee, Al Smith, Hoover had an easy time winning in a massive landslide that even flipped some Democratic, Southern states.
The celebration was short-lived. Less than a year after taking office, calamity hit. As the market crashed in October 1929, so too did the Republican era of good and plenty.
Excerpted from Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America by Jared Cohen (Simon & Schuster, April 9, 2019).
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine