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Warren Gamaliel Harding was born in Corsica (later Blooming Grove), Ohio, the eldest of eight children. He attended rural Ohio Central College, graduated with a bachelor`s degree after two years and moved with his family to Marion, the community he would make his home for the remainder of his life. Brief stints as a teacher and insurance salesman were followed by more satisfying work with a local newspaper.
Harding purchased the Marion Star in 1884 and became active in local civic affairs, joining a variety of fraternal, church and business groups. In 1891, he married Florence Kling DeWolfe, a wealthy divorcee, who worked with him in the newspaper office; their relationship was not a warm one and Harding began to indulge in a series of affairs.
Harding became a popular figure in Marion; he was handsome, affable, a talented public speaker, always carefully attired, but made no pretense of intellectual sophistication. In 1899, he was elected to the Ohio state legislature, where he served the interests of the Republican Old Guard. During this time he became acquainted with attorney Harry M. Daugherty, who would become a political mentor and later the source of great embarrassment. Harding was elected lieutenant governor of Ohio in 1904. In 1910, he ran unsuccessfully for governor.
Harding was selected to deliver the nominating speech for William Howard Taft in 1912, an event that brought the newspaperman national attention. He worked hard during the ensuing campaign, attacking Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party as political traitors. This newly won prominence, plus Daugherty’s maneuverings, yielded a Senate seat for Harding in 1914. He made little impact as a legislator, but dependably supported Henry Cabot Lodge on most foreign affairs issues, backed the interests of big business and paid lip service to the cause of prohibition.
Warren G. Harding fancied himself an orator, but others shuddered at his high-blown rhetoric. William G. McAdoo, a Senator and Wilson cabinet appointee, later said of that a typical Harding speech was “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.”
In 1920, Harding entered several early Republican presidential primaries; he fared poorly and wanted to drop out of the race, but was encouraged to remain by his wife and Daugherty. That summer, the convention was unable to deliver a majority vote to either of the front runners and turned to Harding as a compromise candidate due in a large part to Daugherty’s skill and hard work. Senator Lodge proved to be pivotal by influencing other political pros in the infamous "smoke-filled" Chicago hotel room and delivered the nomination to the Ohioan on the 10th ballot.
The campaign in 1920 harked back to those of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, in which a confident candidate remained at home and eager delegations were brought to him. Harding greeted his followers from his front porch and pledged to return the nation to “normalcy” — music to the ears of many exhausted by World War I and Wilsonian internationalism.
Once in office, Harding made it clear that normalcy was his goal. On April 12, 1921, Harding addressed a special session of Congress and explained many of his goals. Among them:
The urgency for an instant tariff enactment, emergency in character and understood by our people that it is for the emergency only, cannot be too much emphasized. I believe in the protection of American industry, and it is our purpose to prosper America first. ...
A very important matter is the establishment of the government`s business on a business basis. There was toleration of the easy-going, unsystematic method of handling our fiscal affairs, when indirect taxation held the public unmindful of the federal burden. But there is knowledge of the high cost of government today, and high cost of living is inseparably linked with high cost of government. There can be no complete correction of the high living cost until government`s cost is notably reduced.
Warren Harding pledged to bring the “best minds” to Washington, but made some extremely poor choices for key positions. Domestic advances were made in such areas as the regularization of federal budgeting, establishment of a high protective tariff, restriction of immigration and the repeal of high wartime taxes. The appointment of the able Charles Evans Hughes as secretary of state led to what was perhaps the crowning achievement of the administration — the Washington Naval Conference and subsequent efforts at arms reduction and international stabilization. Harding also won the admiration of many for his Christmas 1921 pardon of Eugene V. Debs — a man who was the polar opposite of the president on almost every political and social issue.
By the spring of 1923, it was evident that some cronies had taken advantage of the president’s easy-going nature and had enriched themselves at public expense. Warren Harding sought refuge in travel, venturing across the country making speeches and vacationing in Alaska. On the return trip, the president became ill and died suddenly in San Francisco on August 2. Speculation developed in later years about the manner of Harding’s death, but the evidence available today strongly suggests natural causes.
Warren G. Harding was a popular president during his abbreviated term in office, but never a truly beloved one. Will Rogers, the widely popular comedian, said of the president that “he didn’t do anything, but that’s what the people wanted done.” Harding’s passing was marked by the usual platitudes about his service to the country, but those sentiments were soon replaced by pointed criticism as news of the scandals emerged. His reputation was further damaged in 1927, when a book was published by a woman claiming to be the mother of a child by Harding before he was president.
The assessment of Warren Harding has become a bit more favorable in recent years as historians have emphasized the worth of his efforts in international affairs as well as the comparative lack of significance of the scandals.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Warren Harding.
Regarding Election of 1920
The country needs less government in business, more business in government.
Regarding Election of 1920
America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
People have accused Harding of inventing the word "normalcy," but "normalcy" was an old word that is equivalent to "normality."
Practically all we know is that thousands of native Haitians have been killed by American Marines, and that many of our own gallant men have sacrificed their lives at the behest of an Executive department in order to establish laws drafted by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. ... I will not empower an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to draft a constitution for helpless neighbors in the West Indies and jam it down their throats at the point of bayonets borne by US Marines.
Criticizing Wilson's policies towards Haiti, during Election of 1920 campaign
Regarding Teapot Dome Scandal
I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my god-damned friends, White, they're the ones who keep me walking the floor nights!
Remark to William Alan White