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Welcome back, President Warren G. Harding!

President Warren G. Harding

President Trump looks into his historical mirror and sees a reflection of Abraham Lincoln. Besides our president, very few people see that resemblance. So, where can we find a historical comparison for the Trump presidency?

Trump’s presidency appears to be the antithesis of the Boy Scout honesty the country enjoyed under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. On the other end of the spectrum, comparisons to Richard Nixon are not a perfect fit. While Nixon shredded the Constitution seeking to maintain power, his administration was not tainted by claims of abuse of power for financial gain.

Prior to Watergate, the presidency best known for corruption and ineffectiveness was that of Warren G. Harding. Future historians will certainly find some similarities with Trump’s governance.

A president with limited skills and accomplishments

Harding, a Republican, ran for president in the aftermath of World War I. Harding campaigned on an isolationism platform calling for “America First.” Harding explained his election theme: “I don’t know what Americanism is, but it is a darn good word to win an election.” Harding won the 1920 election easily.

Harding spent considerable time golfing and engaging in acts of infidelity. Like those of our current president, Harding’s communication skills were challenged. In critiquing Harding, H.L. Menken wrote, “He writes the worst English I have ever encountered. … [I]t is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.” Menken asserted that Harding’s greatest accomplishment was to give English a “new barbarism.” Had social media existed in 1920, Harding’s tweets would have been nonsequitur ramblings infused with misspellings.

However, speculation that Trump and Harding may be genetically linked ignores very real differences. For example, Harding weighed only 173 pounds and possessed a smidgen of self-reflection when he confessed, “I am not fit for office and should never have been here.” Also, one of Harding’s harshest critics wrote, “His (Harding) speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over a landscape in search of idea.” Trump is somewhat different. He rattles off multitudes of conflicting ideas in the same sentence.

Harding died in office in 1923. At the time of his death, Menken wrote that Harding “… left behind him a career so horribly bare of achievements and also so bare of intellectual effort, that historians will have to labor, indeed, to make him more than a name.” In numerous pre-Nixon polls, historians recognize Harding as being our country’s worse president. Harding handily beats out such notables as Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore. So, where did Harding make a wrong turn? 

Harding embraced cronyism

Harding filled his administration with individuals whose main qualification consisted of being his “friend.” Charles Forbes headed Harding’s Veteran’s Bureau, Will Hays became postmaster, Harry Daugherty was appointed attorney general, Thomas Miller ran the Office of Alien Property, Albert Fall headed the Department of the Interior and Harding’s brother-in-law became superintendent of prisons. Each helped elect Harding, but each enjoyed limited experience for the positions they assumed. These appointments, and others, became collectively known as the “Ohio gang.”

Trump appears to be channeling Harding. Trump is creating his own gang by appointing his 29-year-old assistant (with no governmental experience) to run White House communications; his golf caddie as director of social media; a wedding planner to take on significant responsibilities at Housing and Urban Development; his home improvement contractor to become a senior administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency; and giving consideration to appointing his personal pilot as head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Harding’s appointments plagued his presidency. Harding realized the mistake when he stated, “I have no problem with my enemies. But my friends, my goddamn friends. They are the ones that keep me walking the floor at night.” By 1923, Harding’s restless steps would have exploded a Fitbit.

A special counsel investigates corruption 

Robert Moilanen

Harding’s “friends” contributed mightily to his marred legacy. Forbes was convicted of fraud in connection with fixing contracts to build facilities for World War I veterans. Daugherty was criminally charged twice and was investigated for failing to prosecute companies in which he had a stock interest. Gaston Means, Daugherty’s “fixer,” gave out liquor licenses in exchange for favors and was eventually convicted of perjury. Jess Smith, Daugherty’s “bagman,” became a fall guy and committed suicide. Miller was convicted of defrauding the government. Hays was investigated for having accepted money from Harry Sinclair to pay off party campaign debts.

Sinclair and Edward Doheny were oil company executives who were the beneficiaries of lease awards in connection with Harding’s greatest gift to malfeasance, the Teapot Dome scandal. Teapot Dome involved the receipt of bribes by the interior secretary, in return for which Fall granted favorable lease terms over oil reserve lands.

The Teapot Dome scandal was investigated and prosecuted by a special counsel. During trial, Fall attempted to characterize the payments he received as “loans,” but he was eventually convicted of accepting bribes.

In the aftermath of Fall’s conviction, the special counsel prophetically wrote, “The issues involved in the pending litigation are far-reaching. … Can the public business thus be transacted in secret? Shall men be permitted to make alleged “loans” (not to use the uglier term) to public officials with whom they are dealing for the public domain?” 

What Warren would tell Donald

With the exception of exceptionally poor judgment in hiring and neglectful oversight, the scandals that will forever tar Harding’s presidency did not directly implicate Harding. He was never found to have benefited from any of the pilfering and looting conduct engaged in by his “friends.”

In recent weeks, in addition to criminal charges being brought by the special counsel against Trump associates, the following activities involving Trump “friends” have been reported: the son of the secretary of HUD is purported to have engaged in influence peddling; hush money paid to a porn star; the letting of a $300 million dollar contract to a two-person business based in the secretary of the interior’s small hometown; suspicious stock trades by the former heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health and Human Services and a member of the President’s Regulatory Advisory Commission; the brother of the secretary of education pitching the president on his company’s ability to take over military operations in Afghanistan for just a few billion dollars; the president’s son-in-law receiving millions of dollars in “loans” from financial entities doing government business; looting of public funds for personal expenses by the head of the Veterans Administration; misuse of taxpayer funds for private jets; illegal use of the presidential seal at Trump golf courses to boost course aura; and lobbyists routinely currying favor by roosting at Trump-owned facilities.

Based on his experience, one can imagine the spirit of Harding whispering in Trump’s ear, “Donald, it’s your goddamn friends. Drain your swamp.”

Robert Moilanen is a Minneapolis lawyer who recently finished visiting all of the presidential libraries.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Robert Franklin on 03/13/2018 - 01:28 pm.

    Harding’s child

    One might wonder whether the Trump years could produce a sequel to “The President’s Daughter,” the 439-page book about Harding’s only child by the mother, Harding’s mistress, Nan Britton.

  2. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 03/13/2018 - 02:25 pm.

    Not funny but funny

    If you have HBO (or check it out on YouTube) and you want a good laugh, watch John Oliver’s fake movie trailer for a bio pic of President Harding.

  3. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/14/2018 - 01:57 pm.

    The original Trickle-down Trio

    I’d never heard about Warren Harding’s “friends” problem. Interesting, timely, familiar. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to derail the hold on the White House Republicans had during the 1920s.

    I say that because I’d never heard or thought much about Harding, save the brief, “Who were the presidents?” glide-over most of got in junior high or high school in those dusty history classes most of us needed to sit through.

    But then, a few years ago, when I started looking into some bigger picture things related to the history of America’s economic and tax policy, I discovered something surprising: He was the first of a disastrous trio of 1920s Republican presidents: Harding; Calvin Coolidge; Herbert Hoover.

    I discovered those three were “the original” proponents and implementors of what we now call “Trickle-down” or “Supply-side” economics . . . That approach to economic reality re-introduced by Ronald Reagan in 1980 . . . That approach to economics Republicans have continued to promote, implement and fight tooth and nail to defend ever since.

    I’ll skip most of the details of what I learned, but, when it comes to Warren Harding being an integral part of something monumental — but, at the same time, seeming to be one of those forgotten unimportant presidents — once a person sees the pattern, trail and RESULT of the “original experiment” with Trickle-down economics in the 1920s . . . and when a person realizes Harding was the president who got the ball rolling . . . that perception can change.

    Here’s the nutshell:

    When Harding took office in 1921 and America was in the process of paying its War War I bills, the income tax rate paid by America’s highest income earners was 73%.

    When Harding died and Coolidge took over, that tax rate had been lowered to 58%.

    By the time Coolidge left office and Herbert Hoover replaced him in 1929, the tax rate for America’s wealthy had been lowered all the way down to 25%, where it had been since 1925.

    And then, nine months into Hoover’s term, came (the original) “Black Friday”:

    “The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, originating in the United States. It started in 1929 and lasted until 1941. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how far the world’s economy can decline . . .

    “Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by an estimated 15%. By comparison, worldwide GDP fell by less than 1% from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession . . .

    “The Great Depression had devastating effects in countries both rich and poor. Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices dropped, while international trade plunged by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25% and in some countries rose as high as 33%.”

    And, of course, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Party rose to power and built their near-world-conquering military machine — in a country the size of Texas, no less — during the 1930s:

    “Hitler and the Nazis waged a modern whirlwind campaign in 1930 unlike anything ever seen in Germany. Hitler traveled the country delivering dozens of major speeches, attending meetings, shaking hands, signing autographs, posing for pictures, and even kissing babies . . .

    “Germany was in the grip of the Great Depression with a population suffering from poverty, misery, and uncertainty, amid increasing political instability.

    “Hitler offered downtrodden Germans what they needed most, encouragement. He gave them heaps of vague promises while avoiding the details. He used simple catchphrases, repeated over and over . . .

    “He offered something to everyone: work to the unemployed; prosperity to failed business people; profits to industry; expansion to the Army; social harmony and an end of class distinctions to idealistic young students; and restoration of German glory to those in despair. He promised to bring order amid chaos; a feeling of unity to all and the chance to belong. He would make Germany strong again; end payment of war reparations to the Allies; tear up the treaty of Versailles; stamp out corruption; keep down Marxism; and deal harshly with the Jews.”

    Above all, he promised to Make Deutschland Strong and Glorius Again!

    — Harding, Coolidge, Hoover

    — Rock bottom tax rates for wealthy Americans

    — Temporary over-amped economic growth (see: “Roaring 20s”)

    — The Great (global) Depression

    — Adolph Hilter and the Nazi

    — World War II

    When it comes to that original experiment with Trickle-down economics, the bottom line is it was TOTALLY REJECTED, torn out, stomped, torched, pitchforked, buried, covered with up with boulders and guarded by American voters and their Representatives for the next 50 years.

    Fair and rational tax rates were restored.

    The economy boomed, the size of the middle-class doubled and doubled again.

    Wealthy people didn’t go broke, didn’t die, didn’t suffer, kept making plenty of money and kept on doing whatever they wanted to do in their extra comfortable lives.

    And America experienced the closest thing to “prosperity for all” that any society in history had.

    America was the marvel and “envy” of the world and, by default and in reality, the most powerful country on Earth.

    And then one night a grisly hand came up out of the ground.

    And not long after that, there was Ronald Reagan, smiling into the camera, dragging his Trickle-down tail behind him.

    And Americans were hypnotized and began drooling when they heard about all the FREE MONEY that was going to be coming their way.

    And the tax rates of America’s wealthiest came way down.

    And the middle-class started to disappear.

    And here we are.

    Congress and the president just gave us all another extra big injection of Trickle-down tax juice that was paid for with at least $1.5 Trillion in fresh National Debt.

    Men women and children are being rounded up wholesale, warehoused in privately owned and operated “detention centers” and shipped out of America on shallow pretexts (at best).

    The president just wrapped boat anchor tariffs around the necks of our allies who produce steel and aluminum more efficiently and inexpensively than our steel and aluminum industry is able to, largely because of bad management decisions made decades ago. Decisions our allies didn’t make. As a result, their more competitive (“market forces”) pricing is now being called “dumping” and the end result will be higher prices paid by everyday Americans who are being “called upon” to take another hit to their family’s purchasing power to keep non-competitive American corporations afloat and generating “dividends” for — you guessed it — America’s high income earners.

    If you vote Republican this fall you’ll be voting to keep the Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Reagan, Bush, Bush, Paul Ryan, Trickle-down ball rolling, growing, gaining momentum.

    Be careful.

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