American history, biographies, book reviews, Carrie Phillips, John Dean, Nan Britton, presidential biographies, Presidents, Warren Harding, Watergate
“Warren G. Harding” by John W. Dean was published in 2004 and is a member of The American Presidents series. Dean is an author, columnist and political commentator. Among his nearly dozen books are “Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush” and “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.”
Dean served as White House Counsel for Richard Nixon between July 1970 and April 1973. In connection with his role in the Watergate scandal, Dean pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. He cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Regular readers of The American Presidents series will find the style and structure of Dean’s biography very familiar: it is clear, concise (with 170 pages) and provides a competent, if not exhilarating, review of Harding’s life.
There is never any doubt that the author, who grew up in Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, is a fan of this scandal-plagued former president. But rather than providing a carefully balanced assessment of Harding’s life and presidency (something seemingly unique in the world of Harding-related scholarship) Dean views his primary mission as the enthusiastic rehabilitation of Harding’s legacy.
Fortunately, the author’s pro-Harding sentiments are easy to identify. And although Dean shows his support too forcefully at times, his case relating to Harding’s legacy is not without merit. In fact, he may well be mostly right about Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” being undeserved. But it is never clear just how high Dean believes Harding can soar…and the evidence of Harding being more than mediocre is elusive.
As is customary for books in this series, Dean’s biography moves rapidly through Harding’s life. The future president is nearly fifty years old after the first thirty pages have passed. During that time he owned and managed a newspaper for nearly three decades, married, cut his political teeth as an Ohio state legislator and as lieutenant governor, ran unsuccessfully for governor and navigated a multi-year affair.
Most of these events are touched upon…but with extraordinary speed. The most obvious casualty of this efficiency is the description of those closest to Harding – his wife, his parents and his closest friends. They remain largely peripheral and ill-defined. But Dean also spends as little time as possible discussing Harding’s fifteen-year affair with Carrie Phillips…who was married to one of Harding’s best friends.
Harding’s presidency is covered more studiously and with greater depth, but still lacks some of the insight, color and context one would find in a great presidential biography. And the elephant in the room – the political scandals which continue to haunt Harding’s legacy – are largely reserved for the book’s final chapter. Teapot Dome, in particular, is covered too quickly and without adequate flavor…but the punch-line is no surprise: Harding cannot be held responsible for the bad actions of his senior political appointees.
The book’s last chapter is also where the reader finally learns of Nan Britton, the woman with whom Harding fathered a child just before his election as President. He was then in his mid-fifties; she was twenty-three. Dean spends three pages attacking the veracity of Britton’s claims but Harding’s paternity was recently proven through DNA testing.
Overall, John W. Dean’s “Warren G. Harding” is a solid if not remarkable review of the life of the 29th president. Although it exhibits a facts only writing style that proves plain and uninspiring, this book is never dull or laborious. And while the author tries too hard to repair Harding’s legacy, his biography does provide a provocative and often well-reasoned defense of Harding as somewhat better than our worst-ever president.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Ha! You have to love that he spent three pages debunking the Britton claim and DNA proves it true. I read recently of the account of the DNA tests. The Harding descendents were quite gallant about it if I remember correctly. They thought they should do it for the sake of history. Those of us who love presidential history thank them.
Kim Strohmeier said:
I’m thinking that you’re really being very diplomatic about the qualities of this book!!! Read all of them a couple years ago. I agree with some earlier statements you made somewhere about this series being a lot better for those lesser-known presidents. And I did learn something about Harding, but I thought it was one of the most one-sided, whitewashing books that is supposed to be a biography that I’ve ever read. Don’t recall details but I do recall that in principle, the idea that all the historians that ranked him dead-last just misunderstood him was laughable. I thought that Schlesinger, or the replacement editor, really missed the boat in finding someone to write about Harding. Of course, maybe they could find no one else that thought it worth their time…..
I really wish Dean had just come out and said that he doesn’t consider what Harding did (or might have done) in his private life to have been relevant to his presidential reputation/legacy. Being defensive about it (and ignoring much of it) doesn’t work well. And perhaps he could have drawn thoughtful parallels to Grant and Nixon, both of whom endured scandals of various sorts, and both of whom have fared far better than Harding. Or perhaps he could have aimed Harding’s reputation conspicuously at Pierce, Fillmore or Benjamin Harrison – that would seem to be an easy sell.
Jan Denman said:
You write: “In fact, he may well be mostly right about Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” being undeserved. But it is never clear just how high Dean believes Harding can soar…and the evidence of Harding being more than mediocre is elusive.” Aha! I thought the same thing. After reading Dean’s book, I moved Harding up four notches on my own rankings list. He’s now ahead of Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Tyler, and Fillmore. Hurrah for Warren!