Published in 1965, Andrew Sinclair’s “The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding” was the first biography of Harding published after Harding’s papers were opened to the public in 1964 by the Ohio Historical Society. Sinclair is a British author and historian whose diverse body of work includes novels, biographies, plays, films and short stories.
Of the five biographers who combed through Harding’s archives during the spring of 1964, Sinclair pushed his biography to press the fastest. “The Available Man” beat the next Harding biography to market by nearly three years. But Sinclair’s review of Harding’s life is also the shortest (with 299 pages), the result of the least exhaustive research and the most perfunctory.
His thesis is straightforward: that Harding was an intellectual lightweight but also was an affable small-town politician who made few enemies. Fortuitous timing, good luck and advantageous myths about Harding allegedly swept him into the presidency where he found a political office that demanded far more than he could deliver.
Sinclair is partially successful in supporting his contentions, but his portrait of Harding often appears too tidy and oversimplified. And throughout the book he frequently makes sweeping statements (about Harding and the forces shaping American life) that feel alarmingly superficial at best…and resemble irresponsible stereotypes at worst. These generalizations sound good but promise more than his research can support.
Fortunately, his aptitude for writing often makes up for his apparent deficiencies as a historian. His biography is coherent, interesting and often provocative. But his almost exclusive focus on Harding’s public career leaves aside an enormous amount about Harding’s personality and character which Sinclair might have used to paint a far more complete, and complex, portrait of his subject.
In addition, Sinclair’s disapproval of Harding pervades the text. Harding offers much to to criticize, but Sinclair’s evaluations often feel like partisan attacks rather than thoughtful critiques. And in those moments when he might actually praise Harding for something, Sinclair often can’t resist the opportunity to damn him with faint praise instead.
Ironically, Sinclair spends very little time focusing on the tacky gossip surrounding Harding’s reputation. Sinclair finds the rumor of Harding’s African-American ancestry little more than an unfortunate distraction. And he sees no merit in pursuing stories of Harding’s infidelity…pointing out, instead, how unfortunate it was that Harding liaised with someone who later chose to write an explicit book about their “alone time”.
His final observation of Harding – that the myths which created the man during life are largely the same forces which tore him down after his death – is fairly persuasive if a bit convenient. Unfortunately, by the time the final chapter arrives the reader is already skeptical of the author’s judgment. As a result, the meritorious elements of the book are largely lost in the background noise.
Overall, Andrew Sinclair’s biography is a provocative, entertaining and occasionally frustrating introduction to Warren Harding. While resisting the temptation to dwell on the tawdry side of Harding’s life, Sinclair spends too much time dealing in social and political platitudes, lore and generalities. Both as an introduction to the Harding and as a thoughtful analysis of his public life, Andrew Sinclair’s biography comes up short.
Overall rating: 2½ stars