American history, biographies, book reviews, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Murray, Warren Harding
“The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration” is Robert Murray’s 1969 biography of this scandal-tainted president. Murray was a professor at Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the department of history.
Published five years after Harding’s personal papers became publicly available, Murray’s biography proves an extremely scholarly and well-researched study. His main thesis is that the era of the 1920s – and Harding’s administration, in particular – are deserving of a reinterpretation based on facts rather than myth or legend.
While conducting his “reinterpretation” Murray is more supportive of Harding than many other biographers. But while never reluctant to point out Harding’s many flaws, Murray devotes very little time to the sensational tales of Harding’s infidelity. And he ultimately judges Harding, as president, no worse than Pierce, Johnson, Benjamin Harrison or Calvin Coolidge.
This book, however, is far more a detailed study of Harding’s presidency than a comprehensive biography of his life. Readers seeking significant insight into his personality, his childhood or his relationship with his wife will be disappointed. After the first 25 of this book’s 537 pages, Harding is in already his mid-fifties and is the Republican candidate for president.
Despite the speed with which Murray hurries through Harding’s early life the book’s first chapter is excellent, capturing the essence of Harding’s political career if not his personal life. But once Harding is nominated for the presidency the book’s pace slows dramatically and the reader is immersed in a seemingly endless array of political detail. And much of the focus is devoted to the “Harding Era” rather than on Harding himself.
A few dedicated (and presumably academically-oriented) readers will revel in the detail. But most others will find the heart of the book tedious and dull, resembling a painstakingly researched and well-assembled PhD thesis. Harding’s presidency is structured topically, rather than chronologically, and covers areas such as agricultural policy, labor relations and foreign policy issues. But while Murray’s analysis is excellent, it is all too easy to miss the forest for the trees.
The book’s final two chapters are excellent, focusing on the last days of Harding’s life (and presidency), the scandals which matured after his death and the evolution of his legacy. Murray also provides a fascinating and insightful review of the Harding biographies published prior to the late 1960s.
By the book’s end, Murray will have convinced many in the audience that Harding’s presidency deserves consideration as “well below average” rather than “abysmal.” But it is doubtful anyone will feel they have gained any real understanding of Harding as a person. In contrast to the charisma he apparently exuded during his life, Harding comes across as a distant historical figure who is flat, dull and lifeless.
Overall, Robert Murray’s “The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration” is a serious and scholarly review of Harding’s life. But its focus is uneven; very little attention is dedicated to his childhood, his decades as a newspaper publisher or his time in state politics. As a history text covering the post-Progressive Era Murray’s book seems compelling. But judged as a biography of the 29th president it proves disappointing.
Overall rating: 2¾ stars
Leopold von Ranke said:
Since no one else has posted here — and in honor of Warren G. Harding’s 150th birthday, which is today, November 2.
In Robert K. Murray’s defense, as you hint at in your review, the intention of “The Harding Era” was to provide the first scholarly detached assessment of Harding’s presidency, not a biography per se. No scholar or talented popular writer has attempted to tackle the whole life of the man, to show how his personality, shaped as it was by his earlier life circumstances, led to his less-than-successful presidency.
No one wants to devote X number of years of their lives to writing about someone who is perceived as an unmitigated failure and an obscure one at that. Yet someone of the caliber of a Chernow or a Burlingame might be able to explicate the significance of Harding’s elevation to the nation’s highest office, since the Washingtons and the Lincolns are the exceptions and the Hardings, closer to the norm than we may care to admit. What does it say about the nature of our democracy and society that since the passing of the Virgina Dynasty great men have seldom been elected president?
Thanks again for your comments. One of the most surprising (and disappointing) discoveries I’ve made so far is that few, if any, of the lesser-known presidents have attracted the attention of biographers able to write comprehensive, thorough, interesting and penetrating studies that carefully follow and describe the person’s entire life…witnessing the evolution of his character and politics, understanding the forces that shaped that evolution, and really communicating that person’s impact on American culture from his time in office through today.
It’s also interesting (and disappointing), as you point out, that so few exceptional people seem elected president anymore – or, frankly, are even tempted to seek the presidency. And does that say more about the talent pool or the electorate – or perhaps something about deficiencies or inherent inefficiencies in the political process itself?
Leopold von Ranke said:
Not a great or good man, but a highly effective president not above employing subterfuge to achieve his goals — unfortunately, that was not enough to convince his biographer to finish the task.
The only biography of a lesser-known president that I can think of which is a thorough exploration of the subject’s life and times and which had a substantial impact on other scholars’ and the public’s perceptions of his presidency is Charles Grier Sellers Jr.’s James K. Polk (1957-1966). I see you have added this one to your follow-up list. Sellers writes like a novelist — with an eye for the telling detail, he transports the reader back to Polk’s time. While as a biography it may fall somewhat short in its elucidation of the main character’s personality and personal life, this is through no fault of the author, since Polk subsumed nearly everything else in his short life to political ambition. On the other hand, Sellers manages to reconstruct Polk’s milieu in convincing fashion. Sellers ties Polk’s personal political rise not only to what was happening on the national scene but shows how the specific local political and social conditions of his native North Carolina and adoptive Tennessee influenced the development of not only his worldview but also those of the frontier Democratic Party through whose ranks he rose and the constituents whose interests he represented.
Sellers’s emphasis on Polk’s local roots to explain his rise suggests an answer as to why so few great men have been elected president: in the end, the people prefer politicians who cater to their parochial interests over statesmen calling the country to a higher purpose. On this score, Polk has been praised by some (and damned by more than a few) for being the only president to fulfill all of his campaign promises.
Sadly, only the first two volumes of Sellers’s projected trilogy on Polk were completed, which take readers up to the outbreak of the Mexican War — hence it is missing the last three and most significant years of Polk’s life. While Professor Sellers is still alive and completed most of the research for the final volume back in the 1960s, he is now in his early 90s. Moreover, he appears to have become disillusioned with his subject (just like many of Polk’s contemporaries). By the time of the publication of volume 2, Sellers, a liberal white Southerner and a professor at UC-Berkeley, had become heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement — a point of view seriously at odds with an antebellum Southern president who advocated continental expansion to the point of war with another country, mostly for the benefit of the slave-holding planters.
Even if it would have meant a final volume that was discordantly at odds with the first two in terms of interpretation and tone, it is still a pity that Sellers did not attempt to take one final measure of Polk, or at least try to pass the task off to one of his former graduate students. For most readers of presidential biographies, the lack of a capstone has relegated the existing Sellers volumes on Polk to the remainder bin of uncompleted multivolume presidential biographies, along with Arthur Link’s Wilson and Frank Freidel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt (abandoned in favor of a one-volume reboot). Of all of them, Sellers’s Polk is the biggest loss, since the only complete full-scale biography is the woefully outdated Eugene Irving McCormac treatise — a dry recitation of politics and diplomacy published in 1922!
Oh my goodness I wish I had read this review before jumping in. I have enjoyed Murray’s book for what it is, but even in its presentation of Harding’s presidency I have nearly forgotten at times that the book is even about him. I am almost finished, and I feel like I know more about Herbert Hoover and Harry Daugherty than I do Harding. Instead of “Warren G. Harding and His Administration,” the subtitle should really just be “The Warren G. Harding Administration.” How are there two whole chapters after he’s dead!?
Yes, this one was a bit disappointing for me. There is at least one Harding bio in the works (if you believe the rumor mill) so I hope “the best is yet to come” for Warren 🙂