“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