Biographically speaking, it seems Warren Harding comes in just two flavors: depressingly dull…or positively fascinating.
And the right choice of Harding biographies for you seems to depend on whether someone’s personal life – or his politics – are your thing.
After reading four biographies on Harding I was not surprised by how bad his presidency was (historians have generally condemned it as near-awful) but by how bad it was not. Perhaps I simply expected worse than I found – or maybe I’ve just been de-sensitized by the deficiencies of our modern day heroes?
In many respects Harding was ill-equipped for the demands of the presidency. Spectacularly salacious documentation also confirms that his personal life was a mess. And although he appears to have played no role in their evolution, several scandals emerged from within his administration which haunt his legacy. His presidential patina is deservedly tarnished.
But having vicariously survived the presidencies of political paragons such as Pierce, Buchanan, Johnson, Fillmore and Tyler (among others) I don’t see Harding as setting the Gold Standard for abysmal. For me, Harding merely defines the essence of “bottom quartile.”
And if he had possessed the public relations savvy of Ulysses S. Grant (whose administration was no stranger to scandal) or Bill Clinton (whose personal foibles are legend), Harding might today even be considered almost average…
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* My first Harding biography was Francis Russell’s 1968 “The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times.” Russell was one of five enthusiastic biographers who pounced on Harding’s papers when they were released by the Ohio Historical Society in 1964.
Russell’s book was not first to market; that distinction belongs to Andrew Sinclair. But Russell possessed one potential advantage over the rest of the field- he had previously stumbled upon a cache of colorful letters between Harding and one of his alleged mistresses. But while he was able to inject the “spirit” of those letters into his biography, the actual content had to be redacted due to a lawsuit brought by Harding’s descendants.
Despite this legal constraint, Russell’s biography was by a huge margin the most sensational – and one of the least scholarly – of the Harding biographies I read. Fans of slightly tawdry but captivating tales of infidelity will appreciate this book. But if a tabloidesque exposé is what you’re after, surely there must be a better subject than Warren Harding? (Full review here)
* Next I read John W. Dean’s 2004 “Warren G. Harding.” As a member of The American Presidents series this book delivers exactly what you would expect: a clear, concise and competent analysis of Harding’s life, including his presidency.
Among the four Harding biographers I encountered, Dean was Harding’s most enthusiastic supporter. Dean’s biography seemed designed not only to inform…but also to rehabilitate Harding’s reputation. And he was reasonably convincing.
In the end, however, Dean was too forgiving of Harding’s failings – for the worst of his political appointments, in particular. But for readers committed to reading one biography on each president, Dean’s biography of Harding is probably the best among a fairly mediocre lot. (Full review here)
* My third Harding biography was Andrew Sinclair’s “The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding.” Published in 1965, this was the first Harding biography published after the release of Harding’s papers in 1964.
Unfortunately, the haste with which Sinclair pushed this biography to press is demonstrated not only by its brevity (it is by far the shortest of the scholarly biographies) but also its overwhelming meaningful insight.
Sinclair substituted clever deduction for penetrating research and relied on platitudes and generalities to paint Harding with an excessively broad brush. But perhaps to his credit, Sinclair resisted the temptation to focus on the sensational stories of Harding’s personal life. Or perhaps he simply lacked the time? (Full review here)
* The last Harding biography I read was Robert Murray’s “The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration.” Published in 1969, this proved to be the most sober and scholarly of the Harding biographies. It was also fairly well-balanced, neither unfairly castigating Harding nor endlessly praising him. But it was far from ideal.
Murray devoted little attention to Harding’s childhood, his formative career as a newspaper publisher or his burgeoning political career. The first 54 years of Harding’s life were documented in less than 10% of the book’s pages.
Nowhere else have I seen a more detailed, well-researched or thoughtful (if unexciting) study of Harding’s presidency. But in order to truly understand Harding the man one must study far more than Harding the president. And in this respect, among a few others, Murray’s biography of Harding fell short. (Full review here)
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[Added November 2022]
* I’ve now read Ryan S. Walters’s just-released “The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding.” In many respects, the title says it all – this is a passionate defense of Harding’s presidential legacy; it is not a comprehensive or weighty biography. The narrative focuses primarily on the between Harding’s presidential campaign and his death just 29 months after his presidential term began. And while many readers are likely to find it interesting and thought-provoking, its best and worst arguments for Harding’s reappraisal are conveyed through a distracting partisan lens. (Full review here)
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I have added Samuel H. Adams “Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren Gamaliel Harding” to my follow-up list. Published in 1939, this is one of the earliest and best-known of the Harding biographies. It seems deeply flawed in several respects, but might prove interesting due to the early, central role it played in tarnishing Harding’s legacy.
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Best Biography of Warren Harding: John W. Dean’s “Warren G. Harding”
Most Scholarly Biography of Harding: Robert Murray’s “The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration”
Most Captivating Read of Harding: Francis Russell’s “The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times”