American history, biographies, book reviews, Collin College, New Releases, presidential biographies, Presidents, Ryan S. Walters, Warren Harding
“The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding” is Ryan Walters’s new biography of the 29th president. Walters is adjunct professor of History at Collin College in Texas. His previous books include “Grover Cleveland: The Last Jeffersonian President” and “Apollo 1: The Tragedy That Put Us on the Moon.”
Warren Harding has long been disparaged as a historically poor president – a man ill-suited to the intellectual and ethical demands of the office, possessing a defective moral compass and perennially plagued both personal and professional scandal.
In this newly-published defense of Harding’s legacy, Walters attempts to correct what he sees as an unfair appraisal of his subject’s character and presidential performance. While acknowledging the magnitude of his task, Walters argues that no one in possession of the facts can doubt Harding was at least a “good” chief executive.
With 189 pages of text, “The Jazz Age President” is relatively brief and is delightfully easy to read. And it reads more like a book from The American Presidents series than a scholarly (and weighty) presidential biography. But where individual volumes in that series cover former presidents cradle-to-grave, Walters’s book is almost exclusively concerned with Harding’s twenty-nine month presidency (which ended prematurely with his death).
But while this book is primarily a defense of Harding’s legacy, it is also essentially a history of his presidency and of world affairs during those 2+ years. It tends to proceed thematically rather than chronologically, but is rarely hard to follow. And Walters injects enough historical context and commentary to provide most readers with an adequate understanding of the issues.
The book’s elemental strength is that it is consistently interesting, provocative and passionately argued. But nearly every important observation is conveyed through a distracting partisan lens. This pervades the text and taints even the most meritorious of its perspectives and conclusions. As a result, readers otherwise willing to be convinced of Harding’s qualities are likely to remain cautious and circumspect.
And readers hoping to more completely understand Harding’s personality, intrinsic strengths or personal life will surely be dissatisfied. There is virtually nothing in these pages of the five decades of his life prior to his campaign for the presidency – including his twelve-year political career and his extramarital affairs (one of which was proven in 2015 to have produced a child).
Overall, Ryan Walters’s “The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding” is a thought-provoking and full-throated defense of Warren Harding’s presidential legacy which proves selectively convincing at best and needlessly partisan and two-dimensional at worst. But whatever you think of the author’s pugilistic style, one thing is certain: it cannot be rated as a traditional biography.
Overall Rating: “Unrated” as Biography
Steve H said:
I appreciate your review, but it is disappointing nonetheless because it means we are still waiting for a decent biography of Harding. Surely, someone will write one soon. I’m actually meeting with Jon Meacham today. Maybe I’ll suggest that to him!
Thanks for this. I’d wondered whether it was worth reading. Appears that I don’t want to waste my time on it.
Please do…but ask him to finish his book on Dolley and James Madison before he gets started on Harding! And I think Martin van Buren might also be due for some of Jon’s attention 🙂
Christopher Saunders said:
Thanks Steve, Amazon recommended this to me awhile back and I was interested. Sounds like what I suspect, though – Harding is pretty irredeemable and the most his defenders seem to say are “he had good intentions” (I suppose) or he rolled back the excesses of Wilson’s later years (fine) or arglebargle about laissez faire economics (I remember when the Tea Party tried to revive his reputation for letting an apocryphal “Depression of 1920” take its course, something they felt Obama should have done). You’re still left with a tangle of corruption and incompetence and it seems pretty brazen just to brush past that by saying, “well he wasn’t as racist as Woodrow Wilson.”
Among other things, I was amused by the notion that because many of his administration’s scandals didn’t become publicly-known until after his death, he somehow gets a “pass” for these.
And while many of the author’s points are valid, it seems there is a tendency to create a “straw man” that proves easy to knock down – but which ignores the real (and probably insoluble) underlying issue(s).
In any event, it was a relatively easy and interesting exercise, but I’m losing hope that someone will come along to write the definitive, interesting and scholarly classic on Harding 🙂
Christopher Saunders said:
Hope you’re enjoying the Lafayette book, I read that awhile back and thought it was pretty solid.
I read this book recently and it is very partisan. Walters basically states this early on in the book. Which leads to me not to give this book much credibility. I do think Harding was better than he has been given credit in the past. But still those scandals that were ongoing during his administration fall on his shoulders of responsibility. The book just pushes those to the side. If one had never read a biography on Wilson you have thought he was next to Satan by this authors account. While Wilson had his faults he did a good job as president and was not to blame for most things that Walters discredits him. Maybe someday someone will write a balanced biography on Harding. This book certainly is not that.
I’ve read this bio, and would rate it as “OK”. I understand the author wanting to defend and lift Harding’s legacy, but I would have appreciated a more scholarly approach. An attempt to humanize him by providing more of his personal history before his presidency might have helped (or hurt) his goal. I agree with your review. Any chance Chernow can be persuaded to just do a biography of every president? 🙂