The Harding Presidency
As the richest administration in living memory is being assembled in Washington D.C., we look back at how an earlier version of that had fared.
For twenty-nine months in early 1920s, the United States was effectively governed not from the White House but from a small house four blocks away. The residence at 1625 K Street was the epicenter of the Harding presidency — and all the shambolic chaos that surrounded it.
Warren G. Harding was propelled into the White House by a deadlocked national convention and machine politics; in many ways, America elected him as a snub to his predecessor Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson’s internationalist views. A genial man whose friends included George Eastman, Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, Harding surrounded himself with cronies and sycophants and assembled a federal government which was less than qualified — to put it charitably.
To head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (and later the Federal Reserve), Harding chose D.R. Crissinger, a former neighbor whose prior work experience was as a director of rural shovel and stockyards companies. Harding gave his sister and brother-in-law, previously missionaries in Burma, senior jobs in the government. His chief military adviser was a man named Ora Baldinger — someone so obscure and inconsequential that he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page — who had been Harding’s newspaper delivery boy.
To head the newly formed Veterans Affairs bureau, Harding chose Charles Forbes, who he befriended by chance during a Hawaiian holiday. Forbes was put in charge of a department with $500 million budget (around $6 billion in today’s money), of which he managed to lose, steal, or misappropriate as much as $200 million in mere two years. Another distinguished appointee was Albert Fall, a senator trailed by a dark cloud of possible homicide of a rival. Fall was chosen to lead the Department of Interior where he blundered into a bribery scheme that would soon be remembered as the Teapot Dome scandal, and became .
Meanwhile, at the Treasury, shrewd Andrew Mellon oversaw a huge tax cut, which while kickstarting the economy, greatly benefited the rich. As a political rival noted at the time, under the new tax, “Mr. Mellon himself gets a larger personal reduction than the aggregate of practically all the taxpayers in the state of Nebraska”. Mellon also used the IRS to prepare his tax returns (to minimize his tax bill), and the State Department to get his companies get contracts in China, according to David Cannadine in magisterial Mellon: An American Life. During his long years at Treasury, Mellon’s personal wealth doubled to over $150 million, and his family fortune grew to over $2 billion.
Harding didn’t manage to see most of the havoc caused by his appointees — not Mellon’s tax trial, not Fall’s prison sentence (who holds the dubious distinction as the first cabinet member to go to prison), not Crissinger’s indictment for mail fraud in a crooked real estate financing scheme. Twenty-nine months into his presidency, he died from heart failure — in the hands of Charles Sawyer, an unqualified doctor who relied on archaic medical practices, and who was only appointed official White House physician because he had been Harding’s parents’ family doctor.