Ninety years ago today, on August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California. It was sudden, shocking, and has been fodder for conspiracy theorists ever since. His wife, Florence—described derisively by some as “The Duchess”—didn’t allow an autopsy, so we’ll never know exactly what caused the demise of the 29th President of the United States. It might have been congestive heart failure, or food poisoning, or even something more sinister.
Seen in retrospect, through the prism of the scandals associated with his White House tenure, Harding is usually ranked well toward the bottom of the list of presidents. In reality, he was a very popular and effective leader. But he was cursed with cronies—men who ensured that his name would forever be associated with political corruption. What is sometimes forgotten about Harding is that he also had some effective public servants on his team, men such as Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover, and above all, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Harding.
Historians tend to bunch the three Republican presidents of the 1920s – Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – together in a way suggesting they were identical triplets separated at birth. But there were many differences – some subtle, some not so much.
Herbert Hoover, all of his speechifying about “individualism” notwithstanding, was not the fiscal conservative many today make him out to be. Mr. Hoover had a strong interventionist streak in his personality. So, in many ways, he helped to turn a recession into the Great Depression. Ironically, when closely examined, Herbert Hoover’s approach to economics had more in common with his successor than it did with the two men preceding him in the White House.
What is usually missed about Harding, though, is how effective he was on the issue of the economy. When he assumed the presidency in March of 1921, he inherited a mess. Woodrow Wilson had expanded the role and size of government dramatically, incurred a $25 billion dollar debt, and cracked down on political opponents - even imprisoning some (socialist activist Eugene V. Debs, etc.).
In fact, the economic problems in the 1920-1921 Depression were actually worse in many ways than the Great Depression a decade later. But that downturn didn’t last as long – thankfully. Warren Harding cut federal spending and lowered taxes. And in less than two years the number of unemployed in the country fell from 4.9 million to 2.8 million, en route to a rate of 1.8 percent by 1926 under his successor, Mr. Coolidge.
Oh – and Harding set the political prisoners free, even inviting Debs to the White House. He was a classier act than many now remember.