In selecting John Dean, Richard Nixon's former White House counsel, to write the biography of Warren Harding, Arthur Schlesinger made an interesting and a fruitful choice. Dean turns out to be a good biographer, and his book is a serviceable introduction to the last member of the Ohio presidential dynasty. Dean makes a strong case that history has done wrong by Harding, and that his ranking as one of the worst U.S. presidents reflects more political bias than substantive judgment. The Teapot Dome and whiskey scandals were not nearly as serious as some of the scandals that have shaken Washington in recent decades (without inflicting much harm on the posthumous reputations of the presidents peripherally involved), and Harding neither participated in them nor tried to cover them up. He freed the antiwar protesters that Wilson had jailed -- even pardoning Eugene Debs after an interview in the White House. Dean also argues that historians have erred by not giving Harding more credit for the diplomacy of his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes. Still, that only means that he was less slothful but more foolish than currently believed. As president, Harding failed to grasp the nature of the United States' new role and to give the country and the world the leadership they needed; it is this, not the financial improprieties of his cronies, that will keep the banks of the Potomac free of Harding memorials.
Get the latest book reviews delivered to your inbox.