I’ve been thinking a lot about the worst American presidents. It looks like I will have lived through at least two who are (or will be in the top ten). One of them, George W. Bush, already often ranks around ninth or tenth on the lists. The other, Donald Trump, doesn’t get ranked at this point–for obvious reasons, he’s been president for less than 100 days. Despite that, he’s clearly on a path of destruction headed straight to the top of the “worst of” lists.
Although maybe not the top. Others who appear on these lists are: Andrew Johnson, who, among other things, insisted that freed slaves don’t have the right to be citizens; William Henry Harrison, with whom the biggest issue was that he struggled with not dying, and consequently allowed John Tyler to become president; speaking of–John Tyler, who sided with the confederacy; and finally James Buchanan, who more or less allowed the country to collapse into civil war.
Another who’s often on these lists is Warren G Harding. And after reading the little abstract about why he’s earned that reputation, I thought a few things mentioned sounded familiar. So, I did a little more research and found that there have been more than one comparisons of Harding and Trump. These articles really focussed on the following–
During their presidential campaigns, both Harding and Trump were:
- not taken seriously during their party’s primaries (1920 and 2016, respectively).
- insistent that a past America was better than the current America and aimed to recreate the previous superior one (“Return to Normalcy” and “Make America Great Again”)
- republicans competing for the seat occupied by relatively popular two-term “progressive” democrats (Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama).
But all of the comparison pieces I could find were written between March and December of 2016. Since then, further comparisons have become clear, and these look a bit more damning for the Trump administration.
While in office, both presidents:
- appointed friends to powerful and influential positions.
- received criticism for their regular and/or inappropriate recreational activities.
- had scandals engulf the people they surrounded themselves with.
During Warren’s time as president, he welcomed into his administration those who became known as the Ohio Gang, alternatively the “poker cabinet.” This most notably consisted of: Harry Daugherty (51st US Attorney General), Jess Smith (assistant to the Attorney General), Albert B. Fall (Secretary of the Interior), Edwin Denby (Secretary of the Navy), and Charles Forbes (Head of Veteran’s Affairs). This is not a complete list, but the Ohio gang were all people he’d either known since his days as a US Senator in Ohio, or acquaintances of his friends whom he later met while campaigning for president.
Trump took office on January 20th and only eight days later signed an executive order giving Steve Bannon, a friend of Trump’s, a seat on the National Security Council and White House Chief Strategist. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, was appointed almost immediately as a Senior Advisor in the White House. Possibly most problematic of the myriad issues with these appointments is that in both instances neither of them have any of the requisite experience to be successful in or even competently perform the duties of these roles. But ultimately, nothing happened and they’re both right where Trump put them*. Now, a little over two months later, Trump gave Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter & Kushner’s wife, a paid position and an office in the White House. He explained that her role will be to act as the president’s “eyes and ears.” It’s as if, after testing the waters with Bannon and Kushner, and as it became clear that it was safe to continue in the direction of nepotism and inexperience, onward they proceeded. Among Trump’s other controversial appointees include: Michael Flynn (resigned, National Security Advisor) and Andrew Puzder (withdrawn, Secretary of Labor).
The people directly linked to Harding and Trump stood/stand to gain money, power and influence because of their connections not because of their experiences. Regarding the Trump administration, investigations are still pending, but if Harding’s administration is as similar as it seems, these investigations won’t turn out well.
The Ohio Gang, referred to above as the “poker cabinet,” came together multiple times per week to play “high stakes” poker games at the White House. While Harding was in office, he played poker while his gang exploited their opportunities, including taking bribes, patronage and bootlegging. There are rumors that he gambled the White House china set on one hand of poker, and other rumors that they drank during these games, which was at the time prohibited by the 18th Amendment of the constitution.
Recreation is by no means something presidents should be exempted from or made to go without for four years; however, Harding became president at the end of the World War I, and there was still a considerable amount of diplomatic–most notably that the war with Germany hadn’t technically ended. So, while all this was going on, it’s hard to justify not consistently working and focusing on the interests of the country. Unless they truly weren’t his primary interests, which is what his actions indicate.
Since the inauguration nearly 80 days ago, Trump has gone golfing fourteen times. Despite the hypocrisy (on all sides of the political spectrum), it’s hard not to point it out, even if it really doesn’t seem to mean much or change anything. All that said, it is true that Obama golfed, it’s true that most (if not all) presidents golfed, but it’s also true that Trump condemned Obama nearly every time, and that during Obama’s first 100 days he played no golf.
Additionally, while Trump the country, with scandals and twitter rage, the people around him are taking advantage of it and rolling back a number of Obama era regulations, rollbacks that in no way benefit of the American public–the ISP data-sharing; climate policy; worker safety rules, to name a few. That these rollbacks are nothing more than footnotes in the news, which has been too busy covering the issues that Trump had created, these rollbacks are effectively hidden from the population. Party aside, I’d find it hard to believe anyone wouldn’t speak up about losing what little privacy we have left on the internet.
One of the biggest scandals of the early 20th century took place during Harding’s presidency, the Teapot Dome. The name will forever be inextricably linked with Harding, because he transferred responsibility of the Naval Reserves at Elk Hills from Edwin Denby to Albert Fall. Later Fall gave the lease to drill there to two friends and oil-men without going through the proper channels and holding an open bid for the leases. After an almost two year investigation, Albert Fall became the first cabinet member to sent to prison. Jess Smith burned his records and committed suicide. After Harding died in 1923, information regarding the levels of corruption within the ranks of his administration continued to flow. Daugherty was tried for selling illegal liquor permits. When Calvin Coolidge assumed office after Harding’s death, he pardoned Daugherty, but forced him to resign; it wasn’t long before Coolidge effectively removed most of the Ohio Gang from the White House.
Although there have been “scandals” in the Trump administration, none have been fully resolved. Concerns continue to rise, regarding the former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, who resigned only 24 days after being appointed because he had been dishonest with the administration on the topic of his discussion with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s conflicts of interest and potentially treasonous actions have further developed since then, most recently, he’s asked for immunity to testify. Again, the hypocrisy is nearly impossible to ignore, so I have to point out a quote by none other that Michael Flynn: “Immunity means you probably committed a crime.” In addition to Flynn, Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort worked (works?) for a Russian oligarch, with the specific aim of promoting Russia’s and Putin’s interests in both Europe and America. During the campaign, Kushner met with the head of a Russian bank that had been sanctioned by the US.
Many news outlets and journalists have been talking about all the “smoke,” in the administration. It seems improbable that nothing is there; however, it would be the biggest scandal in American history if proof of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia existed. Though nothing has been confirmed, it’s worth mentioning that Trump either doesn’t understand the difference between the reasons for the investigations of his campaign and administration, or is trying to distract the public from paying attention to this by pointing out times that Democratic officials have been in contact with Russians. Most notably when he called for an investigation of Chuck Schumer because of a photo of Schumer and Putin eating donuts together.
I feel that whatever results from these investigations won’t be nearly as insane as collusion, but who am I to say? Watergate lasted a little more than 2 years, the Teapot Dome scandal about the same. It’s probably going to be a while before we find out what the actual deal is.
So, Warren G Harding was a bad president, not a good one, or even a forgettable one. He ranks somewhere between George W Bush and James Buchanan. At the heart of his and Trump’s similarities is this–inexperience. Trump’s inexperience is undeniable, but to explain how this will likely affect his presidency, I’ll quote Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton, on Harding and what contributed to his presidential legacy:
He felt woefully under-qualified for the job, and that set in motion a chain of events that set him up to be one of the worst presidencies in history…He was nervous about it, so he surrounded himself with old friends from his hometown, who themselves were unqualified for the jobs they held and many of them corrupt.
Donald Trump becoming president almost makes perfect sense. He serves as the equal and opposite reaction to Obama. So we can be hopeful, maybe 2020 will be awesome. Or, maybe Trump will top Buchanan for worst president by creating another civil war.
I’m not sure how relevant or interesting this information is, how much people care. I found the research pretty compelling (links below).
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