Only a few American political scandals are considered to be notable enough to be mentioned in history textbooks in American classrooms. But one scandal that always seemed to find its way into the textbooks I used in school is the Teapot Dome Scandal from 1922, in which government officials illegally sold oil fields meant for the Navy to private investors for substantial profits for all involved. Up until Watergate, Teapot Dome was arguably the most outrageous scandal in American political history. And it was always mentioned alongside the man who was President at the time, Ohio’s Warren G. Harding (1921-1923).
Harding’s presidency is mostly notable because of the various scandals that occurred while he was in office. Teapot Dome was perhaps the most egregious of them, but Harding’s Cabinet, known colloquially as the “Ohio Gang,” was notorious for their almost naked corruption for anyone who wanted to make a deal. You want to sell liquor during Prohibition for “medicinal purposes?” Talk to Jess Smith, assistant to the Attorney General. Are you a construction firm that wants to get the inside track on contracts to build brand-new hospitals for our veterans before any of your competitors do? Talk to Charles Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau. And don’t worry about any accusations or court cases being brought against you. Attorney General Harry Daugherty won’t let anything stick to you for long.
All of these activities and more are described in brisk detail in The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding, an Historical Entertainment by Charles L. Mee. The inclusion of the phrase “an historical entertainment” in the title is an apt description of this book. Mee doesn’t make anything up. He includes the bibliography of sources he uses to tell the story of the Harding White House, and all of the quotes he uses are pulled from primary sources. But he’s not heavy on scholarship or keeping a professorial tone in his writing. There are times when The Ohio Gang reads like a tabloid as Mee explains how deals were made and money was collected and shifted through the Little Green House on K Street where Jess Smith lived in Washington DC.
All of this and we have yet to mention Harding himself. He started as the owner of the Marion Star newspaper before moving into politics. And despite his loyal service to the Republican Party in both Ohio and Washington, it was a bit of a fluke that Harding ended up in the White House. I personally found Mee’s description of the process that led to Harding’s nomination at the 1920 Republican National Convention to be gripping, and it is telling that the phrase “smoke-filled room” was first used in a report describing the discussions the party bosses had about who to put forward in that year’s election. But if you’re wondering what Harding believed, what he thought about the activities of his Cabinet, or if he did anything about any of it, you’ll have to read The Ohio Gang to find out. Let’s just say that he was preoccupied most of the time. Those cards weren’t going to play themselves, and his mistress liked to visit whenever she could.
You can place The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding, an Historical Entertainment on hold through Heights Libraries or request the ebook through Libby/Overdrive.
Other presidential biographies about Presidents from Ohio at Heights Libraries:
American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White
President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear
President McKinley: Architect of the American Century by Robert W. Merry