Worst Presidents: Warren Harding (1921-1923)

He was an ineffectual leader who played poker while his friends plundered the U.S. treasury.

By SHARE
FS_DA_090409_worst-harding.jpg
Slideshow: Worst Presidents

Warren G. Harding's claim to infamy rests on spectacular ineptitude captured in his own pathetic words: "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here."

A former newspaperman and publisher who won a string of offices in his native Ohio, he was an unrestrained womanizer noted for his affability, good looks, and implacable desire to please. It was good, his father once told him, that he hadn't been born a girl, "because you'd be in the family way all the time. You can't say no."

Harding should have said no when Republican Party bosses in the proverbial smoke-filled room (a phrase that originated with this instance) made him their 11th-hour pick for the highest office. He was so reassuringly vague in his campaign declarations that he was understood to support both the foes and the backers of U.S. entry into the League of Nations, the hottest issue of the day.

Once in the White House, the 29th president busied himself with golf, poker, and his mistress, while appointees and cronies plundered the U.S. government in a variety of creative ways. (His secretary of the interior allowed oilmen, for a modest under-the-table sum, to tap into government oil reserves, including one in Teapot Dome, Wyo.)

"I have no trouble with my enemies," Harding once said, adding that it was his friends who "keep me walking the floor nights." Stress no doubt contributed to his death in office, probably from a stroke.

Almost a decade later, his former attorney general called Harding "a modern Abraham Lincoln whose name and fame will grow with time." That time is still a long way off.