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Dean for the defense

Warren G. Harding - John W. Dean, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Warren G. Harding usually is ranked among the worst occupants of the American presidency, largely as a result of the scandals associated with his administration. Yet the accused in America can almost always find a defender, and John Dean ably takes up Harding's cause to argue that his low standing is unwarranted. He makes a case for Harding as a likeable person, a capable businessman, and an effective politician whose moderate conservatism was balanced with some progressive policies. While acknowledging Harding's longtime affair with Carrie Phillips, he dismisses the claims of other dalliances as unsubstantiated gossip, and sees Nan Britton "lifetime fixation" with Harding as unrequited.


Yet while Dean makes a good case that Harding's accomplishments have been overshadowed by the sensationalistic and credit-seeking claims of others, his zealousness in defending his subject leads him to excuse the most legitimate criticism of Harding's presidency, which is his inability to curb the corruption of his administration. Repeatedly he stresses that Harding never was accused of criminal activity, yet he glosses over Harding's poor judgement of character in surrounding himself with men like Harry Daugherty, or his continued employment of Charles Forbes as director of the Veterans' Bureau after evidence of Forbes's corruption had been presented to him. While forgiveness is an admirable character trait in personal affairs, Harding's display of it in these cases allowed such corruption to continue even after he became aware of it. Dean's unwillingness to even acknowledge this ultimately limits his effort to rehabilitate Harding's presidential reputation, which is unfortunate given the case he does make for the need for a more thorough reassessment of Harding's legacy than he has received until now.