We are perhaps on the verge of witnessing, for the third time in 100 years, a U.S. presidency so corrupt that multiple high ranking members will be imprisoned.
In early 1919, former president Teddy Roosevelt was the early favorite to re-assume the Republican Party’s mantle for the 1920 election. However, he died unexpectedly shortly before the campaign season began, and a crowded field of contenders soon emerged.
Warren G. Harding initially had little hope of winning, and entered the race mostly to bolster his control of Ohio politics; he was one of the state’s two U.S. senators and held sway over much of its corrupt machine. But when party leaders could not agree on any of the front runners, the convention deadlocked. They soon settled on Harding, in part because he was from a crucial swing state, and in part because he was relatively unknown and hadn’t offended many delegates.
The compromise candidate from Ohio went on to win a resounding victory, setting what was then a record by taking 61% of the popular vote.
Harding was generally well liked during his time in office as society settled down from the tumultuous effects of World War I and its immediate aftermath. It didn’t hurt that the economy also began to hum. But he would serve just 2½ years, dying of a heart attack while visiting San Francisco in 1923.
At first, Harding’s premature death increased his already widespread popularity. It was only after his passing that the litany corruption attached to his administration would become a salacious public debacle.
It turned out that family man Harding had kept at least two mistresses, including one who claimed he fathered her child. But it was the criminal antics of his administration that would eventually lead Historians to rank Harding as one of the worst presidents ever.
The name that still rings a bell among some Americans who learned about it in high school is the Teapot Dome Scandal. Interior Secretary Albert Fall took bribes totaling $400,000 (nearly $6 million in today’s money) from oil executives in return for awarding them leases to drill on public land in Wyoming and California. Fall was convicted, fined, and became the first U.S. presidential cabinet member to do time; he was sentenced to a year, and served 9 months. Continue reading Return of the Criminal Presidency