Warren G. Harding by John Dean
March 14, 2004
Warren G. Harding by John Dean
BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Dean, why did you want to write a book on
Warren G. Harding?
JOHN DEAN, AUTHOR, "WARREN G. HARDING": I grew up in Marion, Ohio,
which is Warren G. Harding`s home base. That`s -- he wasn`t born
there, but he came there very early in his life, and he was the big
name in town when I was growing up. In fact, I -- my paper route took
me right by his house when I was about 14 years of age.
LAMB: How long did you live in Marion?
DEAN: I went off to school shortly after that, to a private school,
but I was there about five years. And we lived not far from where the
Harding home was, and most of my friends were much longer time
residents of Marion, and Harding was somebody who sort of fascinated
everybody in town because of his -- his persona and -- the high school
was named Warren G. Harding High School. There was this Harding
memorial, that Harding memorial, and so on and so forth. So he`s a
major figure in the town and the first president I really think I had
an awareness of.
LAMB: Well, these books are backed by Times Books and also by Arthur
Schlesinger. How did you and Arthur Schlesinger get together?
DEAN: Well, Arthur and I lectured on the same group several years ago.
It was a group down in Florida. In fact, it was right during the
Clinton impeachment proceeding. Arthur gave a talk about history in
general, and I happened to be asked to sort of predict how the process
would work. And I had, from my years in the Nixon White House,
actually read the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial once. And at that
point, we knew little about impeachment, so I -- I made a projection
that the House would probably impeach Clinton but that the Senate
would acquit him. So I was on the record as being fairly prescient on
DEAN: And any way, Arthur and I struck up a -- we had a conversation
at that point, and we had a nice rapport. And I`d sent him my -- the
-- I don`t use a prepared talk when I speak, but I said, Are you
interested in my material? He said, I`d love to have it. And so we
started a little rapport. And then I happened to read in "Publisher`s
Weekly" that he was doing this series on all 42 past presidents, and
so I called him. And I said, Arthur, obviously, I shouldn`t do Nixon,
but I`m going to surprise you in asking if I can do one that I don`t
know if you`ve assigned or not. And I said, I -- I lived in Marion,
Ohio, and I`ve never thought that Warren Harding really got a very
fair shake by history, and I`d like to do that one. He said, John,
you`ve got it. Do it.
And he encouraged me all the way. You know, it was -- the series, as
you know, Brian, is -- they`re not full biographies. They`re fairly
tight. And when I did the first draft, I went way over the limit. It`s
-- the book now is down to where it`s supposed to be, about 55,000
words. But I did about -- I kind of got into it and I did about
75,000, almost 80,000 words in a fairly polished draft, but did it in
a way I could collapse it down to where they wanted it. But Arthur
actually didn`t want it cut very much. Some of the early life we cut
down a little bit, but the material I had in about his presidency and
sort of sorting out some of the problems that had occurred because
history had given him such a bad shake -- when I finished, Arthur
said, John, you`ve made me rethink Harding, and I think you`ll make a
lot of other historians rethink it.
LAMB: When was he president?
DEAN: He was president in 1920, and he died in office in 1923.
LAMB: So how long was he in? How many...
DEAN: About 880-some-odd days. I think it was 882. And so that`s --
there`s a number of presidents we know that haven`t made a full term.
And so he was -- I`m sure would have been reelected had he stood for
reelection. He was a very popular president at the time he died, and
he was very beloved in office.
LAMB: Do I remember a figure of nine million people were along the
railroad route from San Francisco...
DEAN: You do.
LAMB: ... back to the East Coast?
DEAN: You do. When he died in San Francisco, he was -- he had taken
this western trip up to Alaska, the first president of the United
States to go to Alaska, as a matter of fact, and he foresaw the
potential of statehood of Alaska in 1923, when he went up there. But
he died in -- at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. And when the train
brought him back across the country, people lined up -- they were in
fields. They were at crossings. They were hanging off of the rooftops
And apparently, the most moving thing was that the crowd would get so
clustered and they would be singing hymns, some of Harding`s favorite
hymns. And it was apparently quite a moving procession across the
country. And it hadn`t been since Lincoln had died, really, that
anything had been quite as emotional. And then it wouldn`t be until
Roosevelt died, and of course, in our lifetime, when the Kennedy
assassination -- we all recall how that impacted our lives. But so he
had a big impact.
And he -- in judging a president, I`ve always -- you know, when
presidents are ranked, as you know, one of the first lines I say in
the book is that he`s considered the worst president of the United
States. He really got bashed by history after he died in office. And
from a -- initially, there were a lot of very popular works that were
overboard, in a sense, in praise, and then it all started to turn.
LAMB: Go back to your days in Marion, Ohio. What kind of a family did
you grow up in? What were your parents doing?
DEAN: Yes. My father came to Marion -- my father was a Carnegie-Mellon
engineer, and he had worked at Firestone for a number of years. And he
was an expert at sort of manufacturing efficiency, and he became the
president of a company called Marion Products in Marion. And they made
ventilator windows for Ford and dashboards for Ford. We haven`t had
ventilator windows in a long time, but -- it was a manufacturing
company. And that`s what brought us to Marion and...
LAMB: What year would you have come again?
DEAN: This would have been about 1950, `51.
LAMB: And you were?
DEAN: I was -- I was about 10, 11, 12 at that time -- about 12, yes.
LAMB: So what do you remember about Warren Harding in those early days?
DEAN: Well, I remember the -- I remember the house, of course. He had
-- we lived on a side -- the main drag in Marion, Ohio, is Mount
Vernon Avenue, and the Harding home is on Mount Vernon. We were on one
of the intersecting streets, up about two blocks from his house. He
had a -- you know, it wasn`t a huge house, but it was a good-size
house. He had been, at the time, a successful editor. He was still
growing, but you could build a -- quite a nice house in those days for
not the same kind of money that it costs today.
But I remember -- I went to junior high school in Marion and actually
still have some friends that have sort of dispersed and that last year
lost one of my dear friends, who I`d known in Marion. In fact, I
dedicated the book to his father and his -- himself and then his
mother -- actually, it`s his stepmother, still alive.
LAMB: But you`ve -- you say in your introduction or someplace in the
book that you were a personal friend of either the grandkids of...
LAMB: Is it an illegitimate child?
DEAN: What it was, was Florence Harding had been married before she
married Warren Harding. And she was married to a -- sort of the town
rake, who -- that`s what he became, a fellow by the name of Pete
DeWolf (ph). And Pete was their next-door neighbor. She was a Kling
(ph). That was her family name. And her father was a very tough
cookie, might be the best way to describe it. And when she grew up,
she was a disappointment to her father when she wasn`t a boy. He`d
always hoped to having a boy, and when -- when Flossie came along, he
sort of raised her like he might his son, rather than a daughter.
And she went -- he was a very successful -- he was actually the
richest man in town of that era. And he had a hardware store, and he
took Flossie to the hardware store, and she grew up around men. She
was five years older than Warren Harding. She was born in 1860. He was
born in 1865. But at one point, she got into an affair, and sort of
the -- really, the consensus is she did it because she was trying to
escape from a very domineering father. And it was a common-law
marriage, and she had -- they had a child by this marriage. And they
left town. Old man Kling, as he`s known in Marion at the time,
wouldn`t help support the child or his daughter. She`d made her
situation, and he wanted her to work it out. And she did. And later,
she was teaching piano lessons and teaching Warren Harding`s sister
piano, and that`s where it`s believed she first met Warren.
LAMB: When did they marry?
DEAN: They married in -- let`s see. That would have been --
(UNINTELLIGIBLE) They married in...
LAMB: Or how old was Warren Harding?
DEAN: Warren Harding would have been in his mid-20s when he got married.
LAMB: So what kind of life did they have in Marion for those years?
What were they doing?
DEAN: He was -- he -- when -- after he graduated from college -- he
went to high school -- excuse me -- he went to college at 14 years of
age, to a college that no longer exits in Ohio, taught for one year
after he got out of college, and was sort of looking for a career. He
-- when he came to Marion, he realized that there was a newspaper for
sale called "The Marion Star." It had been not a very successful
paper. It had been in existence seven years. It was up in the
sheriff`s office for repossession.
Warren Harding had loved the newspaper business. As a -- as about a
13-year-old, his father, who was a doctor, had apprenticed him to a --
as a "printer`s devil," which is sort of a printer`s handyman that
does the dirty work and lots of -- a gofer today. And he was -- had a
facility with words, and he set type very quickly for such a young
person. And the -- and so he -- he had this love of words and he`d
been introduced to the newspaper business. In college, he starts,
while he`s a senior, a paper in Iberia (ph), Ohio, where the college
was located, and it was relatively a successful little six-page paper
for two college kids to start. And I`ve always wondered whatever
happened to that paper.
But at any rate, he moves to Marion after college. His family has
moved there. And he teaches for one year and he finds "The Star," and
he says, Let`s make a go of it. And he gets a couple friends together
and they raise the 300 bucks. And Dr. Harding, the father, co-signs a
note, and they get the paper, which really launches his career.
LAMB: He`s the oldest of eight?
DEAN: He is the oldest of eight. Two would die in childhood. Several
-- he had several sisters and one brother.
LAMB: So you also write early on about his friend, Jim Phillips (ph).
DEAN: He had a number of friends. He`s a person who collects people
all the way along through his life who become sort of lifetime
friends. Phillips is one of them.
LAMB: But what I was getting at is that the -- and what would have
been the age in which he had -- he struck up a relationship with
Phillips`s wife, Carrie (ph) Phillips?
DEAN: Well, Phillips`s wife -- Phillips married a -- a -- who was
supposed to be the most beautiful woman in Marion at the time. She
actually wasn`t from Marion. Phillips was from Marion, and he ran a
department store in Marion. And he married Carrie. Carrie was probably
-- she was about 10 years Florence Harding`s junior, so -- and
probably -- she was about -- so that would make her about five years
younger than Warren Harding.
And they met and were just another couple in Marion, and I -- there
must have been a long sort of burning relationship because what
happens is, Warren goes off and he`s elected to the Ohio senate. He
gets active in Ohio politics. He -- the -- or excuse me -- the
newspaper and the supplement that they do get successful, and he
becomes successful. And Florence Harding falls very ill. She has a --
a floating kidney problem that they thought was -- you know, they knew
very little about medicine then, but it would go bad and she would
become bed-fast for literally months on end and her life was tenuous.
And one of these times when she became ill, Carrie Phillips had just
lost a child, and Jim Phillips had had a nervous breakdown. Warren
arranges for his friend to go to Battle Creek to a hospital, a
sanitarium there, where he had visited, we think for his heart, but
made the arrangements for his best friend to go there. And meanwhile,
Carrie reaches out and she`s this attractive woman and they start an
affair that will go on for 15 years.
LAMB: Anybody know about it during those years?
DEAN: I think it was pretty well suspected from the -- I was able in
putting the book together to talk to a lot of people who, you know,
know -- they`re not -- you know, they`re not of the same generation,
but through their families they know a lot of the facts. And they --
they pretty much say that it was -- it was well known. It was well
known long before it became public knowledge. It was known when I was
growing up, for example, and it really didn`t become public knowledge
and widespread knowledge until 1973, when a fellow by the name of
Russell wrote a book called "The Shadow of Blooming Grove (ph)." And
he got -- he discovered the letters from Carrie Phillips. Excuse me,
I`ve just got...
LAMB: What year did you eventually move out of Marion, Ohio?
DEAN: Well, I left Marion in 1952 because I went off to private
school. And my folks were still there for a while.
LAMB: So you mentioned he was in the state senate. What was his first
elected office, and why did he run for office?
DEAN: His first elective office was to try to become a county
supervisor when he saw that the race was going to go to -- by default
to a Democrat. And as a young -- as a Republican and editor of a
paper, he just thought it was a no-lose situation. He might get some
readers. He was a very good speaker, a very fluent speaker. And so he
ran for that office and lost. But he got a larger vote in that
particular Democratic region of Ohio than anybody previously had.
He was slow to enter politics, and his first really important job was
he ran for the Ohio senate and was in the senate for several terms.
LAMB: Then what?
DEAN: He goes from -- he retires from the senate and really is -- he
ran for the -- the gubernatorial race once and was defeated. It was --
he didn`t want to run. The party wanted him to run. He thought it a
bad idea, and it was a bad idea. It was a very divisive time in Ohio
politics. One thing I should mention, though, that while he was in the
senate -- and this is some of the things that have -- sort of
history`s overlooked with Warren Harding. The Ohio senate really had a
fair amount of corruption in those days, and Warren Harding was not
corrupted. He had made a good living. He was a successful businessman
long before he went into politics. He lived comfortably. He had a wife
who ultimately made up with her father, and so there was no need to
reach. And he became very respected in Ohio for that reason alone,
because they -- everyone knew he was clean and that he was sort of the
go-to guy, as somebody who could solve problems. And governors went to
him, and what have you.
So he retires from politics and plans really just to continue building
"The Star" and being the editor when he -- he`s active in Republican
politics still. He`ll go -- he goes to his first convention, Brian, as
a -- as a, really, 19-year-old kid who has a pass because he`s bought
this newspaper, its most valuable asset being a free pass for all the
railroads. So he goes off to Chicago and to the first Republican
convention. I feel that`s one of the defining events of his life,
where he -- you know, this country boy goes to Chicago and sees the --
Blaine (ph) was the Republican nominee. And he sees Roosevelt putting
people into nomination, Theodore Roosevelt, and a lot of the great
speakers, Ingersoll (ph) and -- and it obviously catches his fancy.
But when he comes back to Ohio, as I say, he`s not active. And he
really gets back into politics when there`s an opening for the U.S.
Senate, and those who know him say, Why don`t you take a run at it?
He`s at this point -- he`s -- you know, he`s matured. He`s in his
early 50s. And he decides to take a go at it and very successfully
runs. He`s an interesting politician, Brian, in the sense that he
refuses to -- particularly in primaries, to speak ill of other
Republicans. He had Ronald Reagan`s "11th commandment" long before
Reagan had made it sort of what should be the going rule. So he won`t
campaign hard against other Republicans for nomination, and this
works. People like the fact that he`s not a divisive politician, and
he`s elected to the Senate on the first bid.
LAMB: You have a -- milestones in the back...
LAMB: ... where you do the dates and when things happened -- 1914,
elected to the United States Senate. Was that direct election or was
that through the legislature?
DEAN: That is a -- that is the first direct election -- let`s see, `14
-- no, that -- oh, yes, that -- no, that is a direct election.
LAMB: And at that time -- had he served in the military at all?
DEAN: No, he had not.
LAMB: Did he have any children?
DEAN: Well, that`s a good question.
DEAN: That`s a tougher question than you...
LAMB: Is that a trick question?
DEAN: It`s a trick question!
DEAN: There is a -- purportedly, he has an illegitimate daughter. I
have grave reservations about this whole situation. People in Marion
have grave reservations. His family -- and he has a family of doctors.
His father was a doctor. His mother was a doctor. His brother -- and
there`s a whole line of Hardings now -- in fact, there is a Warren
Harding III, who I`ve talked to, delightful man, who`s a doctor, in
Cincinnati. Actually, he was in Los Angeles in a -- and worked for the
Dodgers for a number of years as their physician after going to UCLA.
But anyway, the question of whether he has any children -- the family
always understood that he was sterile and was -- he loved children and
would have loved to have had children. We know that Florence Harding
had a child from a prior marriage. So theoretically, she could have
had children. So that tends to -- to support the fact that, indeed, he
was sterile. After he dies, a story comes out that he has this
illegitimate daughter. In fact, it really becomes one of the turning
points of his reputation.
In 1927, a woman by the name of Nan Britton (ph) publishes a book
called "The President`s Daughter." Her name is Elizabeth Anne (ph),
and in the book she -- Britton says she`s never -- the father had
never met the child, and that the affair had started in 1919, while
he`s still in the Senate and continued while he was into the White
House. During the Clinton years, this came up a couple times. I have
the gravest doubts about this happening. When you really start getting
into some of the people who had knowledge, and it seems to me much
LAMB: You say in the book that when the Secret Service supposedly --
she says the Secret Service interrupted them in a closet somewhere in
the White House?
DEAN: Right. I don`t believe it. The chief agent of the -- a fellow by
the name of Edmund Starling (ph), denies all this. And it -- it just
doesn`t seem possible to me that -- too many people -- while the White
House isn`t anything like it is today, as far as security and what
have you, the best I can tell, his -- he -- his affair with Carrie
Phillips lasts while he`s in the Senate. It`s handled discreetly. It`s
never -- it just -- they fell in love, and there`s -- what happened
is, Carrie Phillips wanted Harding to divorce his wife. He refused to
do so, and that`s what breaks up the affair. And she goes off to
Europe and has an affair with the Kaiser.
DEAN: But as far as Nan Britton, she`s very -- much, much younger than
Warren Harding, and she`s really been infatuated with him since
Warren`s sister was one of her teachers at the high school. And she
has this infatuation. And I`m convinced, as I put the pieces together
-- what happened is that Carrie Phillips`s daughter and Nan Britton
were friends. Because of the letters that Harding had written, which
would later appear and -- while they`re in the Library of Congress
now, they won`t be released until 2010. They`ve been sealed up. But
I`m -- I think that Nan Britton saw those letters because Carrie kept
them. And Carrie`s daughter and her mother were estranged. And I think
that Nan sort of adopted Carrie`s story and made it her own and then
created this whole myth.
LAMB: One last question on this. Did you try to track down Elizabeth
DEAN: Elizabeth Anne, I believe, is still alive today. And I`ve
actually been talking to Warren Harding III about this. I actually
know where there is DNA today. But I didn`t want to do a DNA test to
resolve it until I had the permission of both Elizabeth Anne or her
family and Warren Harding, the existing Warren Harding, or the brother
George, also -- have the permission of both.
LAMB: Does Elizabeth Anne have a last name that you know about?
DEAN: I do. It`s in -- I mention it in a footnote in the book. Excuse
me. I was -- I was able to track her. For the reason of privacy, I`m
not going to throw her name out because I -- people looking at the
book, I think, is -- is a little different. But I`m -- I think it
would be a great mystery to resolve, but she may well not want to know
the paternity issue.
And I was able to track her to Glendale, California and find that she
popped up in 1964 and gave an interview with "The LA Times." I then
went to sort of the basic records and the telephone directories, and
what have you, and followed them until 1970. I was able -- and then
they all sort of disappear. And it`s a very unusual spelling on the
name. So I gave up. I was spending too much time trying to track this
But what happened is, I had a conversation with a lawyer friend here
in Washington, and we -- I was telling him about this -- this
wonderful mystery it`d be nice to solve. And I said I`d actually
talked to people in -- about DNA testing and paternity. And it`s a
very simple test. You just have to do a swab on the cheek, and you can
do it fairly quickly and it`s very inexpensive. And I said it`d be a
great mystery to resolve and solve that problem. And he said, Well, I
have a -- one of the law firms that we work with, and we do a lot of
estate work, have missing heir search capabilities. And do you want me
to try? And I said, Sure. Well, we found all of them, so I know where
all Elizabeth Anne, her sons, her daughters...
LAMB: Three children, did you say?
DEAN: I think she has -- I don`t know for sure how many children she
has. At least she had two sons and possibly a daughter, and I believe
she`s living with her daughter right now.
LAMB: And she would be how old?
DEAN: In her 80s. In her 80s. So if she happens to catch this
broadcast, maybe she`ll come forward on her own. I don`t want to force
the issue. It`s sort of an invasion -- her name has been mentioned by
students of the subject. But we could resolve a question very simply
today that we couldn`t years ago.
LAMB: Let me stop for a moment and ask you about how you went about
this. How long did you work on this book?
DEAN: I -- well, I had a unique situation. I have probably in my
library about everything that`s been written about Harding. It`s just
one of those -- after a very early conversation with my next-door
neighbor, who happened to become the editor of "The Marion Star,"
which was Harding`s paper -- he kind of got my attention and I started
reading about him very young. And so what I did to work on the book is
I had to reread a number of books, the best books.
One of the -- excuse me. Let me (UNINTELLIGIBLE) back on this, to give
you a little background. The reason history got so astray on Harding
is that it was long believed that his presidential papers had been
burned by Florence Harding. She did get a box and she did burn some,
but actually, what had happened is his secretary, who`d been with him
in the Senate, a male secretary who`d been a long-time family friend,
as well, had all of his Senate papers and then took all of his
presidential papers and put them in the basement of the White House.
And they were there until 1929, when they were discovered during the
Hoover administration. And they were all sent off to Marion, Ohio.
LAMB: Just for a moment -- he died what year again?
DEAN: In `23.
LAMB: So they were there for six years in the basement.
DEAN: Yes. And then they go -- they`re shipped off to Marion, and they
stay in the basement of the -- of his house. When I was bicycling by
that house, there were all those presidential papers no one ever
opened. And finally, in 1964, the -- as they were approaching the
100th anniversary of his -- of his life, if you will, the Ohio
Historical Society convinced those who had control of the papers for
the Harding Association to put them -- and make them available, that
they would process them and give them archival treatment, and what
have you. So that was when they became available.
And only really two historians, Brian, have really worked sort of with
public editions of -- from those papers. Robert Murray (ph) is one. A
fellow by the name of Sinclair (ph), a British guy, Andrew Sinclair,
did a fast study. Murray is the best general biography, and he did a
follow-up work as to how Harding affected the Coolidge administration.
And what I found -- and I -- I -- there are a few microfilm editions
of the papers. I found one at Cal State Hayward (ph), which was as
close as I could get on my side of the Mississippi, a set of the
papers. So I used those extensively because I`d never had a chance to
look at them all these years.
Then there were a couple secondary works that had been very good. But
the best source is -- I went to the PhD dissertations, who`d been done
after `64. And they had all been based on the papers, and they became
a nice key for me to get into the papers. And there are --
unfortunately, only one of them is published, but the unpublished ones
-- so I used those to get into doing this work.
LAMB: But from the time you had your conversation with Mr. Schlesinger
until the time you finished it, what was that?
DEAN: About eight months.
LAMB: And the -- as you went through your research, what was the most
useful to you, besides what you told us here, to understanding this
guy? And why do you conclude that he wasn`t our worst president?
DEAN: A couple things. I had never looked -- he put together a very
remarkable cabinet. He had Charles Evans Hughes (ph), who would later
-- who was on the Supreme Court and then left the Supreme Court when
he ran for president and then went back on the Supreme Court, one of
the finest minds on the Court.
LAMB: Wilson beat him.
LAMB: Charles Evans Hughes.
DEAN: Yes. And then Hughes, as I say, returned to the Court and served
-- excuse me -- with great distinction. And so when I read his
biography, it`s a two-volume biography, he talks about Harding.
Because he was secretary of state for Harding, he was sort of the --
he is the senior member of the cabinet, and he would give the eulogy
in Congress. And at the time he wrote his -- I read this in the
biography -- his -- there was still thought that he was presidential
timber and would run for president and that he should sort of back off
a little bit because some of the -- the corruption that occurred
during the Harding years in the VA Administration, Veterans
Administration, and Harry Doherty (ph) would have some problems --
none of this ever really involved Harding himself. He was -- he was --
he died before all this happened. He is tagged with Teapot Dome, which
occurs after he`s dead. He`s not involved in any corruption that
there`s any sign of, in my estimation, and many other historians
who`ve looked closely at it.
DEAN: So Hughes -- his aides are telling him, Don`t be too good to
Harding in this eulogy. And Hughes says, Listen, what I have to say
about Warren Harding I know firsthand. And it`s a wonderful eulogy.
It`s a -- it`s a very honest eulogy. He -- Florence Harding would
write him and say, I couldn`t change a sentence in what you said. And
Hughes said that he had based this on the man he knew, the man he`d
worked with. They had a very successful major disarmament conference.
I think what -- if historians really start mining this area -- and I
-- and the Hughes papers would have more on this -- I`ve not had time
to ever look at those -- that there is -- this -- we have another
hidden-hand presidency, like Eisenhower was later discovered to be
much more involved. Warren Harding was thought to be sort of lazy and
lackadaisical. Not true. Here`s a man who`s had tremendous
self-confidence his entire life. He`s a man who`s succeeded by not
trying to get himself out in front. He`s a man who does not toot his
own horn. He has -- he really becomes president by sort of
under-running rather than over-running. And I think that Hughes saw
this quality in him and realized, you know, this is a fine mind. This
is a good man. He`d done a nice job. After Wilson, it was a very
turbulent time. We were in the aftermath of World War I. Wilson has a
strike -- a stroke at the end of his presidency, so the -- the nation
really is adrift when Harding comes in. The economy`s in trouble. And
he`s -- Harding`s also a much -- by Wilson`s standard is a very
LAMB: In 1920 he was elected. First, before we get to the election,
how did he get the nomination in the first place from the Republicans?
Where was the convention held? How many ballots were there? And who
were -- I think you said there was, like, nine candidates.
DEAN: There were. Harding has always been considered a dark-horse
candidate who was put there by the cabal of senators. Not so. And the
famous "smoke-filled room" story came around Harding. Didn`t happen
When you look at Harding`s correspondence, you know he`s playing --
Harding was a poker player and played those cards very close and loved
poker, played seriously. Every game he played was a good poker game,
and those were -- in the Senate, you know, he was -- he was a favored
player because he was a good -- good player and won more than he lost.
But he played his nomination very much the same way. He held the cards
very close, knew what he had and how to play his hand.
And he and Doherty came up with a very interesting scheme, running
with the -- sort of in the back of the pack. And everybody else would
destroy themself by the time they got to the convention, or during the
convention. And then there would be an opportunity for somebody to be
the peacemaker. And that`s how Harding would get the nomination. They
would go through several ballots where he would not even be in play,
and then slowly Doherty released his -- you know, his -- his ballots
that he had at the convention because these were not -- primaries had
just started. You had just gone into direct elections in the
primaries, and the bosses were having less and less influence. So you
really had a very legitimate convention in those days.
LAMB: How big did he win by, and who did he beat? In 1920, he would
have been, what, 55?
DEAN: Yes. He -- he -- the -- his principal candidate in the -- there
was a fellow by the name -- a soldier by the name of -- of...
LAMB: Leonard Woods (ph).
DEAN: Leonard Woods, right, was the leading person. And Woods would
appear in uniform at every primary thing. And he had most of the big
money behind him. A fellow by the name of -- from the Procter & Gamble
money had -- had been behind him. And he threatened Harding in Ohio in
a primary, which really kind of annoyed Warren Harding because Harding...
LAMB: You`re talking about Leonard Woods as a -- as a Republican.
LAMB: I was getting to the Democrat...
DEAN: Oh. Oh.
LAMB: ... who he ran against.
DEAN: Oh. He ran against the governor of -- of Ohio -- I`m sorry, it
LAMB: Cox (ph), Jim Cox.
DEAN: Cox, right. And with Roosevelt as his running mate, Franklin
Roosevelt as his running mate. And Cox was the Ohio governor and a
good governor, and Harding ran one of these campaigns where, again, he
understates his case. He doesn`t get nasty. He actually runs, in a
sense, against Wilson`s policies, rather than against Cox, because
what Cox had done -- Cox and Roosevelt had gone back to Wilson after
they had gotten the nomination and said, We will run on the League of
Nations. We will make that the issue. And that had been something that
Harding had been on the fence about in the Senate and decided that`s a
good campaign issue.
LAMB: You say 16 million votes for Harding, 9 million votes for Cox.
DEAN: Yes. It was the largest landslide at that time in history.
LAMB: Republican and Democratic House and Senate -- I mean, Republican
Senate and House?
DEAN: Yes. Good coattails.
LAMB: So not too dissimilar from what George Bush has.
DEAN: Not -- well, it was -- the -- in a sense, there was one party
that controlled, yes, but the Senate was much more Republican and they
had much more depth. These are -- the present Congress is fairly well
-- tightly balanced.
LAMB: Herbert Hoover was his commerce secretary, Andrew Mellon his
treasury secretary, John Davis at Labor, Albert Fall (ph) at Interior,
Harry Doherty at Justice. Did they call him also "Dockerty"?
LAMB: They did not. Where was the "Dockerty" name? Do you remember
that in history?
DEAN: I don`t.
LAMB: And then Edwin Denby at Navy. You know, before we talk about
what happened to the cabinet after he died and left, what were his big
DEAN: I`d say the largest accomplishment was his 1921 disarmament
conference. It was a major event. There had been some effort in the
Senate to have such a conference take place. Harding, who was
purportedly supposed to be from the Senate and the cabal of the
Senate, told the Senate, We`ll do this on my terms when I`m ready. And
he and Charles Evans Hughes worked this out, and it went very
successfully. It was a remarkably successful disarmament conference at
the time. They got the reduction of capital ships (ph) substantial and
a fair balance between the Brits and the U.S., and then the Japanese
were the other major power at the time. So it was a -- and he really
kind of pegged his foreign policy on, you know, bringing back and --
because the nation was weary from war. It had been an unpleasant war.
And it was very timely. So that was his -- that was his major foreign
In domestic, his most lasting one, he created the Bureau of the Budget
in 1920, when he first got there. It had been rejected. There had been
talk of it by prior presidents. Wilson had rejected it, which is kind
of interesting that a political scientist like Wilson, who had studied
the Congress so many years before he even became an elected official,
had -- didn`t like the way the legislation had been created. But
Harding believed it. He`d been in the Senate. So he knew that there
was a need for a good operation for the budget.
LAMB: But as you point out in the book about the budget that he wanted
a billion dollars reduced...
LAMB: ... in the budget. Now, back in 1921 or so, that would...
DEAN: That`s huge. That`s trillions by today`s standards. So he did a
major cutback in spending. And he brought in a fellow by the name of
Dawes (ph), who would later become a vice president, who -- he -- this
was -- when -- he was the first director of the Bureau of the Budget.
And Dawes -- they had a series of conferences over at the Department
of Commerce`s auditorium. They brought them in and -- all the senior
civil servant people, the supervisor level and above, as well as the
cabinet. And Harding put out an order that he wanted everybody to
come, and he went to the first one.
And Dawes got up there and he did a sort of a show-and-tell, at one
point. He had two brooms in his hand. And he said -- he said, This
broom cost X dollars, whatever it was at the time, and this broom cost
Y dollars, which was much more expensive. And he explained how the
military -- the Navy had these and the Army had the others. And while
the Navy had a surplus, the Army had gone out and purchased all these
other booms at excess cost, rather than -- because they didn`t like
the binding around the top of the straw. So he said, This is -- this
is never going to happen again. We`re now going to be a much more
efficient government. And it made a point.
In fact, Dawes -- he took -- when he left, he took his broom and he
took the sign on his door, which was a cardboard written sign, "Bureau
of the Budget." He refused to even have a printed sign made for the
LAMB: You say he came back as vice president for Coolidge.
LAMB: Four Supreme Court Justices in 800 days.
LAMB: That doesn`t -- you know, Jimmy Carter didn`t have any in four
years. And how big an impact did those four Justices have?
DEAN: Very large impact. He would put Taft on as Chief Justice. Taft
was a former president, at that point. He would put Justices who rank
-- have stood the test of time well. He -- I think that the Taft
appointment is probably the most important, and then Taft -- people
don`t realize how much rapport there often is between a president and
a Chief Justice as to the future appointments. For example, Richard
Nixon had long conversations with Warren Burger about who to select,
and what have you. And I`m sure that Bill Rehnquist might well be
having discussions of that nature because I think a Chief Justice is a
huge -- you know, it`s -- you have to bridge the constitutional
separation at some point.
LAMB: So he`s -- during his presidency -- just to recap a little bit
-- he had come from the Senate. And he`s only one of two presidents
that have come from the Senate.
LAMB: John Kennedy being the other one. He`s in the White House. He`s
DEAN: Several have wanted to.
LAMB: But he`s in the White House for only a little more than 800
days. Was he sick while he was in the White House at all?
DEAN: Florence Harding was very ill, and I think that -- that -- he
was not physically in any way debilitated while he was in the White
House. He had a -- we now know he had a bad heart. He had a bad heart
all of his life. And this affected his -- he had a house doctor, White
House doctor, who at one point, after he came back from a very bad
bout with the flu, sent him to Florida. In fact, one of the things
that Harding has been accused of in being lackadaisical was that he
would go out and play golf three days a week. Well, this was actually
prescribed by his doctor.
And the way Harding played golf, he almost made it an aerobic sport. I
was able to find some people who actually knew how he had played, and
they said no one wanted to play with him because while he was
president, he would literally, you know -- another important factor, I
think a telling factor, for me anyway -- I played competitive golf as
a kid, and I`ve always said you could tell an awful lot about a person
by playing 18 holes with him and -- as to their character. Well,
Warren Harding took the lies exactly where they lied. No Mulligans.
People said, No, no, no. Get -- take another -- he refused. He played
exactly by the rules. But he played very quickly. He would -- he would
shoot, and then he would walk very quickly to the next shot. So he
actually would get his heart rate up because he knew he had to take
LAMB: Well, talk about that period again when he was president. Would
any of the -- the illegitimate children and all that and Nan Britton
-- was any of that in public at that time?
DEAN: No. No. It all came out afterwards.
LAMB: Was there anything about the scandals happened after he died in
public at that time?
DEAN: The only one that came up at all while he was alive was the
Veterans Affairs scandal, where the man he`d appointed over there was
just over there bilking the place. He was selling off surplus
supplies. And when Harding learned of it, he called him over to the
White House and wanted to know, and he was lied to. And then he
finally fired him for insubordination as soon as he had heard there
was a problem.
LAMB: The only time in the book that we get any hint of your past
connection with anything is when you have a little parenthetical
expression. You say the most scandal before Watergate.
DEAN: Well, I made a reference -- the reference I made is that my
interesting in Warren Harding was not because of Watergate, a subject
about which I have more knowledge than I might wish I had, but -- and
the fact that Teapot Dome -- excuse me -- Watergate had certainly
surpassed Teapot Dome as the leading scandal of the 20th century. And
that`s the only reference I made to it.
LAMB: How much does, 30 years later...
LAMB: ... Watergate impact your life anymore?
DEAN: Well, it -- it obviously had a devastating impact on my life
when it happened. It was a very maturing experience!
LAMB: How old were you?
DEAN: I was in my early 30s when it happened.
LAMB: And you during that time went to prison for a couple months?
DEAN: I actually technically never went to prison. I had -- I was in
the witness protection program. They were worried about keeping me
alive at the time. And so I was in a safe house and then spent most of
that time actually in the prosecutor`s office. And it was 120 days
that I was sort of in confinement, but I actually had -- I was in the
witness protection program for over a year.
LAMB: Did you ever try, by the way, to get a pardon?
DEAN: Never did.
LAMB: And when you look back on -- on -- I mean, as you deal with
history here and you`re reading about this scandal and -- did that
bring back all those experiences?
DEAN: Well, it -- Brian, one of the things I think we don`t handle
well and don`t understand well are the mechanics of scandal. And
because of Watergate, I got very interested in it. I`ve watched -- in
fact, the time I spent the most time in Washington since Watergate was
actually during the Clinton impeachment proceeding, when I was working
for MSNBC here in this building, spent -- I was back here for three
months, at that point.
I have sort of taken an academic look at scandal, and there is very
little academic study -- yes, there -- everybody recounts how they
happen, and you have the historical take, the legal take or the
morality or the ethics issues, but nobody looks at sort of the way --
the anatomy of a scandal. And I have been gathering information for
years and may well do a book on this some day because we don`t
understand them, and there`s a very clear pattern, where -- and today,
a scandal does not happen if the media does not react. They all --
they`re mediated events today. You have to have a reaction and a
negative reaction, and that controls whether you have a scandal.
LAMB: Where do you live today?
DEAN: I live in California, in Los Angeles.
LAMB: Whatever happened to Maureen Dean?
DEAN: Maureen Dean is living with me in Los Angeles.
LAMB: How long have you been married?
DEAN: We`ve been married now for three decades.
LAMB: Have you had children?
DEAN: I have a child by the first marriage.
LAMB: And where is that child?
DEAN: He`s in Pittsburgh.
LAMB: When you...
DEAN: With three granddaughters.
LAMB: And when you did this particular book and you got to the scandal
part of it, what did you find -- and you mentioned this earlier. What
did you find on how it related to any possible wrongdoing for Warren
DEAN: Well, I think because of my own background and experience, I
wanted to make sure this man had a fair shake. And I think that`s true
with any president. They -- I was very interested in how the myth of
misbehavior had grown up around Harding. And when I began, I didn`t
want to pick a fight with historians, as I told Arthur, but I would
track down their sources and I would find it was third-hand hearsay,
at best, that was being relied on, on some of these things. And I just
didn`t think this was a fair way to treat a president. So that --
that`s how, in a sense, I said, I want at least what I would say would
be admissible evidence in court to even make sort of a prima facie
case. And a lot of historians don`t have that level of requirement in
their critical thinking.
LAMB: Who did eventually go to jail, and who lost their jobs?
DEAN: The people -- in the Harding administration, there were -- only
the head of the Veterans Administration and a -- and one other person.
There were two people that went to jail in the Harding administration.
Now, you had one, Jess Smith (ph), who was probably up to his eyeballs
in misbehavior, but he committed suicide. You had...
LAMB: You have a rather descriptive version of that suicide.
DEAN: Yes. It was pretty brutal.
LAMB: What`d he do, just hang his head over a wastebasket and blow his
DEAN: Yes. That`s the best -- best situation -- and a very curious
situation, another man who had worked with -- in the -- been involved
in the Veterans Administration scandal had actually bought the Harding
house here when -- over on Wyoming Avenue, and he committed suicide, too.
LAMB: I remember the name -- the name -- one of the names, Forbes.
LAMB: Was he the one?
DEAN: Forbes was the head of the -- of the -- of the VA.
LAMB: And then Albert Fall was...
DEAN: Now, that was -- that happens after Harding`s death. In fact, I
spent yesterday at the National Archives because I`m very fascinated
with Teapot Dome. I -- I take a -- in fact, I was looking at the book
there this morning, and I called Fall a bad apple. And I began to
think -- after I`d published the book, I thought about that. Is that
really fair? Because Fall went to prison for bribery. He was
reportedly bribed by a fellow by the name of Doheney (ph), an oil man,
and Sinclair. Both Sinclair and Doheney were acquitted of bribing.
Fall was also a part of a conspiracy case. He was not indicted in
that. As the case goes along and he gets older and he gets -- he`s
very ill, he`s finally convicted of bribery.
And I thought it might -- it might be interesting to go through that
trial record and see how it holds up today. And so I actually went out
and started through it yesterday to -- so I could send some student in
to do some copying for me because I`m just kind of fascinated to look
at that scandal.
LAMB: By the way, I don`t know why I`m asking this, but there`s a
Doheney Street or Avenue -- I`ve seen it when I`ve been out in
California -- near where you live, out there...
LAMB: You -- you live in Beverly Hills?
DEAN: I do.
LAMB: Is that the same Doheney?
DEAN: The same Doheney.
LAMB: Who was he?
DEAN: Well, he was -- he was an oil man. He struck -- he was actually
a friend of Albert Fall`s. They had both panned for gold before in New
Mexico, and then he -- Fall had become a very successful businessman
in New Mexico and had been very instrumental in bringing New Mexico
into statehood and came back and represented New Mexico in the Senate.
That`s where he met Warren Harding. Now, Doheney ha gone off and
continued prospecting and looking for oil and struck it in California
and became one of the wealthiest men in the nation at that time. And
he was the one who -- he did a deal with Fall, and Fall always said
that he had borrowed $100,000 from Doheney because they were old
friends, which was true, and he was short. And he had told Harding
when he went into the cabinet, I`m really -- this is really a stretch
for me. I need to get back to work. And he would -- Fall was a very
successful corporate lawyer and had big clients, and it just doesn`t
seem right to me that he would be so stupid to take a bribe and so
conspicuously. So I -- that`s why I want to re-look at the case.
LAMB: I get the impression from reading the book that you like the
fact that you`re painting Warren Harding as a progressive. And the
reason -- you can answer in just a second. But that leads me to want
to ask you, after you served in Richard Nixon`s White House, where are
you politically today?
DEAN: When I went back to California, I registered as an independent.
Even when I worked for Richard Nixon, I had never voted a straight
ticket. I am probably a fiscal conservative and somewhat of a social
moderate to liberal. And that`s pretty much the way it`s always been.
LAMB: Do you, by the way -- and we only have a minute or so left. Do
you talk to anybody that you were ever associated with in the
DEAN: Many of the people I was associated with.
LAMB: Has anybody said anything to you in the later years that, Hey, I
thought you were wrong back then, but I`ve learned since that you were
DEAN: I have had some people. When the -- after the tapes came out,
some people have said, John, you know, we know now better what you
LAMB: Do you make any efforts to listen to those tapes?
DEAN: I -- I did a book called "The Rehnquist Choice," and that was
the most intense listening I had done, and they were fascinating
because I -- in those tapes, I heard Nixon at his best and I also
heard him at his worst.
LAMB: Where do you think he`ll end up in history?
DEAN: He`ll be haunted by the tapes throughout his history. And you
know, and it`s a shame because he obviously made those never
anticipating that they would be made public. They were very private
conversations, and he`s got -- his guard is down. But he -- you find
-- you know, this is not the man who we were used to seeing on stage,
and what have you. I began to see him, as I went on as counsel, and he
got relaxed with me and became more open and candid.
LAMB: But looking backwards, you put Richard Nixon above or below
Warren Harding as...
DEAN: Well, I have a problem ranking presidents. I think it`s unfair
to rank them. We don`t have a good criteria yet for ranking
presidents. We haven`t figured that out because I`ve talked to a lot
of historians who have been involved in ranking, and they have real
good knowledge of some presidents, they have very little knowledge of
others, but yet they rank. Harding got ranked at the bottom because
very few people really knew much about him, other than the bad
history. Nixon -- you know, Nixon has the potential for being ranked
very high in foreign affairs and very low for some of his -- his
character issues that will probably haunt him.
LAMB: It`s a short book. It`s a series of books on presidents that was
edited by Arthur Schlesinger. Our guest has been John W. Dean. Here`s
the cover of the book, and it`s all about Warren G. Harding. Thank you
DEAN: Thank you.
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