Setting a low bar in the Oval Office

Two previous presidents, Ulysses S Grant and Warren Harding, were ill-suited to the role and left a tarnished legacy behind, writes Pádraig Hoare
Setting a low bar in the Oval Office
Ulysses Grant and Warren G Harding rank low on the list of holders of the office of President of the United Stated.

Two previous presidents, Ulysses S Grant and Warren Harding, were ill-suited to the role and left a tarnished legacy behind, writes Pádraig Hoare

Incompetence, chaos, scandal, mismanagement, and cronyism — take your pick, as all could all be bywords of the current administration that currently occupies the White House.

Long before Donald John Trump trampled his way to the White House through mendacity and puerile name-calling, awakening a cultural revolt in some white Americans longing for the ruling political class to be taken down a peg or two and minorities to be treated unequally, the American experiment had toyed with the notion of the celebrity candidate.

Ulysses Simpson Grant was an American Civil War general and a national hero following the conclusion of the bloody conflict in 1865, and the calls for the hallowed military leader to seek political office in 1868 grew and grew as Americans tired of Andrew Johnson, the successor to the great Abraham Lincoln, so dearly missed by a mourning population since his assassination.

Grant proved military expertise does not necessarily translate to political office, and while his reputation has recovered slightly in the past 20 years, his presidency is almost unanimously ranked by historians as one of the worst for corruption, scandal, and political naivety.

“Grantism” was a phrase coined to allude to political corruption and incompetence towards the end of the 19th century.

Similarly, the 1920s saw president Warren Gamaliel Harding die in office, leading to an outpouring of grief from Americans that soon turned to disgust as they learned of mass corruption and cronyism within the walls of the White House.

Harding’s administration was for two years what Americans had craved — which had prided itself on a “return to normalcy” following a bloody decade that saw the greatest ever modern global conflict and millions dead, in the First World War.

His sudden death in 1923 shocked the nation but by 1925, any positive political legacy he had left was gone forever as the depths of corruption was revealed.

Both Grant and Harding have consistently ranked among the bottom of all 45 US presidents among historians.

Ulysses Simpson Grant 18th President of the United States, 1869 to 1877

Background: A General’s Rise

Born Hiram Ulysses Grant in 1822, the future president was a shy and reserved young man who hated the thought of working in his father’s tannery business. That shy nature would lead to the moniker for which he would become known — US Grant.

A clerical error upon enlisting in the army spelled his name as Ulysses Simpson Grant, and the young would-be soldier, fearful of creating a fuss, agreed to change his name there and then.

Studying at the hallowed US Military Academy at West Point did not suit the young Grant, who earned middling grades but left a dreadful impression on his peers and superiors for his dishevelled appearance and lack of discipline.

Believing the military life was not for him, he planned to leave after four years and settle down with fiancee Julia Dent.

However, fate changed his destiny forever upon the breakout of the Mexican-American war. Given the opportunity to study the art of war and battle under generals of renown such as future president Zachary Taylor, US Grant excelled.

He also found he had an inner courage that was celebrated by his peers as inspirational.

That would-be great military career would have to wait as his alcoholism marred his professional life following the conclusion of the Mexican-American war, and the then-Captain US Grant resigned from the army in 1854 before he could be forced out by disapproving superiors.

Various business ventures failed miserably, and in the ultimate humiliation, he went back to work for his father at the tannery business he loathed as a youth.

US Grant was set to live out his years in obscurity, but the attack by Confederate soldiers at Fort Sumter in 1861 stirred his military passions once more. Accepted back in the army, he was sent to lead a notoriously wild and undisciplined unit in Illinois.

They became a symbol of national pride and hope for the North as it vied for control of the country’s destiny, including an end to slavery.

The military strategies learned under Taylor and others would transform US Grant’s fortunes, and his legendary and unexpected morale-boosting victories for the Union would soon lead to a new nom de guerre — Unconditional Surrender Grant, the commander who obliterated the enemy in battle.

Following years of bloody and sometimes pyrrhic victories with heavy casualties, including beloved president Abraham Lincoln, US Grant hunted down Southern general Robert E Lee in 1865, forcing unconditional surrender and the end of the Civil War.

Allowing Lee’s men to not only live, but to keep their horses and return to their families unharmed, was an act that would solidify his reputation, and allow the country to begin the painstaking healing process.

US Grant, the shy and slovenly alcoholic, was now a national hero.

Presidency

By now promoted as a general who oversaw the reconstruction era of a US decimated by years of war, US Grant was the popular choice to take over the White House from politically toxic Andrew Johnson in 1869.

A political neophyte, the 46-year-old knew little of how to play the game in the corridors of intrigue and power. His heavy drinking would continue, but his personal integrity and loyalty to his fellow soldiers would prove fatal.

Just as Donald Trump has filled his cabinet with political donors, fame-hungry opportunists, other barely qualified neophytes, and personal friends during his presidency, US Grant hired old war buddies and allies to critical cabinet posts.

Historians agree US Grant was an honest man who wanted to leave his country a better place after his term in office, but the same could not be said of much of his cabinet, who saw Washington DC as their ticket to riches and personal gain.

Barack Obama stands in front of a statue of former US President Ulysses S Grant in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington DC.  Picture: Saul Loeb
Barack Obama stands in front of a statue of former US President Ulysses S Grant in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington DC. Picture: Saul Loeb

Corruption became rife in many key departments, including the Treasury, navy, and the post office.

Scandal after scandal destroyed any of the many positive achievements in office.

Similar to today’s chaotic White House, Grant allowed decisions to be made without consulting key figures outside of his block of cronies, often blindsiding allies who would find out major policy changes after the fact.

Great general, terrible president — a lesson to us all why success in one area does not automatically a president make.

Renowned historian of the American South C Vann Woodward, would say in 1981: “The great difficulty that has baffled Grant biographers all along has been how to reconcile the appalling disparities in the man’s public record, the apparent contradictions in his behaviour, the stark contrasts over the years in his status and self-esteem.

“Abject failure and world fame; superb mastery of the world’s most powerful army and hopeless incompetence in the most powerful political office; liberator of the slaves and betrayer of the freedmen; common man’s hero and rich man’s friend; a loner who was terrified of being alone; an offspring of the obscure who abhorred obscurity and was frightened by the obscure.

“A figure of legendary shyness with an insatiable gluttony for public acclaim; a man who blanched at the sight of blood (even a medium-rare steak) and loosed the most copious bloodbaths in our history. And always back and forth from poverty to riches, from failure to triumph, from humiliation to glorification.”

Woodward would characterise US Grant’s term in office as “America’s sorriest administration”.

“It stands for the all-time low point in statesmanship and political morality in our history.

Historians have found little with which to quarrel in this popular characterisation … Some of those who have sought to sound the depths of the Grant era have returned wondering if there really was any bottom to it.

“It has often been called an era of tragedy, but the ironic elements outweighed the tragic. It was Grant’s personal tragedy that, after playing a magnificent role in a genuine tragedy, he was called back upon the stage for the lead in a farcical sequel.

“It was a role for which he lacked both training and temperament, in which his truly great qualities were of scant use to him, and in which even his virtues of unswerving loyalty and trust in his fellow man were ironically transformed into handicaps.

“The reward a grateful country thrust upon him became a curse.

"For in the end, the heroic name he earned in war was affixed to a sorry era, tarnished by friends who betrayed him and shaped by forces he could not control and never understood. Few presidents have been more harshly dealt with by fate.”

Warren Gameliel Harding, 29th President of the United States, 1921 to 1923

Warren Gamaliel Harding, right, the 29th president of the United States, seen here with Calvin Coolidge, his vice-president and successor.  Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Warren Gamaliel Harding, right, the 29th president of the United States, seen here with Calvin Coolidge, his vice-president and successor. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Background: From obscurity to the presidency

A local newspaper owner in his native Ohio, Warren Gameliel Harding was as low-key as presidential candidates can be when he announced his candidacy in 1920.

With little recognition or national profile, Harding was not only a long shot, but announced his candidacy as a way to strengthen his hand in local but unruly Ohio politics.

He wanted to be president, but didn’t want the hassle of being president. What he did have going for him was what Trump would today call “straight out of central casting” — photogenic looks, and an impeccable sartorial style.

The death of beloved former president Theodore Roosevelt in 1919, due to enter the 1920 general election in an unlikely but triumphant political comeback, changed the race for the Republican Party.

The vacuum caused by Roosevelt’s demise led to a range of candidates declaring their ambitions, but political rivalries and factions meant no one candidate could break from the pack.

At a deadlocked Republican convention to decide upon the nominee, Harding became the compromise candidate after the 10th ballot.

With little in political ideology, Harding’s looks and style were thought to be the best shot if the Grand Old Party was to return to the White House after eight years of Woodrow Wilson, war, and weary sacrifice of the American people.

Just as Trump ignored all the old political rules in 2016 by holding mass rallies and appearing on television instead of knocking on doors and meeting constituents in diners, Harding decided on a “front porch” campaign.

That meant no retail politics, just inviting folks to come to the front of his home where he would speak.

Warren Harding won in a landslide victory.

Presidency: From genial hero to disgrace in death

It was a good beginning for Harding. His “return to normalcy” speech struck a chord with Americans, who yearned for the days before the First World War.

They wanted less instruction and regulations from the federal government and be allowed to get on with life. The economy indeed lifted.

“My best judgment of America’s need is to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path.

"Let’s get out of the fevered delirium of war, with the hallucination that all the money in the world is to be made in the madness of war and the wildness of its aftermath.

“Let us stop to consider that tranquility at home is more precious than peace abroad, and that both our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people.

“We want to go on, secure and unafraid, holding fast to the American inheritance, and confident of the supreme American fulfillment.”

In a phrase familiar to what we hear from the Trump administration, Harding promised the “best minds” in his cabinet, but like Trump, appointed many friends and millionaires, as well as capable hands.

His Senate buddy Albert Fall of Arizona, became interior secretary, while Ohio chum and his presidential campaign manager Harry Daugherty became attorney general.

Both men would lead to the ruination of Harding’s reputation following his untimely death.

The Teapot Dome Scandal saw Albert Fall become the first sitting cabinet member to be jailed for accepting bribes from oil firms to lease petrol reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming for a fraction of their worth.

Scandal after scandal also followed Daugherty, a key member of the so-called Ohio gang, whom Harding insisted on having around him during his term in the White House.

I am a man of limited talents from a small town; I don’t seem to grasp that I am president... I am not fit for the office and should never have been here.

Daugherty would be brought down for accepting bribes not to prosecute certain criminal cases.

Harding knew the net was closing and during the last months of his presidency, finally seemed to grasp that relying on old friends to run a country was political suicide.

Warren G Harding, 29th President of the United States
Warren G Harding, 29th President of the United States

“I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my God-damned friends, White, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights!” he told a local newspaper editor.

He asked commerce secretary and future president Herbert Hoover for advice on the scandals. “If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?”

Hoover advised Harding to go public, but he declined.

The personal toll of his political scandals and his philandering ways was too much to bear, historians conclude.

Two months later, an anxiety-ridden Warren Harding died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 57 in a hotel room in San Francisco.

The outpouring of national grief was palpable as Americans, none the wiser that their president had approved or at least turned a blind eye to bribery, fraud, and corruption, mourned for weeks.

His successor, Calvin Coolidge, would launch a bipartisan investigation into the dealings of Albert Fall and Charles Daugherty, which would turn the tide of opinion against the deceased president.

Virginia Commonwealth University professor of history Eugene Trani wrote: “Neither a deep thinker, nor a decisive president, Harding failed, in most opinions, to impact the nation simply because he saw the role of president as largely ceremonial. He saw himself as neither a caretaker nor as a leader. He just avoided issues whenever possible.”

Harding accepted his limitations while in office, unlike the present incumbent. “I am a man of limited talents from a small town; I don’t seem to grasp that I am president... I am not fit for the office and should never have been here,” he said in his memoirs.

Trani wrote: “During his term as senator, Harding missed more sessions than he attended, being absent for key debates on prohibition and women’s suffrage.

“Taking no stands meant making no enemies, and his fellow Republicans awarded Harding the 1920 presidential nomination, sensing the nation’s fatigue with the reform agenda of Woodrow Wilson…

“Unlike other modern presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, who possessed conventional minds and who thought simply, Harding never understood where he wanted to take the nation.

“Nor could he communicate his message effectively, because he had none to communicate. He spoke about a ‘return to normalcy’, but he had no idea what this slogan meant.

“Lacking the moral compass of a Reagan, Harding had no guide to follow. He was lucky to have had a few good men in his cabinet who generally ran fiscal and foreign affairs well.

“In the end, it was not his corrupt friends that tarnished his legacy and undermined his historical impact. Rather, it was his own lack of vision and his poor sense of priorities that positioned him so low in the ranking of US presidents.

“Then, too, it was Harding’s sad fate to have followed in office the most visionary of all our presidents, Woodrow Wilson, the man whom historians generally rank among the top five or six presidents in the nation’s history.”

More in this section