Warren Gamaliel Clinton

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 1998

During his presidency, wrote the commentator, "the scandals never seemed to end. There was the strange suicide of an administration official, made even more mysterious by a note that disappeared. Then came an investigation into payoffs and cover-ups connected to a notorious land deal. The president’s friends launched smear campaigns against his perceived foes. Dossiers were compiled, private eyes and snitches deployed. Affidavits were drafted in which various women denied liaisons with the president. Jobs were arranged to keep people quiet." And as the scandals unfolded, "a steel-willed first lady kept the press at bay and did whatever was necessary to defend her husband’s reputation–even if it meant destroying evidence."

A quiz: is this passage from the poison pen of a member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get President Bill Clinton? Is it just another attempt by an acolyte of the relentless Kenneth Starr to recycle unproved allegations in a fruitless attempt to link Mr. Clinton’s private life to matters of real importance to the American people, who, Mr. Clinton’s defenders are quick to claim, just want the Monica Lewinsky matter to go away?

Well, no. It is an excerpt from a recent article in The Washington Post by Carl Anthony, the respected biographer of Florence Harding, describing the administration of her husband, President Warren Gamaliel Harding. Harding, of course, is consistently rated at or near the bottom of the list of U.S. presidents, largely because of the well-documented corruption that pervaded his administration. This unhappy fact should keep President Clinton and his loyalists awake at night.

For whether the president and his defenders know it or not, the ghost of Warren G. Harding truly haunts the Clinton administration, most likely dooming any hope for a positive Clinton "legacy". One reason to believe this is that when Harding had the good fortune to die in office, he was, like Bill Clinton, an extremely popular and well-regarded president. It was only as the corrupt underside of his administration was exposed that Harding’s standing with the American people fell into irreparable disrepute.

The history of the Harding administration belies the claim prevalent among defenders of President Clinton that there is no relationship between private and public actions in political life. Harding was a serial philanderer and a heavy drinker, a vice rendered illegal as well by the fact that Prohibition was the law of the land during his presidency. Harding’s many paramours and those who pried into his affairs had to be paid off or roughed up. The bribes and intimidation were carried out by individuals close to the Hardings, working in conjunction with federal agencies, including the Bureau of Investigation, an early version of the FBI.

Additionally, Harding preferred the company and counsel of corrupt cronies such as former New Mexico Senator and Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall; Attorney General Harry Daughtery; and Director of the newly-created Veterans Bureau, Charles Forbes, to the decent, honorable, and competent men selected for the cabinet by the party bosses who chose him as the Republican presidential nominee in 1920. These cronies helped protect Harding while the president acquiesced in their corrupt actions. Harding’s bunch gave America Teapot Dome and Elk Hills, abuse of power and the perversion of justice in the Justice Department, and unmatched corruption in the Veterans Bureau as Forbes embezzled millions of dollars in hospital-construction and medical supplies.

If these examples of private vice, public corruption, and cronyism sound eerily familiar, it is because the allegations against the Clinton administration that Judge Starr and other independent counsels have been investigating reflect the same logic that characterized the Harding presidency: a pattern of deceit and abuse of presidential power to cover up alleged misdeeds. This pattern has manifested itself in the form of the Whitewater land deal, the White House travel office firings, the purloined FBI files of over 1000 individuals from the Bush and Reagan administrations, the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of Rose Law Firm records material to Judge Starr’s investigation, apparent violations of campaign financing laws, and illegal attempts by domestic businesses and perhaps foreign governments to influence US policy.

That private vice seems to engender public corruption followed by scandal should shock no one for, as one commentator has observed, scandal-plagued administrations appear to have a logic and grammar of their own. A president has a vice. It’s not necessarily such a serious vice, but it’s politically dangerous. It needs to be covered up, generating secrets and deceit….some of the people with damaging knowledge about the president are loyalists, but others are not, and they must be either bribed or bullied into silence. That costs money, and raising it in turn generates new secrets and new lies.

The president’s defenders crow that, aside from the Lewinsky matter, nothing has come of the "four-year, $40 million Starr investigation." Until Judge Starr delivers his reports to Congress and the courts, they are correct. But having either lied or been made fools of in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the Harding precedent should concentrate the minds wonderfully of such Clinton loyalists as Paul Begala, Rahm Emmanuel, and the odious James Carville. For they must know now, if they didn’t before, that the Starr report has the potential to expose President Clinton’s legacy as a carbon copy of Harding’s, ensuring that in future histories, they and the president they have protected will be remembered as nothing more than laughable objects of scorn.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.