Usually cited as the worst of all US presidents – at least until the Bush era – Harding was oddly likeable in his ineptitude. A former newspaper publisher, he was nominated by the Republicans as a compromise choice and campaigned with the promise that he would return the US to "normalcy". He won with an unprecedented 60 per cent of the popular vote.
The tone of his presidency was set by another of his campaign slogans: "Less government in business and more business in government". Following the conservative agenda of those who had nominated him, he approved legislation that eliminated wartime controls, slashed taxes, established a Federal budget system, restored the high protective tariff, and imposed tight limitations upon immigration. He did, however, disappoint the 31 Republicans who had signed a manifesto assuring voters that a vote for Harding was a vote for the League of Nations. In April 1921, he declared against American membership, thereby ensuring its ultimate failure.
Good-looking, charming and out of his depth, Harding happily let Congress set his agenda, and remained popular for most of his presidency. His most pressing problem was that he had surrounded himself with cronies who used their position to enrich themselves. As his term progressed, the scandals mounted up. Two of his friends committed suicide, while his Secretary of the Interior was found to have been selling national oil reserves for personal gain. Lesser officials were caught out in scams ranging from accepting bribes to skimming proceeds from the sale of war surplus goods. The scandal could have brought Harding's administration to its knees, had he not died of a heart attack in 1923 before much of it had become public knowledge.
In his own words
"I am a man of limited talents from a small town; I don't seem to grasp that I am president."
"I don't know what to do or where to turn in this taxation matter. Somewhere, there must be a book that tells all about it, where I could go to straighten it out in my mind. But I don't know where the book is, and maybe I couldn't read it if I found it."
"I am not fit for the office and should never have been here."
In others' words
"He was not a man with either the experience or the intellectual quality that the position needed." Herbert Hoover
In a 1962 poll of 75 historians conducted by Arthur M Schlesinger Sr, Harding was ranked worst of all the 31 US presidents to date.
He had at least two extra-marital affairs. One of them, with the wife of his friend James Phillips, eventually resulted in the Republican National Committee making a monthly payment to Mr and Mrs Phillips in return for their silence. The other, with a so-called "niece" 30 years younger than him, was sometimes pursued in a large cupboard near the president's White House office – and resulted in a daughter whom Harding never saw.
He was a keen poker player, who once gambled away on a single hand an entire set of White House china dating back to the presidency of Benjamin Harrison.