Monday, December 5, 2011

#94: The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country by Laton McCartney

New York: Random House, 2008. 368 pages.

Warren G. Harding is my favorite President. Not simply because he was the worst president of all time (I don't think anyone else is in his league) but because he was known as "The Bloviator" and was one of the few presidents between 1876 and 1960 that advocated education and voting rights for African Americans in the south. He also released Eugene Debs from prison, signed the first child labor law and appointed William Howard Taft as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

At the same time, he managed to actually get blackmailed by two different women during the 1920 presidential campaign. He openly lived cavorted with his mistress in....The Oval Office! On the desk! He told noted Prohibitionists that drinking in the White House was his own damned business. Oh, and his Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased oil fields belonging to the Navy Reserve (including the Teapot Dome in Wyoming) to oil companies at low cost with no competitive bidding. He is like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all rolled into one person. Laton McCartney's text is laden with research, sometimes making for tedious reading, but is overall an outstanding work. I learned much about something I thought I knew well.

Only in this country could you get a group called The Ohio Gang: a group of hangers on that land cushy jobs in Harding's cabinet. Then, these groups secretly meet at what came to be known as "The Little Green House on K Street" to plot nefarious deeds. While Harding is boozing away in the White House or playing poker with some cronies, the Ohio Gang is selling off oil reserves, delaying paying of veterans and acting like general ne'er do wells. McCartney provides a lot of background to these men and the women behind them, which makes the book more like a series of character studies than history. Fall, for his part, was not Harding's first choice as Sec of Interior. Harding's first choice was gunned down by his mistress in a hotel in Oklahoma. She shot him in the chest while he was lying on a bed, unarmed, in his underpants. She was then acquitted on accounts of self defense.

When every misstatement by whatever flavor-of-the-month is trumped up as a scandal, it is refreshing to read about some honest to god crooks, cheats and liars. A good book to read as the election season gets under way in earnest.

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