Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding's Scandalous Legacyby Phillip G. Payne
Pub. Date: 02/10/2009
Publisher: Ohio University Press
By examining the public memory of
If George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are the saints in America's civil religion, then the twenty-ninth president, Warren G. Harding, is our sinner. Prior to the Nixon administration, the Harding scandals were the most infamous of the twentieth century. Harding is consistently judged a failure, ranking dead last among his peers.
By examining the public memory of Harding, Phillip G. Payne offers the first significant reinterpretation of his presidency in a generation. Rather than repeating the old stories, Payne examines the contexts and continued meaning of the Harding scandals for various constituencies. Payne explores such topics as Harding's importance as a midwestern small-town booster, his rumored black ancestry, the role of various biographers in shaping his early image, the tension between public memory and academic history, and, finally, his status as an icon of presidential failure in contemporary political debates. Harding was a popular president and was widely mourned when he died in office in 1923; but with his death began the construction of his public memory and his fall from political grace.
In Dead Last, Payne explores how Harding's name became synonymous with corruption, cronyism, and incompetence and how it is used to this day as an example of what a president should not be.
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I don't know if Payne's book is the best at what it does, but the author does an admirable job at going back and reexamining the often misunderstood legacy of Warren G. Harding. Harding was not the nations best President, but he was by no means the worst one either. What tarnished Harding was that in death is that the dead can't mount a defense in their own stead. That said, Payne goes to the source of who Harding was by examining the things, place and the people within his life. What Payne does not do is wallow in the urban legends that Harding fathered numerous children out of wedlock or was of mixed blood. I believe that the author avoids this topic (and he is vilified by another reviewer on B&N for bringing up these unverified rumors) because the facts simply don't exist. It is this exactly the type of "garbage" which has haunted Harding for over 80 years, and in those 80 years none of those who want so hard to believe these bits of urban legend have proven their cases. For my money, Payne does a good job.
Phillip Payne tells us, "The story of the creation and use of Harding's image illustrates the role of reputational entrepreneurs in shaping the national civic religion. "He assumes that academic historians ("entrepreneurs") purposely craft the Harding image according to their interpretation of the civic religion. This is his main thesis and he spends the books' 223 pages extolling the virtues of a man who was never fit for the office, even by his own words. Payne claims that others have "constructed Harding's image and reputation." Harding was responsible for creating his own image, reputation, and character. He didn't need help from academic historians. He takes on Presidential rating polls and takes issue with historians whose "academic judgments regarding Harding as part of a public discourse." He even claims that the CSPAN visit to the Harding home in their presidential series of visits to Presidential homes, denigrated Harding's character. Payne's "Freudian slip" occurs in the very first sentence of the section "Acknowledgements":"Two themes often emerge when authors discuss writing a book. The first is the image of the lonely historian researching and writing. The second theme is that of community, where the author thanks those folks who helped influence the thinking and research and thus made the book possible." The reader now knows that the author feels "lonely" (read: alone in his views); and second, those "folks who helped influence the thinking and research" (clue: he worked for the Harding Memorial Association and the Ohio Historical Society.... "where most of my materials came from.") In other words, what we have here is a small-college professor, who is biased in favor of Harding and seeks to rehabilitate his reputation and character without doing serious research. Payne praises author Robert Ferrell (no surprise there: another Harding devotee), for "...debunking many of the falsehoods that permeate Harding's biography..." while wrongly assuming that "Progressive writers favored the policies of Woodrow Wilson which worked against the reputation of Harding." Payne needs to do some competent Wilsonian research, and not on the internet or through library-loan (which he includes in his "Acknowledgements"), but some genuine primary-source research. Payne states that Harding was not Black. But Harding was what we know as an Octoroon, meaning a person of fourth-generation black ancestry. Genealogically, it means one-eighth black. Payne has given only cursory attention to the actual photographs and accompanying information now available in open sources, not locked away by the Ohio Historical Society and the Harding Memorial Home. He needs to take a closer look at Oliver Perry Harding. And he needs to ask the current Harding family to un-block Warren Harding's ancestry from being viewed on-line. What does Dr. Richard Harding have to hide? Payne talks about the "two women rumored to be Harding's extramarital sexual partners...Carrie Phillips...and Nan Britton...")what about Rosa Hoyle, Augusta Cole, Miss Allicott, Maize Haywood, Blossom Jones, Margaret Gorman, and Grace Cross? Harding fathered more than one child. This biography is dead wrong.