Miller Center

Warren G. Harding: Impact and Legacy

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Most historians rank Harding as the worst of all American Presidents. Recently, some revisionists see him as an important transitional figure whose easy-going ways helped bridge the gap between Wilsonian idealism and the business prosperity of the Coolidge and Hoover years. Harding is also given some credit for his progressive views on race and civil rights.

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.

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 U.S. 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.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Eugene Trani

Dr. Trani is the former president of Virginia Commonwealth University. His writings include:

Presidency of Warren G. Harding (part of the American Presidency Series, co-authored with David L. Wilson, The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977; second printing, 1985; third printing, 1989)

The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations (Co-authored with Donald E. Davis, published in English by University of Missouri Press, 2002; in Russian by Olma-Press Publishing House, 2002; in Chinese by Peking University Press, 2007)