A Leader’s Way

Insecurity: Leadership flaw of America’s worst president

A+
A
A-

Every few years, historians rank America’s past Presidents from best to worst. While scholars disagree on the place of certain Presidents, they’re united in their opinion that Warren G. Harding was one of the lousiest leaders ever to have occupied the White House. Despite holding office for less than three years, Harding left a legacy of scandal and corruption. What accounted for his dismal failure as a national leader? Insecurity.

Warren G. Harding was notoriously insecure, once privately remarking: “I am not fit for this office [of President] and should never have been here.” Owing to his need for approval, Harding spent his energy making friends rather than making progress. On the campaign trail Harding’s likeability proved advantageous, as he was elected with over 60 percent of the popular vote—the highest percentage ever won by a candidate at that time. Yet in the Oval Office, Harding’s preoccupation with popularity was debilitating. In his efforts not to let down any of his buddies, Harding ended up being perhaps the greatest Presidential disappointment in history.

How did Harding’s insecurity undermine his leadership?

1) He showed favoritism.

Instead of selecting advisers on the basis of their competence, Harding surrounded himself with fawning admirers to feed his personal need for affirmation. Putting his buddies in powerful government posts caused Harding one headache after another.

His Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was the first member of a Presidential cabinet to be imprisoned. Fall had accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for leasing them government lands at below-market rates.

His Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, had to step down in the wake of corruption charges.

His Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, was forced to resign after allegations of widespread corruption in the Department of Justice.

His Assistant Attorney General, Jess Smith, committed suicide after coming under investigation for fraud.

His Director of the Veterans’ Bureau, Charles Forbes, was convicted and imprisoned of defrauding the government.

Though Harding apparently did not engage in fraud himself, the rampant corruption surrounding him ruined his administration.

2) He avoided responsibility.

Instead of using his authority to confront his corrupt friends, Harding saw himself as a victim of their behavior. In his words, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my d*** friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.” In fact, some historians attribute Harding’s death [he died of congestive heart failure while in office] to the stress of dealing with scandals instigated by members of his inner circle.

President Harding’s evasion of responsibility would have come as no surprise to anyone following his political career. As a Senator, Harding had been noted for his absenteeism. Whenever a controversial bill camp up for a vote, he left Washington to avoid taking a side. Rather than making tough calls, Harding ran away from them. Later, as a candidate for President, Harding was content to let party bosses set the agenda for his campaign. He simply pursued the policies they put in front of him. Rather than articulate a clear vision for the country’s future, Harding parroted the vision of others.

3) He created a climate of suspicion.

President Harding was not untalented as a leader, nor was he completely without character. Future President Herbert Hoover, who worked for Harding, claimed that he never gave a promise that he did not keep. President Harding was also particularly adept at connecting with people, whether communicating to large groups or relating one-on-one.

However, in aiming to please people rather than to hold them accountable, Harding created a culture of suspicion. People were aware of misdealings throughout the administration, but they could not count on the President to deal with the corruption of his political allies. As long as an official was a friend of Harding’s, then he had the power to do whatever he wanted. When news of government corruption reached the public, the culture of suspicion extended nationwide, with citizens becoming distrustful of their elected leaders.

President Harding’s insecurity even seems to have influenced his wife, Florence. As First Lady, she kept a little red book in which she wrote the names of anyone who had offended her husband. Many of the names she inputted on account of imagined slights. If she perceived that someone had looked at the President the wrong way or had failed to greet him properly, then she assumed they were a political enemy.

Disclaimer: The comments uploaded on this site do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of management and owner of INQUIRER.net. We reserve the right to exclude comments that we deem to be inconsistent with our editorial standards.

  • upupperclassman

    Why the Americans were so dumb to have elected Harding as President?

  • Iggy Ramirez

    Outsiders are beginning to feel that the way the president handles his “inner circle” may prove detrimental to the overall interest of the Philippines. And it has been becoming more obvious as of late.

    I am not an American but I hope Romney wins. It’s time to bring in some new blood to Washington and reclaim the glory of the great American nation. Obama’s rule brought disaster not only to the USA but also to the world.

  • Diablo_III

    Parang si GMA pala ito, hindi kayang itaboy ang mga cronies niya kasi best friend ng husband. Nakakahiya…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VDMUJ6NKKCLWRMVMJRLJFI633I Rene V

    in term of looks, Harding looked every inch  a president compared to Lincoln who was scrawny and ragged with warts and all… however, Lincoln will be remembered a one of America’s best presidents. it is too early to judge Barack Obama’s legacy although he broke America’s image as being led by whites.

  • mekeni62

    may pinatatamaan ang article na ito. bato bato sa langit……

  • PaengSaAmerika

    It does happen in the private sector as well. Harding is a great example of failed leadership. The word favoritism is your ticket to failure. Buddy-buddy leadership is only good among themselves in the inner circle but the whole organization suffers the consequences. 

  • kayanatwo

    03nov2012

    nobody asked me, but…..was the article also describing the late ferdie marcos’ cronies ran  govt. and (h)is lack of leadership skills.??????

    • herculubus

       No. It is describing PNoy.

      • john mark santos

        i think its more on GMA

      • GaggerAlert

        I think most people think its Pnoy.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6KQ3DYZP5GWHYFQOAVUT4X6JCY Sal

         nope its pnoy. most of his cabinet members are his barkadas

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/OBTGTKV4SLI6HZCEV7AHTZA5XI Juanlatigo-olbulatego

        yup! more like GMA, a near second is Macoy.

      • mekeni62

        yes it’s Pnoy.

    • ApoLapullapu

      Most Philippine Presidents, except Magsaysay, looks like Harding.  They cannot afford to fire an erring crony.

    • GaggerAlert

      I don’t think so… lack of leadership skills? Are you kidding??

      You don’t need to at our past presidents to have an idea who’s the article talking about. Really obvious you know…

To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.

Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:

c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City,Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94

editors' picks

advertisement
advertisement