For anyone who reads this blog, it will be no surprise that I have an interest in American presidents, their actions, their families, and pretty much anything associated with what is arguably the most powerful job in the world. So, it should also come as no surprise that I have been fascinated with the surprising and seemingly unprecedented twists and turns of the current race to succeed Barack Obama. On the right and on the left, the most unlikely candidates have been getting most of the attention. On the left, a self-declared socialist (Bernie Sanders) is leading in the polls in conservative New Hampshire. On the right, the political oxygen all 17 candidates need to survive (a.k.a. publicity) is being sucked up by billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star, Donald Trump. It might be tempting to think that this election, with all of the drama of a reality show, is unprecedented. While some of the specifics of the race are uncommon, it is not the only time the unexpected candidates have risen to the top. However, that is not what I wish to chronicle this month. After all, there are many months left to go before the end of this circus. Instead, this month’s History Rhyme will look at something that every president since Washington has had to do and every presidential candidate has had to consider – the selection of the men and women that will surround the president offering advice and helping to enact the president’s policies.
In an interview that aired on August 11-12 on the Sean Hannity Show on Fox News, Donald Trump explained his positions on various issues and to give a view of what a Trump administration would look like. One aspect of this was a few thoughts on the kind of people that he would want in his cabinet. After saying that he would not “use names” he proceeded to mention some of the “great minds” of the American business world and asserted that while other candidates would not “use those minds,” he would. First on his list is the extremely successful “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffet, who Trump called “a terrific guy and a very common-sense person.” He also mentioned other possible cabinet members like Henry Kravis (co-founder of the extremely successful private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.), Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric), and Carl Icahn (business magnate and philanthropist). Beyond that, in his typically self-assured style, Trump asserted that “I know the best negotiators. I know the ones that are no good that people think are good. I know people that you’ve never heard of that are better than all of them.”
While it is one thing to hypothetically throw out a list of the most successful businessmen in America, it is another thing altogether to convince them to serve in his administration (assuming that he is elected in November 2016). It is an impressive list of names and it is tempting to think that such a talented roster would be unprecedented in presidential history. There have been well know figures in previous cabinets, such as Robert McNamara who was the president of the Ford Motor Company before becoming John F. Kennedy’s (and later Lyndon Johnson’s) Secretary of Defense or retired four-star General Colin Powell who served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State after having been the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the administration of the presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. However, there were often surrounded by other cabinet members who were former elected officials or were not known to the general public. Yet, there is one cabinet that might be close to this cabinet version of an all-star team and it was put together by a president that is not often associated with success or astute selections of associates – Warren Gamaliel Harding.
When Presidents of the United States are ranked, the United States’ 29th president is usually within the bottom five (although some have a much higher opinion of him). A recent example is the 2009 CSPAN survey which had Harding only rated above William Henry Harrison (who died a month after taking office), Franklin Pierce (who suffered from depression and alcoholism), Andrew Johnson (who, along with Bill Clinton, were the only presidents to be impeached by the House of Representatives), and James Buchanan (whose inactivity as the southern states left the Union made a civil war a near certainty). Although Harding was a popular president during his term, after his death in office in 1923, his reputation was tarnished by revelations about his personal life (which continue today) and notable corruption scandals by some members of his administration. The most notable was the “Teapot Dome Scandal” in which Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (Harding’s personal friend) transferred naval oil reserves to his department. Then, without seeking competitive bids, sold drilling rights to the Mammoth Oil Company and the Pan-American Petroleum Company – the latter being owned by a personal friend of Secretary Fall. Fall was forced to resign and eventually was imprisoned for nine months.
Another noteworthy scandal occurred at the newly created Veterans Administration where Colonel Charles R. Forbes (who was an acquaintance of President Harding) was appointed to head the bureau. While in office, Forbes, had a series of corrupt arrangements with hospital contractors and who sold government property well below its actual value in return for kickbacks in return. In total, Forbes’s actions cost the United States government $200 million (which is roughly $2.6 million in 2015 dollars). For his crimes, Colonel Forbes served two years in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
A third scandal occurred at the Justice Department where Harry Daugherty, Harding’s personal friend and political benefactor (who was most responsible for Harding being selected as the surprise choice of the Republican convention in 1920), was accused of graft in regards to areas such as the Alien Property Custodian office and in his sporadic enforcement of the newly enacted Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution which stated that:
… the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Although never convicted of any crimes, Daugherty too was forced to resign. It is little wonder that President Harding is known for having exclaimed to the well-known editor of the Emporia (KS) Gazette, William, Allen White, “I have no trouble with my enemies. But my goddamn friends, White, they are the ones who keep me walking the floors at night.”
While all of the details about Harding’s personal life and the illegal activities of his closest friends have shaped how his reign is remembered, the remainder of this edition of The History Rhyme will focus on a mostly forgotten part of his time in office that was actually quite good – his selection of some other remarkable men to be in his cabinet who generally followed non-traditional paths to their posts. Perhaps it will offer some context and insight into what Donald Trump would hope to accomplish by employing “those minds” to help him to govern the United States. The first of these officials is Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Although Hughes had been governor of New York (1907-1910), his more recent path to the cabinet had been quite unusual. In 1910, President William Howard Taft appointed Hughes to the United States Supreme Court where he served as an Associate Justice until 1916 when he became the Republican nominee for the presidency. Hughes was defeated by incumbent president Woodrow Wilson by only 23 electoral votes and by less than 600,000 votes of the 17.67 million cast. While Secretary of State, Hughes helped the United States to improve relations with Latin America, directed the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 which sought to prevent an expensive naval arms race, and worked to improve the quality of people entering the Foreign Service by supporting the 1924 Foreign Service Act. After he left office in 1925, Hughes served on the Court of International Justice at The Hague (1928-1930) and later served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1930-1941).
Another prominent member of the Harding Administration whose contributions have been generally forgotten (but whose name survives as part of the bank BNY Mellon) is Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Prior to joining the Treasury Department, Mellon was a prominent financial figure in the Trans-Allegheny region where he invested in the coal, steel, and aluminum industries. When he arrived in Washington, he was one of the wealthiest men in America. As secretary, he advocated the “Mellon Plan” which sounds strikingly like a modern Republican economic strategy – debt reduction, tax reduction, and a balanced budget. In fact, in a comment on his views, Mellon even used the phrase “trickle down” to describe the benefits of giving tax breaks to corporations. During most of his tenure as Treasury Secretary (1921-1932), the United States experienced a period of economic growth and Mellon was credited for helping that. Conversely, with the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929, Mellon’s reputation was diminished.
A third remarkable member of the Harding cabinet was his Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover. Prior to serving in the cabinet, Hoover has become world famous for his work in aiding war refugees during and after the First World War. He first served as head of the privately-run Committee for the Relief of Belgium. In 1917 President Wilson made him head of the United States Food Administration, and after the war named him as head of the European Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. At that time, his name became synonymous with the national effort of rationing for the war effort (“to Hooverize”). As the 1920 election approached, he was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate by both the Republican and Democratic parties (much like General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Colin Powell were in later years). While Commerce Secretary, Hoover advocated improved commercial relationships with Latin America to replace the militaristic approach taken by previous administrations. He also (in line with his Quaker upbringing) tried to guide American loans away from the armaments industry and other risky investments. By the time that he left office in 1928, he was the overwhelming favorite to win the presidency. Today, Herbert Hoover is known as a failure because of his inability to end the Great Depression. Although there have been many biographers who have tried to defend him, it is still the dominant social memory much as scandal has shaped the popular portrait of Warren Harding. Regardless of what occurred after his time in the Harding administration, he was still considered quite a remarkable and wise choice to join Warren Harding’s cabinet.
So what can be gleamed from our look at the prominent members of the Harding cabinet in regards to what Donald Trump would want in his dream cabinet? First, we can see that Trump’s wish list is not as unprecedented when looking at the full history of American cabinets. In the early 1920s, the executive branch of the United States government was led by some men who had remarkable non-elected aspects to their resume. It could happen again today. Second, we learned that these remarkable men with a generally non-political background had a more stable and well-defined view of what should be accomplished that was shaped by past experiences. The diplomacy of Secretary of State Hughes as framed by his great experience in the law, the economic policies of Secretary of the Treasury Mellon was shaped by his experiences in the world of finance and investment, and the commercial policies of Commerce Secretary Hoover were shaped by his religious upbringing and his humanitarian views. Third, and most importantly, we learned that none of this matters if the administration is led by a person with questionable morals and an inability to keep scandals away. Only a few know of the accomplishments of the “those minds” mentioned today. However, names like Teapot Dome or the naughty details of a long-dead president continue to be perpetuated to this day. Hopefully such a cautionary tale will not be repeated any time soon.
In the meantime, keep looking for those links to the past. Knowing what has occurred can help us to understand what is possible and perhaps even likely to happen after the first Tuesday in November 2016 – the point at which the 45th President of the United States has to begin deciding who will help him or her govern.