Book Review: “The Teapot Dome Scandal” by Laton McCartney

It’s very rare that a book about the 1920’s should make one think about the science fiction show, “Battlestar Galactica”; however, this volume certainly brought to mind Battlestar’s signature line – “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”   To which I would add, “…but I hope not.”

The Presidency of Warren G. Harding is an obscure blur on the fringes of American history, not extensively studied except by a small coterie of academics.  Laton McCartney’s volume brings this period to life for a wider audience, first of all, by showing how Harding was the candidate of oil interests from the very start.

The Republicans in 1920 were a party on the up; the ailing, enfeebled Woodrow Wilson seemed to symbolise the state of the Democrat Party.  However, when the Republicans went into the convention, their favoured candidate was incorruptible General Leonard Wood.  Then the oil men intervened.

Thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, much of America’s oil was held on public land – the Teapot Dome being one of the most prominent reserves.  The oil men desperately wanted to get their hands on it, even if it meant subverting the political process.  Leonard Wood refused to “play ball”.  Harding gave them carte blanche, and susbequently got the nomination.  Furthermore, Will Hays, the RNC chairman, depended on oil money to finance the 1920 campaign.

Harding himself was relatively unremarkable, sort of a mix of Bush’s intellectual abilities (H.L. Mencken said of Harding’s use of language, “It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”) and Bill Clinton’s sexual impulses.  He apparently enjoyed making love to his mistress Nan Britton, even under the most difficult of circumstances.  He was unambitious; he publically stated that he preferred the Senate.  However, pushed by his colleagues and his wife, he reluctantly took up the nomination, and helped by vast swathes of money and a relatively weak Democrat ticket (James Cox and a young Franklin Roosevelt), he won.

Once in office, it became a free-for-all; McCartney spares us no detail in the depths of the corruption, in particular that of Interior Secretary Albert Fall and Attorney General Harry Daughtery.  “The Ohio Gang” that surrounded Harding proceeded to rape the country’s resources. Papers like the Denver Post were bribed to keep quiet.  It seemed like the party would never end.

However, the scam ran into two obstacles: first, Harding died.  Second, the plotters had to contend with the unsung hero of Jazz Age politics, Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana.

The greatest service that McCartney’s book performs is to bring Senator Walsh to public attention.  His name should be on the lips of schoolchildren as a rare example of complete honesty in politics.  He led the investigations into Teapot Dome for a decade: he could not be bribed, intimidated, or deterred.  Indeed, his sole fault is apparently believing in the honour of others when there was none.

The other great service McCartney performs is to clear up the Coolidge record.  Coolidge was conspicuously absent during the Teapot Dome investigation, preferring to distance himself from it rather than take it on as a matter of priority.  In this, he was merely following the advice of former President Taft, who was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Finally, McCartney does show that the consequences of this wholesale swindle were minor: very few of those involved went to prison.  At worst, some reputations were sullied.  One of the oil magnates lost his son in a mysterious murder.  Senator Walsh did not get the 1932 Presidential nomination nor a distinguished retirement: he died of a sudden heart attack just after his honeymoon.

Usually, there is a temptation to look back at the past with nostalgia, as the cliche goes, they were “the good old days”.  We assume that the past is pristine in comparison to the now because the distance of time tends to diminish all that’s sordid and painful.  McCartney de-romanticises history, and shows that if anything, politicians were more venal and corrupt then than they are now, and the only reason they are less inclined to transgress the law at this point is because there is a blogosphere ready to jump on them.  Still, Bush is an oil man, Cheney worked for Halliburton, the oil companies have never had it so good in terms of return on investment.  All of it happened before, it just happened again, but perhaps McCartney’s book will encourage us not to repeat it a third time.

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