The Ohio Gang
Although Charles L. Mee, Jr., warns the reader from the beginning that his book is “an historical entertainment,” it takes some time to grasp fully the approach he has taken in his tale of “the Ohio Gang,” an infamous group of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century politicians.
Frequently referred to by historians and political commentators, “the Ohio Gang”—sometimes called “the Ohio Dynasty,” because of the number of presidents the state produced—is by itself a study in the potential evils of the democratic process. From Ohio came seven of the twelve presidents between the Civil War and World War I and more federal jobholders and cabinet members than from any other state. The national party of power in those years was the Republican Party; as an emotional backlash from the Civil War and because of carpetbagger politics in the South, the Democrats, the party associated most closely with the Confederacy, had only two of their members elected president between Abraham Lincoln’s death and Warren G. Harding’s election: Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. A third Democrat, Andrew Johnson, succeeded to the presidency upon Lincoln’s death.
Every Republican president in those years came from Ohio, except Chester A. Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt, from New York; ironically, both of these non-Ohio politicians became president only upon the assassination of their Ohio predecessors, James Garfield and William McKinley. It is plain that this group of politicians, then, exercised almost unbelievable power in Washington and, indirectly, in the nation and the world.
In Warren G. Harding’s Administration, major office holders from Ohio included Harry M. Daugherty, Attorney General, whose chief qualification was his successful management of Harding’s nomination campaign; Ed Scobey, former Sheriff of Pickaway County, Ohio, who became Director of the United States Mint; Gaston B. Means, “Special Employee” of the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI and also run by an Ohio appointee), and Dick Crissinger, Comptroller of the Currency and eventually governor of the Federal Reserve System, whose chief qualification for appointment had been his position as head of a small bank in Marion, Ohio. Appropriately, Marion was the town where Harding published a newspaper.
As a publisher, Harding was given ample opportunity to practice his favorite pastime, what he called bloviating, defined by Mee as liking “to talk, to pass the time of day, to exchange pleasantries, to idle away the hours discussing politics.” That newspaper, the Marion Star, can serve as an early indicator of Harding’s approach to politics and to life in general. Originally there were three owners, Harding, Jack Warwick, and Johnnie Sickle. Harding was always known for his ability to “go along” with most things and most people, especially when such nonchalance would be beneficial to his ambitions. Thus he allowed a disagreement with Sickle to smolder until Sickle gave up and moved away; Warwick’s portion of the paper came as a result of a poker game—another of Harding’s favorite pastimes.
The newspaper’s editorial policy, as described by Warwick, was one of out-and-out boosterism. “We exploited railroads that never got beyond the blueprint and we saw smoke rolling out of the chimneys of factories before the excavations were made for the foundations.” Such a policy of fabrication of dreams and nonentities would serve Harding well when he campaigned for president on a promise of a “return to normalcy,” described by Mee and other historians as “a return to an age that never was.”
As an easygoing sort, Harding was a favorite of the party bosses, especially in a state such as Ohio, famous for its bosses who rewarded the faithful—and Harding was faithful, having served as candidate for various county and state offices for more than ten years in elections when it was known before the ballots were counted that a Republican would never win.
One reward came when Harding was given the nomination for lieutenant governor in 1903, along with Myron Herrick as governor; they won and Harding began to see the advantages of cooperation. He wanted the nomination for governor later for himself, but when Herrick said he desired renomination and the bosses agreed, Harding amiably withdrew his request. For such obedience, he was given the opportunity to deliver the nominating speech in 1912 for William Howard Taft, a speech full of allusions and platitudes, a speech which brought boos from the progressive elements of the party. Just as the boos were not enough to prevent Taft’s nomination, Taft, himself, was not enough to win the election, but Harding had played the game. His next reward was the nomination for the United States Senate, a position he won in 1914.
As Senator, he introduced no legislation which “might be construed...
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