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Reviewed by:
Robert H. Ferrell. The Strange Deaths of President Harding. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996. x + 203 pp. $24.95.

Over the years, it has been great sport to speculate on the comparative stature of the forty-one presidents of the United States. Now comes an erudite reexamination [End Page 570] of the place of President Harding, the twenty-ninth, by an acknowledged emeritus historian. Robert Ferrell has previously written about President Truman, the general concern for the health of incumbents in this stressful, powerful position, and the potential for erosion of public trust.

The avowed purpose of this book is to “set the record straight” in regard to several aspects of President Harding’s performance in office, and to attempt to resolve the uncertainties as to the cause of his death. Repeated polls have demonstrated that President Harding is held in the lowest esteem. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. concluded as much in 1962, and more recent studies by William Ridings and Stuart McIver, and by Douglas Lonnstrom and Thomas Kelly, have only confirmed this rating. 1 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. maintains that Harding was a failure, and Nathan Miller casts his vote for him as one of the ten worst presidents. 2 Walter McDougall has rated all the presidents on a scale of Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, and Failure—with President Harding determined to be just Below Average. 3 Is this a pattern of rehabilitation?

This well-referenced book draws together material not previously available to scholars and consequently is of immense interest to those who are serious about the besmirched reputations of statesmen and politicians. There are glimpses of how the common beliefs about people, in the absence of solid foundations, become the general parlance, and how nearly impossible it is to shake such popular beliefs. Ferrell provides strong, if not completely convincing, evidence that President Harding has not enjoyed the accolades of historians that are his due.

The primary subject matter of this book is an exploration, in as much depth as the record will allow, of the events leading up to, and the cause of, President Harding’s death. There is a description of his poor general health (based on the recently opened papers of his physician, Dr. Joel T. Boone), which, taken with the taxing schedule of the last few weeks prior to his death and his long-standing hypertension, leads to the conclusion that it was a heart attack and not poisoning that caused his death. The argument is developed through the careful and detailed examination of many sources of information. This is a compelling account, which leaves little room for quibbling. The author’s final plea is that, upon a reexamination of President Harding’s life, the untrue be corrected. He states that history “is sometimes thoughtless about the people who make it” (p. 164) [End Page 571] —with the clear implication that additional rigorous scholarly review of the accepted beliefs about our leaders is needed.

John H. Mather
Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington, D.C


1. Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., “Our Presidents: A Rating by Seventy-five Historians,” New York Times Magazine, 29 July 1962, pp. 12, 13, and 40; William J. Ridings and Stuart B. McIver, Rating the Presidents: A Ranking of U.S. Leaders, from the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent (Secaucus, N. J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1997); Douglas A. Lonnstrom and Thomas O. Kelly II, “Rating the Presidents: A Tracking Study,” Presidential Quart. Rev., 1997, 27 (3): 591–98.

2. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “The Ultimate Approval Rating,” New York Times Magazine, 15 December 1996, pp. 46–51; Nathan Miller, Star-Spangled Men: America’s Ten Worst Presidents (New York: Scribner, 1998).

3. Walter A. McDougall, “Rating the Presidents,” Nat. Rev., 27 October 1997, pp. 32–36.


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