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tv   QA Author Ryan Walters on President Warren G. Hardings Scandals and...  CSPAN  February 21, 2022 6:00am-7:01am EST

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susan: ryan walters, a new book, "the jazz age president." you are asking americans to take a new look on warren g. harding. why? ryan: he is one of the most maligned presidents in american history. the reason for that is, he has finished last in more presidential rankings than any other president. he and james buchanan are connect. harding has come up a few notches in recent years.
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what has been said is in the realm of myth, there are a lot of myths and falsehoods. outright lies. when you look at his true record and what he actually accomplished, it's actually quite impressive. susan: c-span is an organization that has done service. i wanted to put the results of our survey on the screen. harding has common -- come in at number 37 of the 44 who were ranks. his highest scores are in areas like public persuasion, relations with congress, equal justice for all, international relations, economic management. do those track? ryan: he had a good record in a lot of those areas. relations with congress was good because republicans had large majorities in the house and senate, harding was a republican.
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his foreign policy was good, and he does not get a lot of credit for that, when you look at things he did like calling the washington disarming conference, ending world war i. repairing relations with mexico. his economic record -- he began the process that led to the roaring 20's, the greatest decade of economic growth we have ever had. coolidge gets more credit. it was harding that started that process. susan: why did you as a historian get interested in this task? ryan: when you look at the rankings, a lot of that comes down to your worldview. what you believe, your political views, philosophical views. harding was a conservative. in america first conservative, laissez-faire economics. if you believe in those things,
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you are to like warren harding. if you liked fdr, you are not going to like harding. reading little things in grad school, the idea for this book i started in grad school. i went back and found my original notes when i had sketched the book. i wanted to -- a few people have written good things about him, and i wanted to dig deeper. look at primary sources. what did he say in his letters, his speeches. what did people who knew him say about him. it is far different then what others have said about him. susan: harding's papers do not become available until 1964. why did it take so long for them to become public? did you use them, what did you find? ryan: luckily, there are historians that went through his letters. he died in 1923, his wife found
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a lot of them. we have some important ones. a lot of his political letters. that is what i was interested in mainly. not his personal life, this is not a full biography. i talk about his background. i was able to use that book and go through his letters. they were not released until 1964, not sure what the problem was. that is when people began to look into the letters, and say wait a minute -- one of the myths where he was dumb, not a smart man. when you read his letters, you don't get that at all. someone who grasp the issues, understood the game of politics. susan: in the early pages of your book, you note similarity to donald trump. where do the similarities start and end? ryan: in their political viewpoints.
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harding was trump before trump in a lot of ways, particularly in how they view the world, how they looked at politics. america first conservative. america first foreign. did not want to see world wars. his trade policy and trump's mirror each other. he believed in using tariffs. their policy viewpoints are very close. of course, liberals and people that don't like harding say they were both womanizers. i reviewed some myths on harding's supposedly nice and. as far as personality, trump is pretty combative. he defends himself on twitter and on interviews. harding was not like that. he did not have a combative personality. humble, kind man. had a good relationship with the press. he was a journalist. he was on of the first to have
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press conferences in his house. he built a cottage behind the house for the press so they could have a place to rest. he had a much better relationship with the press them president trump. susan: before the personal part of the story, dna evidence proved he had an out of wedlock child. did that contribute to the downfall of his reputation after he died? ryan: sure. her book came out in 1927. a lot of publicists take a look at it and would not touch it. she had to self publish that book. she made the accusation that her daughter was harding's child. she made a lot of other outlandish claims that she would go to the white house along,
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they spend time together in the white house. i refute that by using primary sources by people who were in the white house, the chief usher. those guys all said nobody came in there to see harding at any time. there were no women or parties at the white house. we did note the dna that he did have a child with her, he had a couple of extramarital affairs. not as president. susan: throughout your book, there are quotations from two people. alice roosevelt longworth and william allen white. who were they, and what were their contributions to the public's view? ryan: william allen white was a newspaper guy from kansas. he was not a harding guy at all. he wrote a lot of books, wrote a book about coolidge. had a negative view of harding. alice roosevelt longworth was
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theodore roosevelt's first daughter. his wife died in childbirth. on valentine's day in the 1880's. she was very outspoken, she knew the harding's well. in her memoir, she called harding a slob. she was there in the white house, she knew him well. she did refute some of the myths. the myth that harding's wife once poisoned him. she felt that was pretty ridiculous. they did contribute to a lot of that, because people look at those memoirs where people had a negative view, and that carried on for 100 years. susan: about his death, there were conspiracy theories about what happened to him. how did he die? ryan: he was on the west coast.
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he went to alaska. harding was the first president to visit alaska, nailed in a final spike to the alaska railroad. was coming back down the west coast, got to seattle, gave a speech. he was becoming ill. one of his doctors said he had possibly ingested some bad seafood, stomach ailment. he had some other speeches important, they cancel those. the train went on to san francisco and they brought in another doctor who was a heart specialist, he said this wasn't a stomach issue, he had a mild heart attack. they put him in a hotel room so he could rest and recuperate, and he had a stroke on august the second 1923. his wife was reading the newspaper to him and he died suddenly of a stroke. susan: if warren harding were to stand before either of us today,
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describe what we would see. ryan: harding was a humble man. he was a kind man. most people would like warren harding. the stories i put in the book, again, kind, benevolent, generous, humble. even when he was president, he didn't like his friends to call him mr. president. call me warren, let's go out and play golf. people in town, people who work for him at the newspaper, they called him warren or sometimes wg. he had that kind of relationship with people. one report is the new york times went to marion to look at his background, a guy named charles thompson talks to different people, and found out harding was very generous and helps people all the time. people down on their luck, buying presents at christmas. people said he was the kindest
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man i ever knew. thompson said, i never found the same story twice. everyone had a different story to tell about his generosity. he was a humble small town, american god. he was an academic or some kind of snobbish guy. he was somebody most people would like. even his enemies, people who hated him would concede he was a con man. susan: one historian has a different view is richard norton smith, who we have worked with a lot over the years. two of the advisors on our president survey. we have a clip. [video clip] >> no american president sets out to fail. some are victims of events or changes in culture to which they cannot adapt. some, like franklin pierce or warren harding are weak men,
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simply overwhelmed by the job itself. their experience should put us on guard, i think. against the short-term experience -- expedience of the dark horse candidate, usually a second rateer chosen by a convention. harding, whose cabinet included jail bound embarrassments. beware of presidents who profess ambitions before taking office. in harding's case, not to be the best president, but the best-loved president. susan: ryan walters, our conversation continues. right now i wanted to deal with wanting to be like. ultimately, was his affability, his personality a detriment to him? ryan: probably so.
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that is probably a fair assessment. if i had to do any criticism, he was very trusting of people. he could not believe people would do the things they would do. that is probably not the best attribute for our president. i think you need to be skeptical. he appointed good people to office, also some bad ones. i think it broke his heart. go back to alice roosevelt longworth, she wrote that. he found out about a scandal on the westward swing. it changed his mood, people who were there talked about how his mood changed. she always thought he died of a broken heart. the people had betrayed him. he was a kind, warm man, but he trusted people, he wanted to be loved. that is not going to work when you are president. susan: let's set the stage for the presidency.
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you described 1919, the year before the election as one of the worst years in u.s. history. ryan: 1919 was horrific. most people don't know a lot about it. coming out of world war i at the end of 1918, 1919, there are a series of terrorist bombings. anarchist groups, bolshevik groups are setting off bombs around the country. one target was the attorney general of the united states. these things were going on, there were labor strikes. some major strikes in seattle in seattle -- thousands of workers went out on strike. the racial violence was horrific during the summer. it's usually referred to as the red summer of 1919. dozens of african-americans were lynched in different parts of the country. not necessarily just talking about the south, but other parts as well.
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some of the worst racial violence that year was in chicago of all places. that kind of think is going on. i go into a lot of detail of that in the book. that moves into 1920, the economy collapses. it was a trying time. for people saying harding did not come into office with a lot of problems to solve, i don't know where they get this. he did a lot of good things to straighten that up. susan: he threw his hat into the ring december 16, 1919. why? ryan: he agonized over it for a while. people were trying to push him to do it. a lot of people have tried to say he was the pick from the beginning because woody's -- because he was an easy-going candidate, mold and push him in
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the direction. i found evidence that is not true at all. he said at one time, i think i would make as good a president as anybody. when he got into office he found out it was a tough job. he made statements that this is a tough job, i should not be here, and people have taken that and said bad things about him. it's a tough job. president trump said it's tougher than i thought it would be. the job is not easy for anybody. there were some pretty good candidates. the convention cannot agree on anybody, and they turned to harding, supposedly in this smoke-filled room. susan: before he decided to seek the presidency, what has been his claim to fame in the united states senate? ryan: that is one of the midsize tackle that he was a backbencher. the democrats control the senate when he was there for the first
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four years. when you are a minority, there is not a lot you can do. republicans regained the majority in 1918. he was on the foreign relations committee chaired by henry cabot lodge. he was a very valued member of that. he was instrumental in helping stop the treaty of versailles, particularly the united states getting into the league of nations. when the debate started in the senate, the main speech was given to warren harding. he was given the number one speech, the first speech against the league of nations. he went with lodge and others down to the white house to try and talk to president wilson about making changes to the host: woodrow wilson had his stroke and was incapacitated in the white house, was there a
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public viewing for woodrow wilson going into the white house in 1919? ryan: he was decapitated for eight or nine months. his wife was actually running the country. a lot of people said his wife was our first female president because in a lot of ways she was. then, it was a lot easier to do that. he wanted the nomination for a third term and he thought he might get it. ultimately they nominated james coxe and not wilson. wilson was put on the ballot for the election. he wanted the election to be about the league of nations. the senate had voted it down twice. the result of the 1920 election
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was harding got 60% of the vote. there was no way of -- there was no way to know. host: you say the blackstone in route 4 04, -- took the ninth ballot. if it is a myth, what is the real story? ryan: this was before the supremacy of the presidential primary. we have primaries today. that is how you gang your delegates. i think those were fun times. now on television, they don't want much of a floor fight in front of the tv.
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everything was done at the convention and after that point, every nominee was chosen in some manner like that. party leaders got together and tried to keep forward manifesting the convention. he was there and he said, "we talked about harding." it did not matter because the -- themselves still had to nominate them. it was the delegates that had to do it. it didn't matter what a bunch of senators wanted to do. when they explored that it is when they went to choose the vice presidency. the convention delegates rose up and started shouting coolidge to
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the point coolidge run -- coolidge one presidency. they were america's first conservative direction. they did not want progressive at all. host: was warren harding at the convention? ryan: he was at the convention. this was before the age of television and you didn't have all the fanfare you do today. the people watching the comings and goings. a lot of people read by paper, the newspaper. the first radio broadcast was in november and the first radio broadcast in the world, in this
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country. and now harding and coolidge won the election. this is before the age of mass media. host: we have a recording of warren harding at the capitol in july accepting the nomination. it is difficult to hear but let's give it a try. >> individual, -- make political parties the affected agencies through which hopes and aspirations and convictions. host: he talks about the
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importance of party government not personal government. explain his view of the presidency and his governing philosophy. ryan: during the nomination, you were talking about the convention, they brought him in the room and asked him is there anything in your background that will hurt your candidacy. he told them no. when he went out and said we need to put this platform exactly what we, we need to tell the people exactly what we are going to do and not cheat the people. let's tell them what we are going to do and put it out there in platform. in campaign and get into office and actually do it. like a woodrow wilson and fdr where the government transforms the country and puts in all
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these new policies and programs. he actually said the world needs to be reminded that not every problem can be cured by legislation. in other words, the government can't fix everything that people want fix. his policy was more in line with what the founding fathers wanted for the presidency. host: coxe and fdr traveled widely for the campaign. what was his strategy? ryan: mckinley, another front runner of the campaign -- you can see videos -- you can see
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pictures. you couldn't see the presidency or seem like you wanted it because people thought you were up to no good. because you were ambitious to hold office. the office should seek demand, the man should not seek the office is the old saying. the current -- of the country was in a big mess in 1920. i think it impacted them pretty well. harding was the first president to get over 60% of the vote. i think a lot of delegates voted for harding. the state the country was in,
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1919, pretty awful and of course you going to 1920 and the economy essentially collapses. industrial production fell 99%. a lot of women were concerned about the direction of the country. they were concerned about their children and grandchildren. that was perfect slogan because that is what people wanted to hear. it is perfect marketing campaign on that part. host: he opened the white house to visitors. what is the public reaction to that? ryan: that was a symbolic thing he wanted to do. we are not going to have a party because i have been honored
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president. that is not a good look with the country in the shape it is economically. which i agree with. opening the white house and letting people come in -- it is their house people, let them come in. that shows the kind of man harding was. he was a kind, humble, benevolent guy. he was not aristocratic or arrogant. host: presidential inaugurations were still in march at that point? he was all for a special session to begin in april, -- a special
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session in congress to begin in april, what is that story? ryan: taxes were through the roof. the top tax rate was over 70%. we have got to cut taxes. the economy coming out of world war i was in terrible shape. they wanted to put up an emergency tariff to stop european dumping particularly from the british. the economy collapses into a long, drawn out depression, you have got to get that addressed first. that was number one on his plate. host: from a policy perspective, why wouldn't the president wants
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to aid european economy and they recovery from the war? -- in their recovery from the war? ryan: he said i want to prosper the american people first. european governments owed the united states $2 billion. the only way they were going to sell it back was -- the only way they were going to pay it back was to sell a lot of stuff. we need these jobs for americans. most of those loans were never paid pack. -- never paid back.
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host: tell me about the economic chain. people give a lot of credit to the economic chain he put together. who were they. ? ryan: sec. of state andrew mellon. a lot of people were happy with that pick. mellon's family knew of the about economics. coolidge was there. harding brought coolidge into the operation of the government. he the u.s. government didn't
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have a budget before harding. we did not have a comprehensive budget like we do now. dollars was really helpful and get cutting a lot of the wasteful spending. they cut spending 50% of what it had been in the 1920's. host: interesting historical footnotes you mentioned in your book. the former senator was able to nominate his cabinet right on the senate floor. what was --?
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ryan: they approved every single one of them unanimously on the spot. host: what was the party breakdown of the senate at that point? ryan: he had full control of the house and the senate by white majorities. he could do a lot of what he wanted to do. that is always important for the president that they have control of congress. and perhaps people were filling -- people willing to work with you. his attitude was i am going to dictate to congress what i want and you are going to do it. that's what he tried to do with the league of nations.
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harding worked with congress. host: why was controversial candidate president hoover? host: a lot of people in the senate didn't like hoover at all. not that they didn't like him, he did a lot. he was a great administrator. harding wanted him in the cabinet. he gave hoover the choice. hoover chose commerce. the senate started pushing back when they found out that it's cool you wanted to be. remember hoover was an engineer. he wanted to try to engineer the
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economy. that is not how that worked. they wanted to confirm hoover didn't look right. they liked the pick. they were excited about mcmillan. this is the example i need to party -- she wrote out a little small note that he sent to the senate. it was very short and to the point note. it said mellon and hoover are no go. in other words, if you do not give me hoover, i am not going to give you mel. his actions were i am going to get who i want in my cabinet. he was not being tossed around.
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host: why did he like hoover so much? ryan: he had been a mighty news player. made a lot of money mining gold and all kind of things. he had done a lot to show the relief efforts in world war i. to say the full -- to save the food supply, make sure we had enough food. to help feed our troops and feed the population. a lot of very conservative republicans just didn't want him in the cabinet. host: a four-part economic plan that the team put together cut
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spending, tariffs, reduced regulations. you write that tax cut regulation and thanksgiving. what did it do to the rights? ryan: the rates had gone through the roof. income tax didn't become law until 1913. later that law wilson put in to file income tax. you had to make almost $100,000 a year to pay it. if you are a rockefeller or someone like that you would pay --. 1920, there was no effort by the wilson administration to cut it at all. that was one of the first things they tackled.
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they were unable to do it. that takes place over the entirety of the 1920's. they could our -- they cut taxes and they cut spending. that way not in one fell sleep. they got a surplus every year in they pay down the national debt because of it. host: his policy, which coolidge continued, what responsibility did they bear for the stock market crash? ryan: that is something a lot of historians saying. harding, coolidge and hoover,
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they lump them all together. harding and coolidge were nothing like hoover. the laissez-faire policy of -- you have to give them from -- you have to give them credit for the crash. no i don't. he was the one who started the first policy, not fdr. who made the taxes 13%. hoover began to spend money to try to fight the depression. this idea that hoover led the economy boil itself out, that is not true. he was a progressive. we got some of our ideas from hoover.
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you have got to give a lot of credit to the federal reserve. in taxes and spending, fdr tripled taxes and spending. what would happen today? a third of the money is out of circulation and we double spend tax. what do you think is going to happen to the economy? it is going to plunge into a depression. on the eve of world war ii they were at 19%. the new deal clearly failed. host: the state department of
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secretary, what did he bring to the table? ryan: he was an excellent choice for secretary of state. he was one of the best secretary of state we have had. very close to defeating woodrow wilson at the end of the year. there is something harding doesn't get credit for and that is foreign policy. his foreign-policy was very good. coming out of world war i, we were the end of world war i. the money the european governments old, he tried to
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resolve those issues. we had -- with mexico, the caribbean. wilson poison all of that. harding repaired our relations with mexico and wrote some letters. she straightened a lot of that out. leaders were happy to see harding. latin american relations. it was called the washington naval conference. it was those things, not naval forces or airpower, between great written in -- in washington dc 1922 and 23. they delete -- they decrease
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those weapons. harding was known twice for the nobel peace prize. he had a lot of accomplishments that most people don't stop to look at. host: it was the burgeoning of the soviet union and you talk about the amounts of famine that were happening in that region of the world. it was a different foreign-policy -- nipping the social media? ryan: i do not know if there's is any way you can know if it had a hand in that or not.
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a lot of people know if we had survived and stayed out of world war i altogether, it would have changed the history of our world. if you check the balance, we save the lives -- if we stayed out of it, we would not have had a nazi germany and world war ii probably. there is a lot that can be said. we spent a lot of food to soviet union to help with that. that is not an aspect of america of foreign policy. host: every high school student
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studies in their history books, the veterans bureau --. let's start with the veterans bureau. what happened in the veterans bureau? ryan: there were wounded people veterans coming back from world war i. we had to take care of a lot of the spending in the budget. in world one -- in world war i we ended up spending $15 billion. -- $3 billion. a lot of that was taking care of veterans.
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they were building a series of veterans hospitals and they were overcharging. they were overcharging the government for supplies. it came to $2 million. according to one new york times reporter, walked in and harding was violently confronting ortega, calling him a doublecross her. host: did he fire him? ryan: yeah. he was fired and forced to go to prison for that. host: what responsibility does harding share?
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ryan: he bears responsibility. a president always bears responsibility for who is in office. you have to say that. host: we point to the attorney general who was indicted in plea the fees. ryan: they say harding's administration was filled with what they called the ohio gang. all of these people from ohio coming in. very few people involved in the scandals were actually from ohio. most of the people he appointed from ohio, most people didn't have anything to do with ohio. the attorney general has been
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calling one of his handlers but that is not true. his wife manned by the name of jesse smith. they were running a scam in the justice department where they were selling -- you could buy a liquor license during the prohibition. you could do things like that. good old-fashioned corruption. jesse smith with the main one involved in that. this is the guy who lived in a house on h street in washington. they also rented another house in kc. that is where all of the demons stayed there. according to secret service, --
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he said we found out all that was going on. she said you're going to be arrested in the morning. you need to get your affairs in order and you are going to be charged for this. that is how the justice department is. dori was never convicted of anything. host: before he died, did harding confront during at all? he needs a bit more explanation. it is probably jogging some memory. ryan: it is probably the coolidge gate scandal. we had that in watergate.
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used exclusively by the navy when we get into a war or some kind of emergency. they needed that in reserve. no one could -- strictly under their control, the navy. harding's interior secretary was a man named albert fall. when he became secretary of -- the national parks and things like that. his thought was it should be under the interior department. at least private or those company oils.
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comparing it to others scandals, she thought it was rinky-dink compared to watergate. some of the scandals we have seen in our history. that was the thing of it. we don't know exactly what was said but that is what he came loose telling. other people on that trip knew the rights for the memoir.
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at least give credit for doing that. i think the reason he asked hoover that question was because he already had two suicides. he was probably thinking if i confront something, who else is going to shoot themselves? how am i going to handle this? we don't know what he was thinking before you put it out there. host: we didn't talk about harding's approach to prohibition. how does he handle liquor in the white house and as president? ryan: harding liked to drink.
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a lot of people knew the provision was going to come to an end. harding wasn't enforcing prohibition much at all. president harding's father -- president kennedy's father made a lot of -- president harding's father made a lot of money making money from the prohibition. harding stopped drinking as president. there were no shenanigans with women. a lot of that kind of stuff has stopped. host: if i have the scorecard right, -- his attorney general
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was indicted in took the visit. why should this not trump all of the good that you suggested he accomplish? ryan: you have to look at it in terms of how president handle these candles. a lot of presidents covered them up. grant had four more scandals in his presence in -- in his presidency than harding did. in most cases, grant would make a remark like, i accept this resignation with great regret. president grant didn't do anything about it. the secretary of the interior was concerned for his position
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by a vote. you have to blame them as well. nobody raised any objection of albert fall. you can blame harding but you also have to blame the senate as well. harding isn't responsible for who he chooses in his cabinet. that is the reason -- able to turn around economically. equal rights for black americans, calling for an anti-lynching law. he said blacks need to have legal rights. -- equal rights. that is a very courageous thing to do. that way he could heal the
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country from the loans of world war i. that trumps what happened with the scandal. we have all these letters of research you did. what was the most surprising thing host: or interesting thing you found out about harding? ryan: one of the interesting things is his personality. the kind of guy he was. i enjoy that part of the book. going to marian and talking to people. this was a man who loved children. who loved animals. he had a dog one time that died and he wrote an obituary.
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he loved animal-rights. that was probably the most enjoyable, that aspect of it. host: in the conclusion of your book, "the jazz age president", you wrote, "the likelihood of the --. why? ryan: i am hoping to bump him up a few notches. some of that stuff is still going to stick to him. more than 90% of liberal progressive persuasion. i am hoping to show hard his is
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a record that should be in -- admired. the book has just come out. a lot of people have read it. a lot of people have wrote me, i didn't know he was a really good president. i will be sure that is coming pretty soon. host: the book is called "the jazz age president", studying warren harding. thank you for bringing your perspective to c-span. ryan: thank you so much. i appreciate it. >> all q&a programs are available on our website or on our podcast at our c-span now
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app. >> c-span is your unfiltered view of government. >> empowering opportunity in communities big and small. charter is connecting us. charter communications support c-span >> historians discuss the results of the fourth historians survey of presidential leadership. we will look at the history and evolution of presidential libraries with the austrian
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journal. join the conversation with your phone calls, comments, and tweets. next, on washington journal. host: good morning. it is monday, february 21. it is president's day in the amended states. on this federal holiday that honors the history of the american presidency, a question about all three branches of government. we want to know if you think the executive, legislative, judicial branches are coequal today when it comes to their power and influence. you can do though -- do so by political party.


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