For the last few years, I’ve had a curiosity about Warren Harding. While he was an unexceptional president, he apparently lived a very…shall we say…interesting social life. He also presided over the Teapot Dome Scandal, probably the biggest political scandal until Watergate, and his death was shrouded in mystery. When I read that James Ellroy once considered writing a fictional DC quartet with this book as a guide…well I had to get my hands on it.
Holy crap was this bad.
It’s tough to tell really what makes it so bad: the subject or the writer. Harding may have lived an interesting life on the side with the way he shuffled his mistresses around but as far as a man and a politician, he was rather boring. He didn’t want the Presidency, it was foisted upon him by time and circumstance. And once in it, he didn’t do much until he died in office. Apparently, he had a deep seated fear of failure and was ridden with anxiety (hey, that’s relatable). But his life and death, even as he ascended to the highest office in the land, doesn’t merit 663 pages.
It might have merited something less in the hands of a capable writer. Francis Russell is not that person. Ostensibly, this is a rehab of Harding’s image at the time of his centennial. However, Russell doesn’t really get why that’s necessary, either in the context of the 20s or of 60s politics (the book was published in the 1960s). This book is painfully overwritten, saddled with irrelevant or tangential facts and name drops, and having no cohesive narrative whatsoever.
But this may not have been Russell’s fault. Harding just wasn’t that interesting. He was a tool of nefarious political forces who allowed the presidency to be a stalking horse for some of the worst people to hold higher office. He cheated on his wife, denied his love child’s existence, and then died. People needed to gin up controversy around his death just to make him sound more exciting.
It would have been nice to see the Demon Dog of Crime Fiction tackle this. I’m sure Ellroy could have made chicken salad out of this chicken crap. But YOU should avoid this book like a hornet’s nest. Gets an extra star for adding some historical clarity. Other than that, give it a pass.