Krenzel's Reviews > The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country

The Teapot Dome Scandal by Laton McCartney
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Jan 07, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: history
Read in March, 2009

One of the first signs you see when you enter Marion, Ohio points you to the Harding Memorial to learn about the city’s famous son, Warren Harding. I’m not sure when I started to like history, but it might have started with my visit as a child to Harding’s home. The major theme of the tour was to show what life was like back in the 1920s. Of course, nothing at the house tells you about the Teapot Dome scandal, and all I ever learned about the scandal was a one paragraph discussion in my high school textbook. So I thought I would learn more about Marion’s favorite son, Warren Harding, by reading "The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country." Unfortunately, like my high school textbook, "The Teapot Dome Scandal," by Laton McCartney, gives some facts about the scandal, but falls short of telling the story.

As far as President Harding himself goes, the book treats him as a minor character, and his story is never really told. He is a dark horse candidate for the presidency, a little known senator from Ohio, who is cast as a reluctant candidate, more interested in playing golf and having fun with his mistresses than dealing with some oil fields in Wyoming and California. Beyond this, his character is never explored. While we are told the frontrunner at the 1920 Republican convention refuses to go along the oil cronies and insists on naming his own candidate, leading to his downfall, we never discover what Harding knew about the promises made to certain campaign donors which secured his candidacy. When the scandal starts to take off, and the Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, submits a report to the Senate explaining the oil field leases, McCartney teases us with a glimpse of possible analysis, posing the question of whether the president actually read the report. Unfortunately, in his next sentence, McCartney concludes it wouldn’t have even mattered if Harding had read the report or not, passing up a key opportunity to probe Harding’s character. Harding’s death is similarly dealt with in breakneck fashion. On page 150 of the book, Harding is alive and well, about to embark on a cruise to Alaska. On the top of page 151, we discover Harding doesn’t want to pursue a second term, and by the end of p. 151, Harding is dead. Two sentences describe his death, and then Harding disappears for the rest of the book. The flaws in his character – cowardice, indifference, or lack of ethics? - are never fleshed out, and then he is dead before we ever learn who President Harding really was.

More attention is paid to the book’s main characters, Interior Secretary Albert Fall, who receives the bribes in exchange for leasing the oil fields to two big oil men, Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny. While the specific terms of the deals are laid out in great detail, at the end, there is little attention paid to the outcomes of these men. Fall is convicted of taking a bribe, but curiously both oilmen are exonerated of offering him this same bribe, drawing the obvious implication of how the wealthy are treated in our criminal justice question. While both oilmen are billionaires, using their money to buy their freedom, the destitute Fall is the one who must pay for their crimes. In fact, the biggest scandal of all may not have been what the oilmen did to secure the leases, but the fact that they were never brought to justice, a question McCartney never delves into in his book.

In the end, "Teapot Dome" tells the facts of the scandal, but never goes beyond the gossip to provide an in-depth understanding of what happened during the Harding administration and the relevance of this scandal to us now. For example, what does it say about our system of government in America that something like this was allowed to happen? What does it say about the American people that, after Harding’s death, they heaved a collective sign of indifference and voted to keep his administration intact, re-electing his vice president in a landslide? What does it say about us today that we as a country elected a modern-day Warren Harding, who followed the same practice of appointing cronies and giving no-bid contracts to the administration’s friends? If we should learn from history not to repeat the same mistakes, what are the lessons about Teapot Dome we should carry forward today? The most interesting aspect of the Teapot Dome scandal comes from its parallels to the George Bush administration, yet McCartney misses a great opportunity to connect the dots and not just recount a sordid part of America's past but give an important history lesson about the ramifications of corruption in government.
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