When journalists talk of coverups, the former president to whom they most often compare Bill Clinton these days is Richard Nixon. When the discussion turns to Mr. Clinton and adulterous sex, John F. Kennedy's name also emerges. But the comparison that is perhaps most apt, on grounds of both sex and scandal, is not being made: Bill Clinton and Warren G. Harding, who is often considered to be (with competition from U.S. Grant) the worst president in American history.
Important differences make the parallel unobvious. Mr. Harding only served 29 months of one term before dying of a stroke 75 years ago, on August 2, 1923; Mr. Clinton is a two-termer. The former had a well-placed lack of intellectual self-confidence; the latter is very bright. Mr. Harding did not pursue the presidency but was nominated by a deadlocked convention; Mr. Clinton seems to have pursued the Oval Office his entire life.
But there are also many similarities, starting with those at the surface: Warren G. Harding looked presidential, and our current president is tall, as was King Saul. Most Washington reporters liked Mr. Harding and protected him, as was largely the case with Mr. Clinton from 1993 through 1997. They also gossiped about bossiness by Mrs. Harding, nicknamed "Duchess," who had a reputation similar to that of Hillary Clinton now. (The hen-pecked husband was quoted as complaining, "Mrs. Harding wants to be the drum major in every band that passes.")
Financial scandals are also parallel. Three Harding cabinet members ended up disgraced: Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall went to jail for his role in the "Teapot Dome" conspiracy to defraud the government. Several of President Clinton's cabinet members, including Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, are subjects of investigations. The Republican National Committee engaged in campaign-finance fraud in 1920, as did the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996.
Sexual intrigues past and present have commandeered the most headlines, with eerie similarities between Bill Clinton's pre-presidential affair with Gennifer Flowers and Mr. Harding's with Carrie Phillips. There's also been much talk of the two men in their 50s involved with two women, Nan Britton and Monica Lewinsky, in their 20s. Now the main site of adultery is said to be a private study off the Oval Office; then it was a coat closet connected to the Oval Office by a "secret passage."
Vince Foster's suicide raised suspicions; so did suicides of not one but two Harding associates in 1923. One, Charles Cramer, shot himself in the bathroom of the home Mr. Harding had lived in before moving to the White House. Mr. Cramer had spent several hours at his desk writing letters, including one to the president. A woman next door heard the shot and rushed in; she saw her neighbor sprawled out on the floor, saw the letters on his desk, and went for help. When she returned later that day, the letters had disappeared. Two months later, another administration insider, Jess Smith, apparently shot himself after burning many papers in a metal wastebasket in his room. Rumors of foul play bounced around Washington.
But President Harding's sudden death 75 years ago makes for an important distinction: The scandals that ruined his reputation did not become public during his lifetime. In 1923 he apparently wanted to come clean and asked his honest Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, "If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?" Hoover responded, "Publish it, and at least get credit for integrity on your side." Mr. Harding ran out of time.
I continue to pray (see WORLD, March 28) that, if the reports of adultery are true, President Clinton will have the grace to do better than his predecessor. I suggested then that he make a public confession and use whatever remains of his time in office to help unborn children and try to make up for other harm he has done. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, in the May/June issue of his magazine Prism, did me one better: Mr. Sider suggested that if the evidence does show Mr. Clinton to have committed adultery, he should confess, resign his office, and pledge to spend the rest of his life first restoring his own marriage and then working to restore marital integrity in the culture generally.
Mr. Sider notes that people would scoff at first, but over a couple of decades, if God were to shed his grace on the Clintons, their restored marriage and vigorous efforts to influence the culture would prove their sincerity and, more important, help many others. That's not bad, not bad at all-and it's far better than the Harding alternative.