Before looking at Hoover’s accomplishments as Secretary Of Commerce here are some details about the two Presidents he served under during that eight year period, 1921 to 1928.
Harding’s Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, the 1916 presidential candidate, was one of the ablest of his choices. Herbert Hoover, who had earned an international reputation for his work in feeding the starving millions of Western Europe after World War I, transformed the Department of Commerce into an efficient and effective support agency for business at home and abroad. Both of these cabinet members stayed on in the Coolidge administration.
Along with these two distinguished men, Harding also surrounded himself with an unpleasant group of dishonest cheats known as “the Ohio gang.” Many of them were later charged with defrauding the government, and a few of them went to jail. Harding clearly knew of their limitations, but he liked to play poker with them, drink whiskey, smoke, tell jokes, play golf, and keep late hours. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, once described the scene that she encountered at one of Harding’s card games: “the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey, cards and poker chips ready at hand — a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and spittoons alongside.” Harding once gambled away the entire White House china set in a card game.
His close friend and political manager, Harry Daugherty, whom he named Attorney General, was one of the worst — and one of the slickest. He survived impeachment attempts by Congress and two indictments for defrauding the government in the disposal of alien property confiscated by his office from German nationals. The most infamous scandal of the time was the Teapot Dome Affair, which shook the nation for years after Harding’s death. The scandal involved the interior Albert B. Fall, who was convicted of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates. In 1931, Fall became the first member of a Presidential Cabinet to be sent to prison. Thomas W. Miller, head of the head of the Office of Alien Property, was convicted of accepting bribes. Jess Smith, personal aide to the Attorney General, destroyed papers and then committed suicide. Charles Forbes, Director of the Veteran’s Bureau, skimmed profits, earned large amounts of kickbacks, and directed underground alcohol and drug distribution. He was convicted of fraud and bribery and drew a two-year sentence. Charles Cramer, an aide to Charles Forbes, committed suicide.
Harding backed away from granting a general amnesty to the hundreds of Americans jailed for nonviolent antiwar protests during the Wilson years, but he did instruct the Justice Department to review each arrest on a case-by-case basis. Among those pardoned was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist leader and five-time presidential candidate, who was serving a ten-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Debs had won over ninety thousand votes from his prison cell in the 1920 election. As a condition for the pardon, Harding insisted that Debs come to the White House after being released from jail so the two men could meet.
No evidence to date suggests that Harding personally profited from these crimes, but he was apparently unable to stop them. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” Harding told journalist William Allen White late in his presidency, “but my damn friends, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!”
Looking wan and depressed, Harding journeyed westward in the summer of 1923, taking with him his upright Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. “If you knew of a great scandal in our administration,” he asked Hoover, “would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?” Hoover said” publish it and at least get integrity on your side”. Harding feared the political repercussions. He did not live to find out how the public would react to the scandals of his administration.In August of 1923 he died of a heart attack in San Francisco.