The term “The Ohio Gang” is misleading. First of all, not all of them were from Ohio.
Warren Harding: A Lackluster Politician
Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1823) was a lackluster fellow. His abilities were moderate, not stellar. His ambition for high achievement was only mediocre. If it required effort, he was happier to decline. His only true gift was friendliness. He was a first-class back-slapper and glad-hander, as natural to him as breathing.
Harding was a successful newspaper publisher – a career he fell into as a young man. With his wife, the former Florence Kling, managing the circulation department of the Marion Star, he was free to pursue politics. Since the local newspaper publisher is always a popular speaker at civic organizations, Harding was happy accept the invitations to “bloviate” as he called it. He “bloviated” himself into the State Legislature for a couple of terms, followed by a stint as Ohio’s Lt. Governor.
When Harding was about thirty-five, he became acquainted with Harry M. Daugherty, an Ohio politician and political boss. Daugherty was immediately taken with Harding’s personal charm, and his strong, handsome features, believing him to be a man “who looked like a president.”
Harry Daugherty: Ohio Political Boss
Harry M. Daugherty (1860-1941) was a lawyer and politician. He became a political boss, not in the sense of “Boss” Tweed or Tom Platt, or even Mark Hanna, the serious bigshots who called the big shots in various locations across the country after the Civil War. Daugherty was a mediocre politician, and one of those hangers-on who populate every county courthouse in the country, making his living and reputation from “those he knew.” He had a decidedly strong inclination toward the shady side of the street. He was indicted and tried more than once for possible malfeasance – but was never convicted. The taints of those activities would always follow him, and even today, his name is associated with slimy dealings.
While Daugherty and Harding were never buddy-buddy close friends, they became solid political allies, espousing the traditional early 20th century Republican platitudes of country, flag, motherhood and apple pie. When the constitutional amendment was passed to elect US Senators by popular vote (rather than by state legislatures) in 1913, Harding won easily, especially since he had “bloviated” himself around Ohio, and was delighted to use his growing local influence to assist the higher-ups. Now he would be a higher-up himself. Daugherty stayed close, keeping the new Senator apprised of the players and the politics.
When Harding was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, Daughterty, the orchestrator of the “smoke filled room,” was relentless in promoting the good-looking Harding, who looked like a matinee idol.
Jess Smith: Ohio Hanger-On
Jess Smith was a young orphan at loose ends when he was “discovered” and mentored by Harry Daugherty, about a dozen years his senior. Smith had little to offer intellectually or even personally, but his loyalty to Daugherty was tantamount to idol-worship, and he was happy to do whatever “odd-jobs” Daugherty asked of him.
Daugherty and Smith were regulars at the poker games that Harding would host at his house in Marion, Ohio, where liquor and cigars and fellowship – and politics – were the mainstays of a good time. These poker games continued for decades, even during Prohibition. With the unpopular banning of spirits during the 1920s, the bootleggers had a field day, providing liquor “for medicinal purposes” to an “ailing” public who could pay for it. Jess Smith was the go-to man in the bootlegging business.
Non-Ohioans in “The Gang”
In Washington, Warren Harding continued the card games with his old Ohio pals, and a few new ones. Senator Albert Fall was from New Mexico; Congressman Edwin Denby was from Michigan; Charlie Forbes was from all over the place. They had all become acquainted with Harding early in his career, and grew closer while he was Senator. The so-called “Ohio Gang” was not a “gang” per se, with leadership and agendas. It was a collection of opportunists who clung to a potentially important person who happened to be their long-time good pal.
Once Warren Harding was elected President (and by a large margin!), the “gang” was in in line for cabinet posts. Daugherty the lawyer, sleazy though he may have been, was named Attorney General. Albert Fall, became Secretary of the Interior; Denby was Secretary of the Navy, and both of them would finagle public oil reserves into private hands in what would become known as the Teapot Dome scandal. Jess Smith, qualified for practically nothing, was not considered for any official post, but in a sense became the “influence peddler.” None of them were particularly loyal to their President-pal. They were in it for the money.
Daugherty and Smith maintained a “little green house” in Washington where the poker games and politicking (and bootlegging issues) were held regularly. Sometimes the “gang” met upstairs in the White House, where, despite the “dry downstairs,” the liquor continued to flow.
Mr. & Mrs. Harding: Gang Members?
Warren Harding and his wife were a mismatched couple in temperament, but the one thing they had in common was a passion for politics. He, of course, was the potential candidate for whatever office was available. She, on the other hand, was considered a behind-the-scenes power. Daugherty knew and respected her early on, and the other “old pals” would figure it out soon enough. Florence Harding was thrilled to be included in their poker games (although she did not drink or usually play cards). She was delighted to be called by her nickname “Duchess,” and considered one of the boys.
But while First Couple palled around at the card games and such, neither of them were included in any of the schemes that were hatched at the little green house. When they learned that some of their dearest friends were lining their pockets with the public’s money “on Harding’s watch,” it broke their hearts.
Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times – McGraw Hill, 1968
Sinclair, Andrew – The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding – The Macmillan Co., 1965