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Harding’s in a Teapot

March 30, 2013

Hello again loyal readers!  I hope you all have either: 1) correctly picked all the lower seeds for your bracket; 2) selected the Shockers and the Eagles in your office stock pool (a decision at first questioned by the pool operators but now makes you look like a freaking genius!); or 3) stayed far far away from the March Madness and instead have safely ensconced yourself in the rarified air of spring training baseball stats in preparation for the most glorious day of the year!  My better half tends to pick her bracket by mascot, and last year she had the Shockers winning it all (“I thought they were lightning.  Bears are pretty fierce but lightning will kill them all.”).  And then decided not to do one this year.  Alas.

You know what’s one thing people don’t ever say, “I wish I knew more about”?  President Harding.  I’m actually going to go the other way and say he might be one of the more forgotten presidents we’ve ever had.  When’s the last time someone said, “Hey, I was just thinking about President Harding”?  Even when the hot topic was which president the Nats would select to join the Presidents Race I’m pretty confident Harding was never part of the conversation.  Side note: Taft?  Really?  Are we trying to get him in post-mortem shape?  End side note.  Well fear no more – your unknown, unspoken, and unmentionable desire to learn about President Harding is about to be fulfilled.  You. Are. Welcome.

At the beginning of this month, I read about the potential sale by the Department of Energy of the Teapot Dome oil site near Midwest, Wyoming.  Apparently, the oil field is in a bit of financial difficulties due to budget cuts and pretty low profits from the oil production.  I did not know this, but the site is used to test new oil extraction techniques, including hydraulic fracturing, hosting both the Naval Petroleum No. 3 and the Department of Energy’s Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center. Even with the testing, apparently the profits from the oil field are not enough to justify it staying in the federal government’s control.  Annual profits are about $500,000.

And if you’re thinking, how in the heck does the potential sale of a Wyoming oil field have anything to do with President Harding, well, the clue is in the name of the oil field.   Journey back to the dusty recesses of high school American History (sorry about the weird school smell, I think it’s something about the lockers) and the forgotten Harding Administration.  In an older history book I picked up a few years ago in a second-hand store (hey – I’m not judging you!), this is how Harding is described:  “Nothing seemed more clearly to illustrate the unadventurous character of 1920s politics than the characters of the two men who served as president during most of the decade: Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.  Harding was elected to the presidency in 1920, having spent many years in public life doing little of note.  An undistinguished senator from Ohio, he had received the Republican presidential nomination as a result of an agreement among leaders of his party, who considered him, as one noted, a ‘good second-rater.’”  Ouch.

It gets worse. “But even as he attempted to rise to his office, he seemed baffled by his responsibilities, as if he recognized his own unfitness. ‘I am a man of limited talents from a small town,’ he reportedly told friends on one occasion.  ‘I don’t seem to grasp that I am President.’”  Well then.  But such an inspirational figure (insert sarcastises) surely can’t achieve the Presidency without some powerful backers (the history book calls them “party hacks”, just for context).  And what better way to reward your backers than with Cabinet appointments?  We should all be so lucky.

One of these folks, New Mexico senator Albert B. Fall, was rewarded with an appointment to be Secretary of the Interior.  It was Secretary Fall that urged President Harding to transfer control of the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills, California oil fields (and their rich naval oil reserves) from the Navy to Interior.  Secretary Fall then leased the reserves, secretly, to two wealthy businessmen (one from Mammoth Oil Company and one from American Petroleum Company) in exchange for a $400,000 “loan” for his own personal use.  Pretty sweet deal, until his dramatic improvement in his standard of living clued folks into his illegal dealings (come on people!  Be smarter than that!).  Fall was tried and convicted of bribery, ultimately spending a year in prison.  President Harding was not around to see the fall of Fall though, he died in San Francisco in 1923 of a heart attack (he was wrongly diagnosed with food poisoning).

So that’s the reason the Teapot Dome oil field may have a spot in your memory bank.  And if any of this reminds you of similarly-underwhelming Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and the purging of U.S. Attorneys, totally a coincidence!  Maybe if there had been oil and money . . . .

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