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I have looked for the context of this quote, but have only found it in articles where it is used to support the author's point that Harding was just generally a terrible president.

When did Harding make the remark, "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”? The fact that he says "This office" and "here" and the fact that he died in office suggest that this statement was made while he was president. But it feels very out of place, especially given the modern standard held by most presidents, where they and their aides would rather be caught dead than undermine the credibility of the president. Why would he say this?

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    It's too late at night to write a proper answer, but it was in an interview with the historian Nicholas Murray Butler, and recounted in Across the busy years : recollections and reflections, Volume 1, where you will also find the context. – sempaiscuba Mar 24 at 4:49
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    Wikepedia cites, "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here. Quoted in Nicholas Murray Butler (1939) Across the Busy Years vol. 1." Is there something wrong with that citation? – Mark C. Wallace Mar 24 at 11:41
  • @MarkC.Wallace: Have you heard of the Cretan Liar? – Mozibur Ullah Mar 24 at 11:51
36

The comment was made in a private meeting with the historian Nicholas Murray Butler. Butler recounted the anecdote, and the context in which it was made in his book Across the busy years: recollections and reflections, Volume 1, published in 1935 (more than a decade after Warren Harding's death).


Butler prefaced the story with some opinions about Harding's character:

Harding was one of the kindest men who ever lived, but he was without any serious qualifications for the Presidency. He had a good mind, but made little use of it. He had no wide or accurate knowledge of public questions or of the foundations in history, economics and public law on which those questions rest. He was good-natured, lazy and weak when pressure was put on him by a stronger will than his own, which happened to be that of a friend. He would not have consciously done a wrong act in his great office but he had neither the intellect nor the character to prevent himself from being made use of for unworthy purposes by unworthy men who loudly professed their personal and political friendship.

He then went on to recount an example where he remembered:

... coming into the White House offices about six o'clock in the evening and being urged by Mr. Christian, the President's secretary, to persuade the President to go to the White House and rest before dinner. Christian added that the President was very tired and was at that moment sitting before a huge pile of letters in his private office.

Butler recalled that he went to President Harding and found him

... precisely as his secretary described, but with a look of extreme dejection on his face. In reply to my urging that he come over to the White House and lie down before dinner, he said with a weary groan that he must go through this pile of letters which he had not as yet found time to examine. Having known the way in which McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt did business in that office I said to Harding, "Do you mind my looking at some of them?" He replied, "No, look at any of them you please." Taking the first two or three letters off the top of the pile which must have contained not fewer than one hundred, I glanced at them hastily and said, "Oh, come on, Mr. President, this is ridiculous. Even in my office they do not burden me with reading or answering letters like these." I shall never forget Harding's answer, for while it was very pathetic, it did him great credit. These were his words: "I suppose so, but I am not fit for this office and should never have been here." Other Presidents might truthfully have said the same thing, but it may be doubted whether any of them has been or will be frank enough to make the confession which broke from poor Harding's lips that evening.

  • Nicholas Murray Butler - Across the busy years: recollections and reflections, Volume 1. pp410-411 (my emphasis)

Of course, the line has been taken (generally without context, and often without citation) by those who wish to portray Harding as "the worst ever American President" to prove their point by using Harding's own words to convict him. In context, however, the admission, and Butler's following remark, make the claim far less damning.


The exact date of the meeting is not made explicit in Butler's book. The preceding letter quoted in the book dated to 1921, while the anecdote that follows dates to 1923 (Harding's Presidency lasted from 4 March 1921 to 2 August 1923). So the best we can say is that the meeting did indeed occur while Harding was in office, but we cannot narrow the date down further.

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    This was back in an era when party presidential nominees were decided upon by party nominating convention attendees, not anything resembling a popular vote. So it was quite possible (if not common) for a nominee to find the duty unwillingly foisted upon them. – T.E.D. Mar 24 at 14:45
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    @T.E.D. Indeed. And also why Harding would have been more willing to express his concerns about his own shortcomings to a friend than a modern incumbent President might be. – sempaiscuba Mar 24 at 15:01
  • What is the significance of Having known the way in which McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt did business ...? Is this because they did not read all of their letters, or did they find them easy to go through? – popctrl Mar 25 at 13:43
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    @popctrl Butler was telling the reader that he was comparing Harding's method of working with other Presidents that he had known. I'd assume the contrast here was that they knew how to delegate the less-important jobs to others (as he did himself). – sempaiscuba Mar 25 at 13:50

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