Harding is remembered mainly for the Teapot Dome scandal (the most notable of several examples of corruption during his presidency) and for having died halfway through his only term in office. Those who dig a little learn as well about the alcohol-fueled, twice-a-week poker games in the White House involving Harding and members of his Cabinet -- dubbed the “poker Cabinet” -- and others of the infamous “Ohio Gang” of Harding cronies responsible for many of the administration’s improprieties.
Probably the most often-told poker story having to do with Harding has to do with him allegedly losing a set of White House china in a poker game, with a woman named Louise Brooks -- soon to become Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s first wife -- being the one to win it. Apparently the china dated from the adminstration of Benjamin Harrison, president from 1889-93.
Was reading around a little about Harding this week when I stumbled on a poker-related story involving him and one member of his Cabinet who was not terribly enthused about all the card playing, Herbert Hoover. Hoover was Harding’s Secretary of Commerce and six years after Harding’s death would become president himself, serving one term from 1929-1933.
In fact, when looking at the list of U.S. presidents from Theodore Roosevelt through Richard Nixon, almost all of them were poker players. Woodrow Wilson apparently did not play, and John F. Kennedy preferred bridge. But TR, Taft, Harding, Calvin Coolidge, FDR, Truman, Ike, LBJ, and Tricky Dick were all card players, thus making Hoover a bit of an outlier.
The story I found was one describing Hoover and another Cabinet member being invited to the White House for dinner, then upon their arrival discovering a marathon poker game in progress. “I had lived too long on the frontiers of the world to have strong emotions against people playing poker for money if they liked it,” Hoover wrote in his memoirs, “but it irked me to see it in the White House.”
Hoover chose not to play that night, and apparently he wasn’t invited back again to any of Harding’s dinners-slash-poker games. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hoover would be one of the few to survive Harding’s adminstration not having been destroyed politically by its scandals.
While the historical fact of presidents playing poker is often highlighted as a point in the game’s favor, making it more legitimate to those who might object to it on moral grounds, the example of Harding -- like Nixon -- usually isn’t brought up by those making such arguments.