Warren G. Harding served in the Ohio state legislature and as Ohio lieutenant governor before running, unsuccessfully, for governor. In 1914, he was elected to the United States Senate. It was the first election in which women could vote, and Harding proved to be very popular with the newly enfranchised female voters.
During his single term in the Senate, Harding’s name did not appear on a single major piece of legislation. Still, he was very popular with his colleagues. Harding enjoyed the camaraderie of the Senate, often called the most exclusive club in the world. He especially enjoyed the late night poker games with his fellow Senators. He served as the chairman of the Committee on the Philippines for two years.
In 1920, the Republican presidential convention deadlocked among several major candidates. As a compromise candidate, the Republicans turned to the popular but manageable Harding. Harding was popular with all factions and considered an extremely loyal party member. He was also considered easily controlled by the party bosses. He won the presidential election by a large majority. His term was probably the most corrupt in our history, and as the Senate voted to begin an investigation, Harding died suddenly on August 2, 1923.
Harding was followed by several Presidents who had never served in Cognress. Calvin Coolidge had served in his state legislature, as well as terms as lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts, but had never served in Congress.
Herbert Hoover, who served as Secretary of Commerce in two administrations, also never served in Congress.
Franklin Roosevelt, one of our greatest Presidents, also never served in Congress. He had served in the New York legislature and as governor of New York prior to becoming President.
Upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman became President. After serving in local offices, Harry Truman was elected to the Senate from Missouri in 1934, and barely re-elected in 1940. He served from January 3, 1935 until his resignation on January 17, 1945. Truman had been elected with the help of a corrupt political boss named Tom Pendergast. Although Truman was completely honest, it took a while for others to notice. He was called the Senator from Pendergast and not taken seriously at first.
In 1940, Pendergast was convicted of income tax evasion and sent to prison. His entire political organization fell apart and Truman, running for a second term in the Senate, was left with a difficult primary challenge from Lloyd Stark, the governor of Missouri. Few people thought Truman could win. But Truman had the support of labor and a number of his Senate colleagues came to Missouri to campaign for him. Truman surprised the political world by winning a narrow primary victory, and an easy victory in the general election in his race for another term in the Senate.
At the start of his second term, America was gearing up the military in the face of growing tension as a result of World War II, which America had managed to avoid entering. Truman took the initiative against waste in military spending. The Senate formed the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program and named Truman the chairman. It came to be called the Truman Committee. After Pearl Harbor brought America into the war, the committee became even more important, and its work was a great help in the conduct of the war. In 1944, Washington newsmen conducted a poll and rated Truman second only to President Roosevelt in his contribution to the war effort. Truman was the only member of Congress in the top ten people in the poll.
In 1944, President Roosevelt selected Truman to be his Vice Presidential candidate. They won an easy victory. But Truman only served as Vice President for three months before Roosevelt’s death. Again as in his Senate days, people underestimated Truman. He was given absolutely no hope of winning election to a full term in 1948. In a close election that surprised everyone except Truman himself, Truman was elected to a full term of his own. In his eventful term, he developed the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine and the policy of “containment” of communism. He is today considered one of the greatest of American Presidents.
In the period from 1920 to 1953, few of the Presidents had any congressional experience. Those who did had little experience and, with the exception of Truman, the best Presidents had no congressional experience at all. Again, it seems that character more than experience makes the President what he is.