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A Time of Scandal

, 408 pages

19 halftones

November 2016



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A Time of Scandal

Charles R. Forbes, Warren G. Harding, and the Making of the Veterans Bureau



In the early 1920s, with the nation still recovering from World War I, President Warren G. Harding founded a huge new organization to treat disabled veterans: the US Veterans Bureau, now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs. He appointed his friend, decorated veteran Colonel Charles R. Forbes, as founding director. Forbes lasted in the position for only eighteen months before stepping down under a cloud of criticism and suspicion. In 1926—after being convicted of conspiracy to defraud the federal government by rigging government contracts—he was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary. Although he was known in his day as a drunken womanizer, and as a corrupt, betraying toady of a weak, blind-sided president, the question persists: was Forbes a criminal or a scapegoat?

Historian Rosemary Stevens tells Forbes’s story anew, drawing on previously untapped records to reveal his role in America’s initial and ongoing commitment to veterans. She explores how Forbes’s rise and fall in Washington illuminates President Harding’s efforts to bring business efficiency to government. She also examines the Veterans Bureau scandal in the context of class, professionalism, ethics, and etiquette in a rapidly changing world. Most significantly, Stevens proposes a fascinating revisionist view of both Forbes and Harding—and raises questions about not only the validity but the source of their respective reputations. They did not defraud the government of billions of dollars, Stevens convincingly documents, and do not deserve the reputation they have carried for a hundred years.

Packed with vibrant characters—conniving friends, FBI agents, and rival politicians split by sectional and ideological interests as well as gamblers, revelers, and wronged wives— A Time of Scandal will appeal to anyone interested in political gossip, presidential politics, the "Ohio Gang," and the 1920s.

Rosemary Stevens is professor emeritus of the history and sociology and science at the University of Pennsylvania and the De Witt Wallace Distinguished Scholar in Social Medicine and Public Policy at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is the author of In Sickness and in Wealth: American Hospitals in the Twentieth Century and The Public-Private Health Care State: Essays on the History of American Health Care Policy.

"[A] nuanced and well-documented exploration of the controversies around the early Veterans Bureau. … A Time of Scandal is a multifaceted and strong account of an interesting time."

"Her colorful narrative makes a convincing case for Forbes' rehabilitation and, in light of other recent revisionist histories, a full reconsideration of an allegedly corrupt president and administration. An engaging argument for justice for a flawed but perhaps wrongfully disgraced civil servant."

"Stevens offers a richly detailed account that portrays Forbes and Harding more favorably than most previous historians. Although aimed at scholars, general readers will be fascinated by the courtroom scenes and Forbes's rehabilitation during his two- year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary."

"A splendid (and highly revisionist) book. A Time of Scandal, written with verve and intelligence by a major player in the history of American medicine and public health, is a fresh, convincing look at Warren Harding's presidency and Charles Forbes's tenure at the Veterans Bureau."

"Soundly researched and superbly written, this intriguing and important book will appeal to a broad audience. Weaving together the biography of Charles R. Forbes with the tumultuous early years of the Veterans Bureau and its place in the 'Harding scandals,' the author presents a rich historical account that features hubris, deception, vindictiveness, and an interconnected series of cascading events."

"Sometimes the best story is the back story—what really happened behind the scenes. Rosemary Stevens reveals the truth behind one of the most colorful scandals in American political history in this incisive and gracefully written work. A tour de force of historical research and insight."

"Equal parts detective, biographer, and keen historical analyst, Rosemary Stevens delves into one of America’s most infamous political scandals with stunning results. Cutting through the mist of intrigue and rumor, she offers a compelling portrait of President Warren Harding and his Veterans’ Bureau chief, Charles Forbes, and in the process forever alters our narrative of high politics in the Roaring Twenties."

"This is a wonderfully researched and beautifully written examination of a key player—heretofore largely overlooked—who was deeply involved when things went amiss during the Harding presidency, and the book shines fresh light into a few dark corners of history that are worth reexamining."

"Professor Rosemary Stevens has produced what is certainly the definitive work on Forbes in A Time of Scandal."


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