Warren G Harding
Warren Gamaliel Harding was always considered the worst of all the American presidents. In a 1948 poll of historians conducted by Harvard’s Arthur M Schlesinger, Harding ranked last among the 29 presidents considered. That was before Trump came along. Harding had a great deal less scope to do harm than Trump has – nuclear weapons were not operational in the 1920s (although Ernest Rutherford was at the time fiddling with atoms at my alma mater the University of Manchester). Harding was the 29th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1921 until his death in 1923.
As with Trump, it was a surprise when Harding achieved the highest office in the land. He started out as a newspaperman but had a great deal more political experience than Trump. One of his backers said that his biggest asset was that he looked like a president. The press considered his wife Florence, known as “The Duchess”, as the power behind him. She was born Florence Mabel Kling (I am reminded that when James Joyce’s father learnt that his son had taken up with Nora Barnacle, he remarked “she’ll stick to him anyway”). One cartoonist depicted the couple as “the Chief Executive and Mr Harding”.
Not Quite the Helpless Idiot
In his 1968 biography of Harding, The Available Man, Andrew Sinclair wrote: “He started with nothing, and through working, stalling, bluffing, withholding payments, borrowing back wages, boasting, and manipulating, he turned a dying rag into a powerful small-town newspaper. Much of his success had to do with his good looks, affability, enthusiasm, and persistence, but he was also lucky. As Machiavelli once pointed out, cleverness will take a man far, but he cannot do without good fortune.” Harding’s sudden death shocked America and he was deeply mourned. He was called a man of peace in many European newspapers. In his review of Sinclair’s biography, political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote: “Sinclair’s main point is that Harding could not have been quite the helpless idiot we take him for, and I think he argues it with some success.” It was only after his death that the full extent of the scandals emerged. We know about Trump’s scandals while he still breathes.
Another Accidental President
In 1899, Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate. He began his senate term as a political unknown; he ended them one of the most popular figures in the Ohio Republican Party. He always appeared calm and displayed humility (unlike Trump), characteristics that endeared him to fellow Republicans even as he passed them in his political rise. After four years, he successfully ran for lieutenant governor. He was defeated in the gubernatorial election in 1910, but was elected to the US Senate in 1914. As a senator, he was respected by both Republicans and Progressives. Harding ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, but he was considered to have small chance of success. Following deadlock when none of the leading candidates could achieve a majority, party professionals meeting in a “smoke-filled room” in a local hotel engineered the nomination of Harding on the tenth ballot.
For most of the presidential campaign he stayed in Marion, Ohio. Nevertheless, he won a landslide victory and became the first sitting senator to be elected president. For the first time in American history, election results were made available to the public by radio. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920, women voted in a federal election for the first time. Unlike Trump, Harding won a convincing majority of the popular vote – 60.3%.
Former Treasury Secretary William G McAdoo described a typical Harding speech as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and over work.” HL Mencken wrote, “it reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm … of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is balder and dash.”
Making America Normal
During his campaign, Harding added a new word to the English language – normalcy. Like Trump, he promised to return America to a better time. “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
Unfortunately, that kind of tranquillity is not what the Harding administration is remembered for. He drastically cut immigration and appointed his cronies to cabinet positions. Just as we see Obama’s legacy being dismantled today, Harding brought to an end the reform era of Roosevelt and Wilson. Unlike Trump, Harding seemed aware of his deficiencies. “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”.
Harding appointed a number of friends and acquaintances to federal positions and many of this “Ohio Gang” proved to be corrupt. Teapot Dome was an oil reserve in Wyoming which was one of three set aside for the use of the Navy in the event of a national emergency. The Interior Department announced in July 1921 that Edward Doheny had been awarded a lease to drill along the edges of naval reserve Elk Hills in California. Wyoming Senator John Kendrick had heard from constituents that Teapot Dome had also been leased, but no announcement had been made. The Interior Department refused to provide documentation, so Kendrick secured the passage of a Senate resolution compelling disclosure. The department declared that there had been no competitive bidding because military preparedness was involved and Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company was to build oil tanks for the Navy as part of the deal. Some conservationists, pushed for a full investigation into Interior Secretary Albert Fall and his activities. Hearings into Teapot Dome began in October 1923, after Harding’s death. Investigators found that Fall and a relative had received a total of about $400,000 from Doheny and Sinclair. Fall was convicted in 1929 for accepting bribes and, in 1931, the first US cabinet member to be imprisoned for crimes committed while in office.
Harding’s Sex Life
Harding’s first affair, after he had been married to Florence for three years, was with Florence’s best friend from childhood and resulted in the birth of a daughter. He also had an extramarital affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips of Marion, another close friend of Florence, which lasted about fifteen years until 1920. A cache of 106 letters written to her by Harding was discovered in 1964. The president referred to his penis as “Jerry”. “Wish I could take you to Mount Jerry. Wonderful spot. Not in the geographies but a heavenly place, and I have seen some passing views there and revelled in them. Gee! How I wish you might be along. You could be such a dandy companion”. He referred to her private parts as Mrs Pouterson.
A third mistress was his Senate aide, Grace Cross, who went around Washington talking about a birthmark on the president’s back in an unsuccessful attempt to get blackmail money.
The allegations of another mistress, Nan Britton, who like Harding was from Marion, Ohio, long remained unproved. Britton was a campaign volunteer who started having sex with Harding when he was 51 and she was 22. In 1927, Britton published a book alleging that her child Elizabeth Ann Blaesing had been fathered by Harding.
Britton claimed that she and the president copulated in a White House closet, with Secret Service agents posted to ward off intruders. In 2015, DNA comparisons indicated that Harding was Elizabeth’s father.
There were numerous other women. Rosa Hoyle was said to have conceived his illegitimate son.
Augusta Cole’s pregnancy was terminated. Harding’s crony, Washington Post owner Ned McClean, procured for him a Post employee known as Miss Allicott and former chorus girls Maize Hollywood and Blossom Jones. There were also many New York women, including one who committed suicide when he would not marry her.
Harding died of a cerebral haemorrhage caused by heart disease in San Francisco while on a western speaking tour – or did he? More about Harding’s mysterious demise next week.