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A Naughty President

The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding

by Charles L. Mee Jr.
M. Evans, 248 pp., $14.95

By general consent Warren Gamaliel Harding has come to be considered the sorriest of our presidents, remembered chiefly for the scandals that came out after his death and for the mysteries that continue to surround his life. Yet other presidents have tolerated scandals without being branded by them, and one can scarcely maintain that Harding’s administration was shot through with scandal when it included such men as Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover, and the elder Henry Wallace in the Cabinet, and the Harding-appointed chief justice William Howard Taft.

Franklin Roosevelt’s reputation never suffered from his children’s marital vagaries or from their financial exploitation of his name. That Lucy Rutherfurd, for whom he once wanted to divorce his wife, was with him when he died did not discredit him when the knowledge of their affair leaked out two decades later. Truman’s “five-percenters” now require identification by footnotes, along with such egregious figures as General Vaughan, the lachrymose future convict Assistant Attorney General T. Lamarr Caudle, and the exconvict White House intimate John Maragon. Nor has Truman’s close association with Kansas City Boss Pendergast remained held against him, any more than Sherman Adams’s debacle has left its mark on Eisenhower.

That Kennedy owed his election to fraudulent vote counts in Texas and Illinois has been as little unsettling to the Thousand Days saga as has been the belated knowledge of his casual amours. The roguery of Jesse Smith, hanger-on of Harding’s attorney general Harry Daugherty, was small-scale compared to that of Johnson’s Bobby Baker, and Harding at least repudiated Smith. Watergate seems to have branded Nixon more than it has affected him, but the outlines fade. Carter’s Atlanta cronies and his relations—his beer-swilling brother and two sisters, one a faith healer and the other a blue-jeaned motorcycle-rider with a jailbird son—are as bizarre as any of Harding’s intimates.

Yet the ad hominem argument that Harding was not the only president touched by scandal fails to explain why the lapses of others have been shrugged away and forgotten, while his remain a lasting reproach. Were there more scandals under Harding? Their number can be exaggerated, but I think the real answer is that they lasted for so long. The various fraud and conspiracy trials went on for years after his death.

In 1926 Harding’s attorney general Harry Daugherty had gone on trial charged with conspiracy to defraud the government. He refused to testify on the grounds that, as former attorney for Harding, he might give self-incriminating testimony. The implication of his refusal was that he was shielding Harding. That same year Samuel Hopkins Adams published his roman à clef, Revelry, in which Harding, under the transparent pseudonym of “Willis Markham,” was depicted as a good-natured sloven surrounded by conniving hangers-on, grafters, and thieves. Adams had his fictional president, finally aware of his gross betrayal by his intimates, commit suicide. The book gave wider currency to long-circulating rumors that Harding’s death had not been a natural one. Revelry was made into a play and later into a moving picture.

After Revelry Harding’s image was further fouled by three ghost-written books: The President’s Daughter, by Harding’s girl-mistress Nan Britton; the psychotic swindler Gaston Means’s The Strange Death of President Harding; and Harry Daugherty’s The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy.1 Nan—assisted by an astute press agent—told in schoolgirl prose the story of her affair with Harding—their rendezvous in third-rate hotels, and the child she bore him that she claimed was conceived in the Senate Office Building. Daugherty’s turgid apologia, actually written by the Rev. Thomas Dixon, the author of The Klansman (later made into the first film epic, The Birth of a Nation), compared Harding to Lincoln, while at the same time Daugherty claimed that he had formed him from the Ohio mud. The Rev. Dixon’s sister, May Dixon Thacker, a True Confessions writer and wife of a Southern evangelist, was responsible for Means’s book, a book she later repudiated. In it Means topped Revelry with a detailed account of how Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband to save his reputation from impending ruin. Then as a postscript Samuel Hopkins Adams published his Incredible Era, 2 a lively journalistic account of sundry Harding scandals which expanded the old Ohio rumor of the Hardings having Negro blood in their veins.

Nothing more appeared about Harding for almost a generation. His presidency was pushed aside as an insignificant if disreputable interlude, with Harding himself not worth the attention of a serious biographer. Even his presidential papers remained inaccessible, locked up in Ohio under the care of the son of Harding’s White House physician, Dr. Carl Sawyer, president of the Harding Memorial Association.

The decades after World War II brought a certain renewed, almost nostalgic concern with the Twenties, and as Harding’s hundredth birthday approached, interest in him revived. He was, after all, the first president born after the Civil War, the first president after World War I, and he took office at a dividing point in history as the United States emerged belatedly into the twentieth century.

If ever there was a he-barlot, it was this same Warren G. Harding,” William Allen White wrote in embittered retrospect about the president whose first year in office he had actually praised. Such a harsh judgment may have appealed to White’s contemporaries, but it does not stand up. There is something to be said for Harding beyond the scandals. Personally he was completely honest. Neither as senator nor as president did he ever use his official position for his own financial benefit. The more solid accomplishments of his White House years are too easily overlooked.

Harding’s most cherished wish was to be remembered for the naval disarmament conference that he called in November 1921. Though the war he hoped to avoid was not avoided, his conference did stop the construction of capital ships by the United States, England, and Japan for ten years and scrapped a number of warships already built or under construction. Harding, putting aside his usual phatic rhetoric, told the delegates of Britain, Japan, China, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal that “one hundred million, frankly, want less of armament and none of war.” It was his shining hour.

Harding’s administration was the first to adopt a formal budgetary system, something the United States had lacked from Washington to Wilson. In a special message to Congress, Harding demanded and received authorization for a Bureau of the Budget. Though he had been elected on an anti-League of Nations platform, he sent a bombshell message to Congress demanding—if vainly—that the United States join the World Court. After inviting forty-one steel industry leaders to a White House dinner, he informed them bluntly that the twelve-hour day for steelworkers must go. When the leaders objected that it would dislocate the industry, raise costs, and require 60,000 unavailable additional employees, Harding insisted, and they were forced reluctantly to agree to an eight-hour day.

Wilson, a Southerner, had done his best to segregate the Civil Service, even to having separate drinking fountains installed in government buildings. Harding reopened jobs and offices that had been barred to blacks. Though long forgotten, his speech in Birmingham, Alabama, at the city’s semi-centennial celebration, to an audience of 20,000 whites and 10,000 blacks was the boldest defense of civil rights made by an American president since the Civil War. There in the Southern heartland he told his strictly segregated audience that democracy in the United States was a lie until the Negro was granted political, economic, and educational equality. The massed whites listened in disbelieving silence while the black section shouted approval. “I want to see the time coming,’ Harding concluded, “when black men will regard themselves as full participants in the benefits and duties of American citizenship…. We cannot go on as we have gone on for almost half a century.”

Harding was born on November 2, 1865. In preparation for his hundredth anniversary Dr. Sawyer agreed to turn over the Harding papers to the Ohio Historical Society. Late in October 1963 a moving van carried some 300,000 documents from Marion to the Historical Society building in Columbus. Because of Dr. Sawyer’s fear of a possible hijacking by “those Teapot Dome people,” armed state troopers accompanied the van.

During the winter the papers were sorted and classified, and at the annual meeting of the Historical Society in April they were officially opened to the public. It was a festive all-day occasion with a buffet lunch. Four prospective Harding biographers were present. Former Presidents Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower sent their congratulations. Now, the trustees of the society felt, Harding could at last be viewed in perspective, and more adequate documentation would give him a presidential stature worthy of Ohio. Yet for the trustees the brightness of the day was suddenly darkened when their president, Fred J. Milligan, a Columbus lawyer, told them in an angry voice that the papers released that day were not all. The Society was also the unwilling repository of some extraordinary private correspondence. After sending the stenographer from the room, the trustees went into executive session. Milligan then informed them that about a hundred love letters written by Harding to a Marion woman, Carrie Phillips, wife of the owner of a Main Street department store, were now in the possession of the Society.

By a combination of luck and the right small-town connections I had come across those letters the previous October while in Marion preparing to write my own Harding biography.3 Through one of Marion’s past Rotary Club presidents I was introduced to a local lawyer, Don Williamson, who had been appointed Carrie Phillips’s guardian. Nine years previously he had gone through her decayed and ramshackle house and had discovered the letters in a locked closet. For Williamson many of them were embarrassingly erotic. “I don’t know what to do with them,” he told me. “I haven’t even read them, just glanced at them. But I know if the Hardings or the Memorial Association ever got hold of them, they’d go up in smoke. That’s what I’ve been afraid of. After all, they were written by a president, and that makes them history no matter how you look at it.”

When I read the letters in Williamson’s office, I realized that he had got hold of a tiger’s tail. I told him he had better hand them over to the Ohio Historical Society. He agreed, and I telephoned the society’s curator of documents. Kenneth Duckett. He came up to Marion that afternoon. Together we took the letters back to Columbus.

I had thought I was doing the Society a rare favor. Duckett was not so sure. Before informing the trustees, he made several microfilm copies of the letters in case anything might happen to the originals. On learning about the letters, several of the trustees were for destroying them. But a lawyer-trustee warned them that this would no longer be possible. Milligan himself went to the Marion Probate Court’s judge Edward Ruzzo and begged him to relieve the Society of its troubling acquisition. “Don’t worry,” Ruzzo is said to have told him. “We’ll get them back and then we’ll burn them.”

  1. 1

    The President’s Daughter (Guild, 1927); The Strange Death of President Harding (Guild, 1930); The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy (Churchill, 1932).

  2. 2

    Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren Gamaliel Harding (Houghton Mifflin, 1939).

  3. 3

    The Shadow of Blooming Grove: The One Hundred Years of Warren Gamaliel Harding (McGraw-Hill, 1968).

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