Warren Gamaliel Harding, twenty-ninth president of the United States, was elected in 1920 by a huge majority of Americans who wanted presidents to leave them alone. He obliged them for two and a half years and then, fifty-seven years old, died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Later it was rumored that First Lady Florence Harding, known to her husband and his close associates as “the Duchess,” had poisoned him in a murderous onset of jealousy.
This was nonsense but by the time it appeared in book form Harding had become the subject of so many bizarre tales that the public eagerly read anything titillating about him and believed a lot of it. For twenty or thirty years after his death Harding was notorious even among schoolchildren as our most scandalous president. No longer; history has now joined Latin in the graveyard of American education. Younger Americans to whom I mention his name these days are not only ignorant of the once-famous scandals but also astonished to learn that we once had a president named Harding.
The scandals were about money and sex, and by modern standards they seem decidedly small-bore. Harding himself was not taking dirty money; his friends were. The amounts they took would be dismissed as “chump change” by our prodigious swindlers of the Enron Age. Oil men paid Harding’s secretary of the interior some $400,000 in bribes. That was substantially more than it seems today, because of inflation’s withering effect on the dollar, but it was a mere trifle in the annals of American corruption.
Our truly great buccaneers prosper most when presidents and congresses grant them boons (the nation’s land and treasure, and licenses to rifle the treasury) in the name of free enterprise, though sometimes just to show gratitude. It was under President Grant, not Harding, that looting was conducted on the industrial scale. (What animates today’s generous handouts to private corporate interests is still not fully understood but president and Congress both endorse the lavish gifting.) Like Harding, Grant got none of the booty and would have died broke had Mark Twain not underwritten publication of his memoirs.
As for sex, Harding was not so innocent but, again, modern Americans are harder to astound than their grandparents were. We have been too well marinated in tales of goatish presidents. We are well-read in Franklin Roosevelt’s infidelities to Eleanor and the extramarital pastimes of Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. After such a steamy diet, served up in Clinton’s case by an officially certified prosecutor with a gift for pornographic prose, who will be shocked by thoughts of Warren Harding in a state of lust? One thinks of W.C. Fields in pursuit of Mae West.
Not that Harding’s pursuits were futile. After circulating for eighty years the story about his making love with Nan Britton in a White House closet remains unconfirmed, but we now have documentary evidence that before the presidency he conducted a love …
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