Let’s talk about Warren G. Harding for a second. And why not?
It’s Friday, the second shift of Happy Hour has clocked in, the band has the room jumping and we’re in the presidential silly season. I aimlessly stumbled, as I often do, and came across Warren. His birthday is coming up, and I thought some comparisons with modern POTUS’s might be fun here at the end of another week.
Did you know that Harding once gambled away the White House china set in a poker game? He did. You can look it up. (I liked that one.)
And he surrounded himself with a group of “questionable” buddies who eventually created the Teapot Dome Scandal that ruined everything. Alice Roosevelt Longworth (the daughter of twenty-sixth President Theodore Roosevelt) once described the scene that she encountered at one of Harding’s card games: “the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey, cards and poker chips ready at hand—a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and spittoons alongside.” He was a poor judge of character, apparently. But some of the ladies liked him.
He had two long-term affairs that we know about. One was with Carrie Phillips, wife of his longtime friend James Phillips, ran for more than fifteen years, beginning in Marion, Ohio in 1905. At one point, Phillips, a tall attractive woman ten years younger than Harding, had tried to blackmail him into voting against a declaration of war on Germany. As a German sympathizer who had lived in Berlin off and on, she had fallen under the surveillance of the U.S. Secret Service. In 1920, the Republican National Committee bribed Mr. and Mrs. Phillips with a free, slow trip to Japan, $20,000 in cash, and the promise of monthly payments to keep them quiet. She lived until 1960.
I wonder why his reputation isn’t better….
“A Democratic leader called Harding’s language ‘an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.’ A correspondent for The New Republic insisted that Harding spoke of raising import tariffs “to protect the struggling industries of Europe.”
Comical words, those. I knew Jack Kennedy, and he was no Jack Kennedy. Perhaps Harding should have said something such as:
“In the great fulfillment we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation.”
Well, he did, in 1916. But to attain historic weight, it required better hair. And it got one. Kennedy’s grave is the most visited at Arlington. Harding is getting his porch fixed.
How come we never learned about this in high school history class? I might have slept less.