June 23, 2015

WGH: multi-tasker

Harding was a US Senator during WWI, and if you're wondering how he comported himself in such an esteemed role during a vital chapter in our nation's history, it was writing letters to his two mistresses at his desk during Senate debates.

May 07, 2015

Who is this Warren G Harding anyway?

Warren G. Harding's legacy is a mess. And I don't just mean that he's remembered as a bad president, which he is, and was, but that sorting through accounts of him, both by historians and his contemporaries, you never feel like you're getting the real story.

There are two main points on which his legacy stands, neither of which have to do with his political career. The first is the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was black. There's no concrete evidence for or against this, and as of when Francis Russell wrote his biography (in the 1960s) the Harding family were dead set against looking into it.

The story Warren's father stuck to was that a neighbor got mad at them and started the rumor that they were mixed race. The rumor was spread widely in the Blooming Grove and Marion communities where Harding grew up and then lived, and when he was running for president someone got wind of it and publicized it nationally to hurt Harding, which is how the rumor made it into the history books.

The story goes that the Harding family a few generations above Warren's generation were known to be black, but when the family moved to Ohio they started passing as white. People also point to Warren's father's curly hair and a few cousins' or great uncles' "negroid features." The man pictured on the book cover, left, is purportedly WGH's great-uncle. But it could just be some dude named Harding. The research that went into that book is about a solid as its cover design.

The point is, we don't know, and really it doesn't matter. What is certain, and what is consequential, is that WGH experienced racism in a very real and consistent way. Kids shouted racial slurs at him and his siblings at school, as a successful Marion businessman WGH was still barred from many of the clubs and associations he wanted to join, like the Masons, and his wife's father disowned her because she had "married a n---."

[Once WGH was a former lieutenant governor being eyed for the US Senate his father-in-law was more like oh heeeeey we're cool.]

Who's to say the effect this had on his life? He was certainly very ambitious, in the face of constant ridicule. And during his short presidency he gave a speech in Birmingham, Alabama calling for an "end of prejudice," the first president to mention civil rights in the South. [The speech was greeted with silence from the audience in front of him, and cheers from the black segregated farther away.] One could take the Tolstoyan view that it was simply time for the presidency to be for Civil Rights, but one almost must think that his lifelong experience of prejudice informed the speech.

The other thing Harding is chiefly know for is his flair for adultery. He married Florence Kling when he was 25 and she was 30, already divorced and with one son. Her father was a mean dude, and most people think she married the young, rising businessman as a way to secure a future away from him. For Warren's part, marrying Amos Kling's daughter might have given him some of the legitimacy and stability he needed to be a leading citizen in the community. It's doubtful they were ever madly in love with each other, but it seems they both knew what they were doing, and what they wanted, and ended up being a "successful" political couple, as these things go. She took over the business side of his newspaper, which immediately got out of debt, and was thought to be something of a political manager for him throughout his life.

Francis Russell, who wrote the biography I'm reading, is either a horrible misogynist or just hates Florence (or both!), because he never views their marriage with any nuance. He writes as if Florence trapped him into marriage against his will and then he was miserable forever. His reasoning: she was ugly, so duh. Here's something he wrote about their marriage about 10 years in:

"There were times enough when Harding wished that his wife were dead. Yet though he played with the idea, he could never assert himself to the point of leaving her. She was in her grim way part of him, a part he could not discard. Their dark and cluttered house represented home, with all the emotional overtones the word had for him. She, thick-ankled and withered, was no longer a sexual object, yet her illnesses distressed him. He had long been used to satisfying his physical needs elsewhere. She knew it, or at least sensed it, and was still woman enough to be torn with jealousy."

Yeah, Francis Russell can eat a bowl of butts.

But Harding did have numerous affairs, and visit numerous brothels. Most notably, he carried on a 15-year affair with Carrie Phillips, the wife of his friend and fellow Marion businessman James Phillips. The Phillipses and the Hardings were friends, and the two couples hung out a lot and went on vacation together sometimes (ewwwwww). Russell was writing his biography fairly soon after Carrie died (about 40 years after Harding) and got his hands on all the love letters from WGH she had kept. He quoted them extensively in the book, obviously, and it was set for publication when Harding's nephew filed for an injunction. The judge upheld it, but it was too late to re-write the book without the quotes, so they were simply replaced with dashes. The result is pages such as these:

It's a little funny because it seems just as damning as using the actual quotes would have been.

Anyway, the judge granted Harding's nephew a copyright to the letters, who then donated them to the Library of Congress under the condition that they would be sealed for 50 years.

Sooooo, fast forward 50 years. Harding's nephew has died and the internet has happened, and you can now read scans of the entire collection of letters on the Library of Congress's website. (Smithsonian Magazine has an article about the highlights here.) Jim Robenalt wrote a book based on the letters, The Harding Affair, and in an interview said that "ironically letters of adultery may be his salvation because they force the reader to take another look—a full look at Harding the man and Harding the statesman."

I'm not sure whether I'm getting a good look at Harding, either through Francis Russell's sexist/racist romp of a biography, or through further reading I've done on WGH, Florence, and Carrie. He seems to be an eternally unlucky man.

April 19, 2015

presidential fact #31: a flaky president

A handful of times throughout his life, Winnie Harding went to spend some me time at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.

Battle Creek Sanitarium was run by the Kellogg brothers, one of whom invented Corn Flakes as something to feed the patients. I quite recommend the episode of Drunk History that tells the story.


April 13, 2015

presidential fact #30

When Warren G. Harding's father, George, was a Union soldier, he visited the White House and shook Lincoln's hand.

(Warren G. Harding was the first president born after the Civil War.)

April 06, 2015

you probably think this national anthem's about you, don't you?

I've had just about enough of these presidents and their secret diseases! Divulge your debilitating health problems, you megalomaniacs! This isn't tsarist Russia!

When Wilson returned from Paris in the spring or summer of 1919, he faced an uphill battle both politically and physically. The peace process had exhausted him, and his doctor was begging him to take some time off, but he returned to find that Henry Cabot Lodge (who is just ONE OF THOSE SENATORS) was determined that Congress not ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

While Lodge worked the votes in Congress, Wilson decided to go on a whistlestop tour of the US to rally support for the Treaty and the League of Nations from the people themselves, whose support he had lost during his months abroad. His doctor, Grayson, begged him not to do this. He'd been having what Grayson called "cerebral episodes" with increasing frequency, and going on a grueling train trip in the middle of the summer with stops to give long speeches, seemed like a recipe for disaster. Wilson couldn't be dissuaded, and basically told Grayson that he was willing to kill himself for the League.

The trip was cut short when Wilson collapsed after a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, and Wilson rushed backed to Washington to rest. In October of 1919 Wilson had a serious stroke, and was bedridden for months. He didn't leave the White House grounds for something like six months. He didn't speak to any of his Cabinet until February. He saw almost nobody besides his wife, Grayson, White House usher Ike Hoover, a nurse, and various White House staff. But absolutely no government officials.

During this time, his wife Edith acted as his gatekeeper, taking messages for him and deciding which of them he needed to know about (very few). The country was informed that the president was sick and needed to rest, but nobody knew exactly how serious it was. The Cabinet kept meeting without him, which made Wilson mad, to which they responded SOMEONE NEEDS TO RUN THE COUNTRY, DUDE.

Throughout this time, Wilson would occasionally toy with the idea of ceding power to his vice president, a nice dude from Indiana from Marshall. But he and his doctor decided that he was able to "adequately perform" his duties as president, a decision he made based on the very limited view of what was going on in the government he got from Edith. Because Edith only told him about the issues he could easily handle from his bed, he assumed that he was easily handling the presidency. He was not. Federal appointments stayed open for months, new ambassadors couldn't start their jobs because Wilson couldn't accept their credentials, and the secretary of the interior hired a young guy named J. Edgar Hoover, who started wantonly deporting Russians on suspicion of communism.

Wilson was a great man, and the fact that his body failed him at the most crucial moment of his presidency is truly a tragedy, but it makes me mad when the presidents do this. I've talked about the presidential gaze before, how entering the office gives you a higher level of perspective, but I also think it convinces these dudes that they are innately, divinely presidential. Wilson convinced himself that even in a drastically debilitated state, he needed to be the president.

Then he swung from telling Grayson he was going to cede power to Marshall, to saying that he was going to run for a third term, in case you needed to know how much denial he was in.

The Democrats got slaughtered in the midterms, and Wilson regained just enough strength by mid-1920 to be what biographer Berg called "the lamest of all lame ducks in American history," which is a Wilson-can't-walk-without-a-cane joke. Although Edith and Wilson maintained that his mind remained sharp for the duration of his presiency, Grayson and Ike Hoover both later admitted that he was never himself after Pueblo.

The best thing to happen to Wilson at the end of his life was that his successor, Harding, was a bona fide disaster, so public opinion rushed back to him almost immediately. By the time he died in 1924, he was the most popular man in America again.

April 05, 2015

presidential fact #29

The election of 1920 saw 3 future presidents on the ballot. Republican nominee Warren G. Harding and vice presidential nominee Calvin Coolidge, and Democratic vice presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt.

April 02, 2015


Woodrow Wilson had a surprisingly interesting first term, considering that no one ever talks about it. His second term, which saw him enter WWI and then work towards the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, is what we know him for. But in his first term he passed an impressive amount of reform legislation, codifying the transition to a world power and first world economy that Roosevelt and Taft had been talking about for years. Not at all bad for someone who became president after only a few years as governor of New Jersey, and whose main campaign strategy was to let Roosevelt and Taft tear each other apart.

Every president hits their peak, the zenith of a large, historic life. The lucky ones hit it after they're done being president (Quincy Adams), the unfortunate hit it before their presidency (Grant), but most of them hit it somewhere right in the middle (Wilson).

Wilson is rare in that you can point at the exact moment his presidency peaked — his "make the world safe for democracy' speech. That speech really killed, globally. And he rode its goodwill through the war, and then everything started falling apart.

Wilson's decision to spend the better part of a year in Paris for the peace process was and is still hotly debated and criticized. It didn't seem to make anybody happy. Americans felt abandoned and Europeans felt condescended to. The delegations from France, Italy, and Great Britain couldn't stomach that America had sacrificed the least in the war and yet were trying to run the peace process. France, in particular, was mad that Wilson wouldn't go on a tour of her devastated lands, to see what the war had done to them. Wilson's response:

"I don't want to see the devastated regions. As a boy, I saw the country through which Sherman marched to the sea. The pathway lay right through my people's properties. I know what happened, and I know the bitterness and hatreds which were engendered. I don't want to get mad over here because I think there ought to be one person at that peace table who isn't mad. I'm afraid if I visited the devastated areas I would get mad, too, and I'm not going to permit myself to do so."

Isn't he something?

He might actually have been going loony mad though. He had history of high blood pressure and migraines, and would go on to have a serious strokes, and some people who have examined his medical history and symptoms in retrospect believe he started having a series of mini-strokes during the peace process. He would at times be absent-minded and paranoid, at other times giddy and childlike, and became obsessed with rearranging furniture. It's possible these are all the effects of an extremely high-pressure situation, but many believe (and biographer Berg seems to have thrown his hat in with this theory) that he was experiencing neurological damage from strokes or early onset dementia.

His increasing inflexible and irascible behavior made the peace process more difficult, but he did get through it. Unfortunately, the downward slide had already begun.